Trail Life USA
About the Guest
Mark Hancock, chief executive officer of Trail Life USA, a Christian outdoor adventure program for boys, tells how he helped launch Trail Life USA.
Trail Life USA
Bob: What would the Boy Scouts of America look like if there was more of a faith component to Scouting? Mark Hancock says the answer is they’d look more like Trail Life USA.
Mark: The mission of Trail Life USA is to guide generations of courageous young men to honor God, to lead with integrity, to serve others, and to experience outdoor adventure. At our core, we are a Christ-centered organization. We use the outdoors, and things like advancement, and awards, and those kinds of things in order to draw the boys into an environment, where they are surrounded by Christian men, who can mentor them and bring them along. And our oath is: “On my honor, I will do my best to serve God and my country, to respect authority, to be a good steward of creation, and to treat others as I want to be treated.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, June 30th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Imagine, as a Boy Scout, getting a merit badge—not just for swimming, or hiking, or canoeing—but for reading your Bible.
We’re going to hear more about Trail Life USA today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us.
Dennis: We’re you a Boy Scout, Bob?
Bob: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to obey the Scout laws, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally alert, and morally straight.” I don’t think I’ve said that in, probably, 30 years; but when you asked the question, I could pull that up. “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”
Dennis: How far did you go? Did you go deep into the Eagle Scout movement?
Bob: If I could—
Dennis: Could you soar with the Eagles?
Bob: If I could take you to my house right now, I could show you two Eagle Scout badges.
Dennis: If I was interested. [Laughter]
Bob: The one that was awarded to me—I was an Eagle Scout in 1971.
Dennis: I could show you my yearbook. [Laughter]
Bob: I have a picture of me being awarded my Eagle Scout badge; but the other one I would show you was awarded, in 1936, to my dad. I have his Eagle Scout ribbon—
Dennis: Wow!—a true legacy.
Bob: —that goes back. And I was Junior Assistant Scout Master in my troop, and I was tapped out for Order of the Arrow. You asked—so I thought I should give you the whole shooting match.
Dennis: Well, it’s pretty impressive; and I’ve teased you about that. I’ve written a number of letters over the years for Eagle Scouts, who have made that and achieved it, and just given them an “‘Attaboy!” or “‘Atta young man!” So, I do have the utmost respect for those young men who’ve achieved that.
Bob: Well, the thing is—if I were starting out, as a parent today, and my son was interested in being a Boy Scout—honestly, we’d have to look twice at whether we wanted to be a part of that movement because it isn’t the same Boy Scouting movement that it was when I was a Scout, back in the 1970s.
Dennis: I think our guest on today’s broadcast might have an answer to that question: “What would you say to a dad about your child being involved in Boy Scouts?”
Let me introduce him, first of all, to our listening audience—and I think they’ll get it very quickly. Mark Hancock is the Chief Executive Officer of Trail Life USA, which was formed all the way back in the beginning of 2014. He has been married to his wife Michelle for 28 years. They have two sons.
And you actually helped launch a movement that was, well, meant to continue the legacy of Boy Scouts. But let’s go to the question that Bob just asked: “What would you say to a dad who wanted his son to get involved in Boy Scouts?”
Mark: Well, actually, I get asked that question all the time—or at least, encounter people who want to talk about Trail Life.
I tell them the same thing: “If you’re a believer, you really need to search out your heart and search out God’s heart,” because, like Bob said, Boy Scouts has gone through some dramatic changes over the last couple of years.
And some of those changes led to the founding of Trail Life USA, which is a Christ-centered / specifically Christ-centered character, leadership, and adventure organization for boys. We would encourage that father, “If you’re called to Boy Scouts, and God has you in that organization, and you feel comfortable putting yourself and your son in that situation, then, God bless you; but we do offer Trail Life USA in a Christ-centered environment.”
Dennis: Were you a Boy Scout, Mark?
Mark: I wasn’t. I was actually a father of two Boy Scouts. My oldest son is an Eagle Scout. I would attend the troop meetings, but I swore—and I told the leadership and the troop: “I’m not going to be in leadership of a boy’s organization. I’m just too busy.” But our family was involved in Scouting and enjoyed it very much.
