Life as a Boy Scout Chaplain: Why I Spent Two Weeks in a Tent
I just spent two weeks living in a tent, sleeping on a cot, walking farther than I have in decades, taking really cold showers, and I probably had one of the best times of my life doing it. For two weeks in July, I served as a chaplain, along with about 76 other pastors (including just about every denomination and faith you can name), at the National Boy Scout Jamboree which is held every four years at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in Glen Jean, West Virginia.
While many people have heard about the Jamboree, many have questions about what a chaplain does and why the Boy Scouts would need so many of them for a single event. Honestly, I asked myself the same questions before I went, and while some of the answers are simple, others take a little more explaining.
The easiest question to answer is why the Jamboree would need almost eighty chaplains. Simply put, scouting has always regarded the spiritual life of its members to be an important value regardless of faith and with something over 28,000 scouts and 6,000 staff converging on the Summit for two weeks, this small city needed trained pastors to provide spiritual care. As members of a sub-camp staff, my tent mate Michael Lavoi (a Mormon chaplain) and I were responsible for a “congregation” of more than 20 sub-camp staff as well as 2,000 scouts and their adult leaders.
As staff members, we helped out in registration during the busy arrival day, helping to carry mail, or wherever an extra hand was needed. And, although the first few days were easy from a pastoral perspective, after everyone started getting tired we were called upon to help scouts, and adult scout leaders, mediate personal conflicts. There were young people who were homesick, some that were in fights, leaders who knew about a death in the family of one of their scouts but whose family asked that they not be told, there were threats of suicide, thefts (yes, it happens even in the Boy Scouts), and everything else that happens when people live together.
But that isn’t all we did.
Chaplains took turns working shifts in the basecamp medical center so that one of us was either present or on call so that we could encourage the doctors and nurses but also to be on hand to provide comfort to scouts who were sick or injured. We took turns offering worship opportunities, not only on Sunday, but every morning or afternoon.
Each scout had the opportunity to earn a special “Duty to God and Country” patch during the jamboree, and one of the requirements to earn it was to meet with their chaplain and talk about what their “duty to God” might look like in every day life. That meant that many of our daily “office hours” as well as our evenings were spent meeting with individual scouts, or entire troops, to discuss subjects of religious significance. Often, as we met with these young people, and shared meals with them, they asked other substantive questions about God, religion, faith, and other things.
Of course there was worship. The first Sunday we were there, before the scouts arrived, we held a Protestant service in the back of the dining hall and had somewhere between 300 and 600 staff in attendance. A week later, the Protestant service was held in the stadium and, while we met in the pouring rain, there were still probably two or three thousand in attendance. Afterward, the United Methodist chaplains hosted a communion service (open to everyone) on Brownsea Island near the stadium. That service, officiated by West Virginia Area Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, was attended by 200 or more and the communion elements were served by the 15 United Methodist chaplains alongside United Methodist scouts who had volunteered to help. As I returned to my tent from our communion service, I noticed that the rain had finally stopped, and that may have contributed to the increased attendance (probably 5,000 or more) at the Catholic worship service which followed ours at the stadium.
It’s worth noting that the Summit is enormous and covers 14,000 acres and adjoins 70,000 acres of National Park Service land in the New River Gorge National Park. That means that nothing is close to anything else. A walk to the bathroom is a quarter mile round trip. A visit to the medical tent is a mile. A trip to the stadium or to the chaplains’ headquarters can be two miles one way, and if you hike up to the top of Garden Ground Mountain to visit the Scottish games or the pioneer village, its at least three miles, all up hill, one way. Over the course of two weeks, I walked about 75 miles and my partner, Michael, had hiked well over 100 miles.
But being a chaplain isn’t all work. In two weeks you have the opportunity to live with, and share your life with, your fellow staff members. Some of these scouters return every four years and request the same arrangements so that they can work together again. There’s a chance to encourage young people and to build relationships with people of other faiths, and people from other states and other countries.
Not only was the jamboree attended by participants and staff from all 50 states, but also from 58 other nations. Our leadership tried hard to make sure that staff members could get some time off and see some of the activities in and around the Summit, and although there isn’t enough time to see everything, as you visit you find yourself among young people from around the world. While I didn’t get a chance to ride the half mile long zip line (the “Big Zip”), I did get a chance to climb a rock wall, navigate the treetop high ROPES course, and ride through all of the mountain bike courses.
Remember that while the Boy Scouts in the United States is mostly for boys, ours is one of the only countries where that is true. All of the international troops are coed, as are the older youth from the Venturing, Explorers, and Sea Scout programs in the United States. And so, while I was invited to participate by the United Methodist Men, whose office includes our official United Methodist scouting representative, there is a desperate need for female chaplains as well. Out of all the chaplains present, only one was female and, since our denomination is one of the few who ordain female clergy, the United Methodist Church has the opportunity to fill this need. Chaplains and other staffers at the Jamboree ranged in age from their 20’s up to well into their 80’s.
My two weeks at the Jamboree were probably some of the hardest and yet some of the most rewarding, and fun, that I have ever had. They are indeed, memories that will last a lifetime. But the next Jamboree is in four years and the United States will host the World Jamboree at the Summit in two years. Whether you are clergy or laity, male or female, young or old, you have gifts and skills that can be used to encourage and bless the next generation of young people from around the world.
Think about it.
You should come.