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No longer an ‘alternative,’ Trail Life gets more looks with latest Scouting announcement

A Trail Life volunteer gives direction as part of its Adventure Zone area hosted at the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Ky., on May 16. Photo from Trail Life/Facebook

GREENVILLE, S.C. (BP) – Every time the organization formerly known as the Boy Scouts makes the news, Mark Hancock knows he’s going to get some phone calls.

Those calls began in the summer of 2013 when Hancock and others announced the formation of Trail Life USA in response to the Boy Scouts of America officially allowing gay youth to participate. It happened again in 2015 when BSA ended its blanket ban on gay adult leaders and in 2018 with the announcement that girls would be accepted as Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.

Renamed Scouts BSA in 2019, the organization’s most recent turn to become Scouting USA signals its full reinvention as an organization that officially bears no resemblance to its former self, as far as Hancock is concerned.

“It started with 50 of us in Louisville, Ky.,” said Hancock, a member of Newspring Church in Greenwood, S.C., who serves as CEO of Trail Life. “We had been talking about a Christ-centered alternative to the Boy Scouts. Sixty-three days later, we had our inaugural convention in Nashville with 1,100 men from 44 states. Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was our keynote speaker.”

The official launch came on Jan. 1, 2014, the same day the BSA’s membership policy on gay youth took effect.

From that point to 2019, BSA dropped 300,000 in membership. From 2019-2021, the Boy Scouts lost over half its membership while the Girl Scouts dropped by 30 percent. In its 2023 report, the organization totaled 981,601 members among Cub Scouts and Scouts BSA.

Trail Life, meanwhile, continues to grow, receiving more than 500 requests to start a new group just in the last few weeks after the Boy Scouts name change announcement.

Richard Matthews, former lead counsel for the Boy Scouts, advised against the policy changes and wrote them under objection and duress, Hancock told BP.

“When he finished the policy, they fired him,” Hancock said. “So we hired him. He was there at our first meeting in Nashville. He passed away a few years ago, but predicted every move that was going to happen to [BSA]. He told them it was going to gut their organization, and they did it anyway.”

COVID affected the dramatic drop in membership as did the sex abuse scandal that plagued the institution.

Matthews was also instrumental in establishing safety guidelines with Trail Life that never caught footing with his former employers.

“We learned a lot from him in creating the Child Safety Youth Protection Program we have right now.,” Hancock said.

Several members of Highland Baptist Church in Meridian, Miss., held strong feelings about the Boy Scouts’ direction in 2013. Going back to the 1960s, the church had associated with or served as a host site.

That’s also why Highland was one of the first in the state to sign up for Trail Life.

“Our leaders wanted a biblically-based approach to scouting,” said Pastor David Hopkins, who came to the church five years ago.

Hopkins has two sons and three daughters. His 16-year-old, Evan, has been in Trail Life for five years. Five-year-old Ezra will begin as soon as he can. As well as being pastor, Hopkins serves as a liaison between the church and Trail Life.

Many items for the Boy Scouts were stored at the church over the decades. “All of that was donated to Trail Life,” he said. “We have Trail Life in our budget, so we don’t ask our boys to do anything.”

While Troop 9 meets at Highland, its members and leaders come from all around.

Hancock told Baptist Press that there are 402 Trail Life troops chartered to churches with “Baptist” in their name. Approximately 20,000 members make up those troops. All 50 states hold 1,200 troops approaching 60,000 members.

Noting the “pique in interest” that comes every time the group formerly known as the Boy Scouts makes news, Hancock doesn’t revel in it due to what it signals about the culture.

“This latest decision to remove ‘Boy’ from their name is tragic,” he said. “It’s another statement on how we discount masculinity. We believe that boys and girls are different.

“We don’t think of [Scouting USA] as an alternative to us. You may look at us both and see the handbooks, the uniforms, camping and hiking, but we are unapologetically Christian and boy-focused. Those distinctives are huge.”

Hopkins also reflected Hancock’s thoughts on the program’s impact on men.

“It’s been positive. Some of our guys have been involved since the beginning; some moved over from Boy Scouts,” he said. “They’re Sunday School leaders and deacons. This is just something else they do.

“As a pastor and father, every one of those men is someone I’d want my son learning from. They practice what they preach.”