Dennis: Well, the reason I was asking you about that—I have no idea if Bob just bluffed his way through all of the oath and the promises—[Laughter]—
—and everything he just said—I have no idea. I’ve got a feeling it is 100-percent accurate.
Mark: He was pretty close.
Bob: I just want to know: “Did you not get involved with your boys because sleeping on the ground was a part of the process for you?” [Laughter]
Mark: Sleeping on the ground seems to be a recurring issue; isn’t it? [Laughter] But no; my boys and I—we really enjoy the outdoors and encountering God there.
Bob: So, you said there has been a paradigm shift with the Boy Scouts. Really, there have been a couple of things over the last decade, where a lot of Scouts / a lot of us, who grew up in Scouting, looked and said, “That’s not where we thought this organization would go or should go.” What were the dramatic shifts that the Boy Scouts have made that caused Trail Life USA to come into existence?
Mark: Well, in May of 2013, they determined that they would accept open and avowed homosexual boys as members.
And it wasn’t that boys were struggling with their sexual identity that we were—that a lot of the churches and members were challenged by—but it was the open, and avowed, and the acceptance of that, as a lifestyle, that you would want to encourage your son to pursue.
Then, approximately, a year later, they opened the membership standards to also include open and avowed homosexual leaders. That was the primary thing that caused a lot of churches that had chartered troops to say: “We just can’t do this anymore. It’s not consistent with our beliefs.” It really created a need for an organization like Trail Life USA.
Bob: And if somebody, who is holding up their three fingers like I did, and said, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country…and to keep myself strong, mentally alert, and morally straight,”—when I was growing up, morally straight meant that you’d look at what the Scriptures have to say and that would be the plumb line for your life. But for the Boy Scouts today, that’s not what you’re looking to. Morally straight is really more what the culture says is morally acceptable.
Mark: I’m not an expert on Boy Scouts, but I know that there was a period of time where they would define morally straight the way that you just did.
Mark: But the definition changed over time, and they now define it differently.
Dennis: Going back—if we could go back 30, 40, 50 years with Boy Scouts, did they have a strong, Christian, spiritual mission, back when they started?
Mark: Some people would speak very directly to that—it’s clear that Lord Baden-Powell, who founded Boy Scouts, wanted a Christian emphasis—he said something like it; again, I’m not an expert—that Boy Scouts was actually Christianity in action. So, there is very strong evidence that, at the beginning, that was their intention. Of course, to include God in their oath—initially, it was assumed, as a Christian culture, that God was the God of the Bible; but of course, over time, they’ve reinterpreted that, and that can be the god of your choice.
Bob: Now, I can tell you—as somebody who was both a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout, we met at churches. It was churches that sponsored our troops, but I don’t remember that a dramatic part of my Scouting experience had much to do with my spiritual life—
—it was camping, and hiking, and rowing, and swimming, and—
Dennis: Achievement of life skills.
Bob: Those were the merit badges—
Bob: —that we focused on. It was about being in the out-of-doors, and knowing how to survive in the out-of-doors, and going on hikes, and going on campouts, and going to summer camp. That was most of what Scouting was all about when I was growing up, but there was a foundation that was assumed in the culture back then. I think it was assumed in Scouting, as well, in terms of moral standards. As that has shifted, Scouting has shifted over the years.
Dennis: And what you did, Mark, along with several others—and I kind of smile about this because there are things that launch that are spectacular. I’d have to call this a spectacular launch, going back to January of 2014, when you kind of decided to step up and give leadership to something you vowed you’d never lead. There were a lot of people who stepped up with you.
Mark: Oh my gosh! There were hundreds of people that preceded me. We had approximately 300 people who were working in 2013 to organize something that would allow a Christ-centered outdoor organization for boys.
It was June of 2013 that 50 of us gathered in Louisville, Kentucky—all kinds of people—most of us didn’t know each other. We pounded out the foundational doctrines, I guess you’d say, of what this organization would look like. We all coalesced under the name of Trail Life USA and launched about six months later.
Bob: Hang on. You were a dad who dropped off his kids to Scouts and didn’t hang around for the meetings.
Mark: No; I stayed!
Bob: Okay. [Laughter]
Dennis: You stayed—you just said you wouldn’t lead it.
Mark: Just sat in the back row. [Laughter]
Bob: To go from the back row all the way to a meeting in Louisville and now heading up the organization, something lit a fire inside of you to say, “I’ve got to give my life to this.”
Mark: Yes; and it’s quite a journey. When I look at my résumé—you can look at it one way and say, “If I was on the Board of Directors, I wouldn’t hire this guy,”—
—but then, on the other hand, walking in it, I can see how God was really preparing me all along for this position. It’s been an amazing journey. I stepped off the Board of Directors to lead the organization on our first day operating; but it’s really the volunteers who came before me, who set a beautiful foundation, that we are just discovering the things that God hid in there for us to find.
Dennis: I think you just gave us a hint of something that has a big exclamation point to it. Here’s your résumé—after you came to faith in Christ, you became a youth and college pastor; then, an associate pastor. So, you’re very involved in people’s lives. You went on to lead a homeless ministry as the Director and Global Event Director for an international ministry.
I mean, you were seeing what happened to boys who didn’t have strong structure around their lives / other men in their lives. You were seeing this in youth ministry also; in a homeless ministry—left and right.
Mark: There and in other places too.
And it’s really amazing how God leads. I mean, for years, my wife and I did foster parenting; and we were therapeutic foster parents. We took the kids to who couldn’t make it anywhere else. My wife ran a pregnancy care ministry for years. We saw the girls, who were hurting and broken, and the men who were involved in those lives. So, yes; I think God was preparing us, all along, to somehow embrace a generation and help them grow up in godly principles.
Dennis: Introduce us to Trail Life. Share with us the mission and what the oath of a young lad is who steps into an experience of Trail Life.
Mark: The mission of Trail Life USA is to guide generations of courageous young men to honor God, to lead with integrity, to serve others, and experience outdoor adventure. A secret part of that is that—although it looks like we are an outdoor organization that has Christian overlay—at our core—we are Christian / a Christ-centered organization. We use the outdoors, and things like advancements, and awards, and those kinds of things in order to draw the boys into an environment where they are surrounded by Christian men, who can mentor them and bring them along.
And our oath is: “On my honor, I will do my best to serve God and my country, to respect authority, to be a good steward of creation, and to treat others as I want to be treated.”
Dennis: And when you pushed the on-button and decided to do this, January 1, 2014, how many people raised their hands and said, “Yes; I want to be a part of that”?
Mark: Oh goodness! We had people who were functioning—I run into them all the time. In fact, I met a Trail Life leader in Gravel Ridge last night, who said, “We were Trail Life before there was a Trail Life,” because there were a lot of troops who had already left Boy Scouts because they realized they couldn’t do that; but they said, “We have to do something.” Then, they found us. And on January 1st, we launched with 500 troops, across the country, waiting in line to be chartered.
Dennis: And how many young boys would that include with 500 troops?
Mark: Around that first chartering would represent about 20,000 members total—about half of those being boys.
Bob: And today, where is the organization?
Mark: We are in 49 states. We’ve got over 700 troops, and we’re coming up on about 30,000 members.
Dennis: And what’s the state that’s missing Trail Life USA?
Mark: North Dakota. North Dakota needs a troop. I believe we have some members there, but they go across state lines—
Bob: Well, here’s the problem—camping out in North Dakota—I’m just not interested in that at all! Sorry! [Laughter] I’m thinking—what the temperature’s going to be to camp out on the frozen ground in North Dakota! The ground is one thing—now, it is frozen ground—forget it! [Laughter]
Dennis: What can you promise a young lad will get out of his involvement in Trail Life USA? I assume you’ve got badges and all kinds of awards that he’s going to get and achieve. What are the levels they have a chance to go through, and what are the achievements?
Mark: Okay; we have three unique units. We start at kindergarten through fifth grade as our Woodlands Trail. Those boys are the Fox, Hawk, and Mountain Lion as they progress through that journey.
Then, we go into the middle school, and they are called the Navigators as a whole. They have Recruit, and Able Trailman, and Ready Trailman as they progress through those things.
Dennis: So, before you go on, what would Bob be since he has an aversion to the ground? Can you tell me? [Laughter]
Bob: I would be the Bed and Breakfast. [Laughter]
Dennis: You would be the Holiday Inn—[Laughter]—is there a Holiday Inn category?
Mark: He’d be the guy who was on call in case we need somebody to come out—
Bob: “He was a Recruit, and then, went AWOL. [Laughter]
Dennis: Keep going—I’m sorry.
Mark: At our high school level, we have our Adventurers. It goes all the way up to Freedom Award, which is the highest award in Trail Life USA. We have about 100 boys, nationally, who have earned the Freedom Award. You’re familiar with the Eagle—it’s similar to the Eagle Award, but it’s a more difficult award to get because it has a faith element and a number of other experience elements to it.
Dennis: And when you say it’s more difficult, because it has the faith element to it, is that because the faith element is more difficult to measure or does it involve the memorization of Bible verses? What makes it more difficult?
Mark: Well, because we’re trans-denominational, we don’t specifically line out those faith experiences, but they kind of design their own faith experience to be a part of that.
I don’t know that you’ve ever—if you’ve ever been asked to do something like that, as a teenager, that’s not an easy thing to do—
Mark: —to identify your own our faith experience, and walk it out, and do it faithfully, reporting to a Christian mentor, and making sure that you are fulfilling that.
Dennis: Give us an idea of an example of what a faith adventure experience might look like.
Mark: It may be a young man who decides that he’s going to read through the Bible in a particular period of time. Then, he’s going to journal his thoughts on those things, and he’s going to report on a regular basis to an accountability group or, maybe, a Christian mentor in the group. And if he sticks to that, those are the kind of faith experience that we see, really, all through our program.
Bob: Like with American Heritage Girls, as we’ve already talked about this week, you guys have heard about some of the resources we’ve created—specifically the Passport2Purity® and Passport2Identity® getaways for a father and a son to do. You’ve said, “This can be a part of what we are doing.” I don’t know if you have a merit badge yet or an award for somebody who does this, but this is a part of what you are trying to train into the life of a young man; right?
Mark: Yes. Purity is one of our core values, and we love Passport2Purity. I took my son through the Passport2Purity program. And we offer that to our troops, and we recommend that as a resource. We think it’s a great program.
Dennis: And a part of why you do that is because you believe in the power of a parent—the authority of a dad—and you want to cement the heart of a boy to his father, not just to a troop or to a troop leader.
Mark: Yes. Well, we’ve got a generation that, to some extent, has forgotten how to do that. We’ve lost some of those rituals and those crossing-over kinds of things. So, we’re restoring those in Trail Life. We have those things built into the different stages of Trail Life, where boys are being acknowledged: “Now, you are a man, / Now, you are a young man.” So, we respect those things and include the father in that process and encourage the father to be a part of that maturing process.
I remember when we were in Virginia, at a Trail leader training. Afterwards, they had a fire outside. If we’re going to gather, there’s going to be a fire outside.
Dennis: Yes. [Laughter]
Mark: You don’t always have to sleep on the ground; but there’s going to be a fire, Bob.
So, we were outside, and a woman came up to me—she said, “I need to thank you.” I said, “Thank you for what?” She said, “Well, I want to thank you for starting Trail Life.” She said: “Ten years ago, my husband died and left me with a two-year-old son. Now, he’s 12 years old, and he’s a Navigator in Trail Life USA. He’s surrounded by Christian men. My husband would want me to thank you.” And to create that kind of an atmosphere—where boys can come in, and where their moms can bring their sons and understand that there are going to be men there who are trained and understand the importance of the next generation and pouring into them—it’s a powerful thing.
Bob: You’ve had people look at you and look at the organization and say: “You guys are just a bunch of homophobes. That’s how this whole thing got started.”
If a 13-year-old boy / 14-year-old boy in Trail Life said to a leader, “You know, I’m experiencing same-sex attraction. I’m attracted to other boys my age,” how would that boy be handled?
What would you say to him?—because we talk about this in Passport2Purity and try to coach, for a dad, what you do if this is something that your son is dealing with. What would the leader / the Trail Life leader say?
Mark: Well, our troops are owned and operated by the churches. So, they’re in their individual churches. As much as we can, we steer them back to a counselor at their local church; but then, we also provide them resources and point them to the resources that we have—like FamilyLife resources that can help them with that conversation.
Dennis: You try to make it a safe place to be honest, and be real, and—
Dennis: —let a young man be who he is, and work through his struggles.
Mark: Yes. All of our adults are background checked. They sign our statement of faith, and they complete child safety / youth protection training. But the boys who are in the program can be of any faith or no faith at all because we consider it a place where they can come and be discipled, and be evangelized, and things like that. So, our membership is very wide open to boys so that we can put them in a situation where somebody can speak those kinds of truths.
Dennis: I’m just curious—you having taken your own 12-/13-year-old son through Passport2Purity a year ago—
—what was the high point of your time together?—because I think it’s such a sweet time—total focus. You’re doing the man-thing together—father/son. It seems like every man and every boy has got a high point from the time.
Mark: Yes; I don’t want to give away anything, but Session Three. [Laughter]
Bob: We know what Session Three is; yes.
Dennis: I’ve got a picture of one of my grandchildren—this is one of the advantages of having so many grandchildren. I’ve got a picture of one my grandkids hearing me—his papa—talk about Session Three—
Mark: Yes; he probably never looked at you the same after that. [Laughter]
Dennis: —and he—the picture is fascinating because it is Saturday afternoon—you can see the clock / it’s about four o’clock. So, you know the dad has waited as far as he could possibly wait to put that CD in and to play the birds and the bees talk; but my grandson was in a fetal position. [Laughter]
He just had his head—head’s in a tuck / hand over his head. He could not believe what he was hearing. [Laughter]
Mark: Well, we went to the Keys. He had never been to the Keys, and I was raised down in that area—we stomped about down there. We went to the Keys, and we rented a little trailer that was in a campground down there. I think it was probably 15 feet long and 8 feet wide, and we spent that weekend there. I remember that’s where we sat and listened to the CDs and shared. I can tell you everything about that wall and everything about that little room [Laughter] because that was one of those peak experiences that you have with your son—it was beautiful.
Dennis: It really is. Well, we appreciate you and the leadership you are giving Trail Life. I wish there were more men like you, stepping out of their comfort zone, doing things they vowed they never do; and I think you’re a hero. I really do think you’re a hero to step out in faith and give leadership to something that isn’t easy. It comes with all kinds of issues, I’m sure—leadership always does—but I just appreciate you.
And there is one other final observation— that it just dawned on me what happened as Bob got his final two merit badges and achieved Eagle Scout. One of them had to be sleeping on the ground somewhere. [Laughter]
Bob: —that traumatized me. [Laughter]
Dennis: He’s got some kind of bad experience in the past with the ground. [Laughter]
Mark: That’s right. [Laughter]
Bob: I’m going to encourage you guys to really think about—I know you are already involved with Passport2Purity and Passport2Identity as go-to resources for Trail Life; but for the older boys—the 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boys—to go through the Stepping Up® video series that we’ve created with dads. I think that could be a key part of their spiritual development and their growth into manhood.
And of course, we’ve got copies of the Stepping Up resource in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You don’t have to be a part of Trail Life USA to take a teen son through that material. I’ve talked to a lot of dads who have done that with their boys.
Maybe, it’s something you want to consider doing this summer while you’ve got the boys at home. Get a copy of the Stepping Up ten-week video series; and maybe, get some other dads and sons together and go through it as a group.
You can find out more at FamilyLifeToday.com. You’ll also find information about the Passport2Purity and Passport2Identity resources for fathers and sons to do together. And of course, there is a link to the Trail Life USA website. So, you’ll find all of that, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. And of course, if you have any questions, you can call us at 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, tomorrow, we are going to talk about the power of the tongue and why it’s important for us to make sure that we are paying attention to our words. Our friend, Karen Ehman, is going to drop by. Hope you can be back with us as we talk about that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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