What is a Commissioner in boy scouts?

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This week marks the anniversary of my learning what a commissioner in boy scouts was.

As I have learned the job of being a District Commissioner, I have had to teach it to many other scouters and parents.

Unit Problems I Witnessed in Scouting

About six years ago, I was stepping down as the Cubmaster of Pack 61 in Washington Township. My son had changed schools, so it was not practical for me to continue in the position, since my scouting time was being spent elsewhere. The pack had struggled with being properly staffed. The parents were loyal to scouting but I had struggled to recruit them to serve as leaders. Many were exhausted having been through Cub Scouts with two sons many years apart. They had been doing Cub Scouts for approaching a decade with these same staffing problems.

I called the District Executive and asked for help. He proposed a meeting with the Chartered Organization Representative and the Committee Chair. If I could find a proposed Cubmaster, he suggested I invite them, too.

I did as he suggested.

We held a meeting and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the pack, what our goals were, what our roles would be, and what needed to happen.

Then the District Executive shared some bad news with us. He was overwhelmed with duties and could not give us the time that we probably needed. He told us that the District was understaffed, so he was loaded with duties that he ideally should not be.

The conclusion of the story is that the pack folded within 9 months of that meeting. I was frustrated and confused about the matter. I had felt let down. The District Executive had been honest with us. I just did not like the story that he told.

Two years later, I was serving as the Chartered Organization Representative of my son’s troop. His scoutmaster was the scoutmaster who had handed my mother my Eagle pin several decades earlier. Suddenly, the scoutmaster died in a traffic accident.

Our troop pulled together and managed itself with great aplomb through the difficulties that followed. We had little contact from District or Council, aside from Scout Executive Scott Clabaugh’s presence and willingness to help. Scott was going above and beyond his role.

Three years later, I sat in the room hearing Stroh Brann tell us that North Star District might be dissolved. Council Commissioner Rick Tardy was present and offering his services. I had never met Rick. I had no idea what his job in scouting was.

Yet within five weeks, I was sitting on Rick’s Commissioner Staff, wondering what I had just got myself in to.

Learning What a Commissioner Is

During that five weeks, I had gone to Unit Commissioner Basic Training in Greenwood’s Pathfinder District. The instructors were wonderful. They taught me what a Unit Commissioner was and what the mission of the Commissioner Service was. Now my learning had begun.

I learned that Unit Commissioners were volunteer scouters. Their mission was to help units thrive and grow. Unit Commissioners are the ombudsmen of scouting. They visit packs, troops, and crews to see how they can help the units. Commissioners help primarily by having the Unit’s Key 3, committee members, or other staff identify a problem. The commissioner then either offers advice or seeks expert help from members of the District Committee.

Essentially commissioners try to deal with many of the types of problems that I had already experienced in scouting.

Commissioners advise on recruiting adult leaders. One of the hardest parts of the job for new Cubmasters or committee chairs is being able to describe the role and duties of different positions. Commissioners assist by bringing their experience or network of contacts in to help, when requested by the unit Key 3.  This prior experience allows them to be more effective recruiters.

Commissioners help units reorganize in times of difficulty. In units that have lost historically-significant leaders, such as when Cubmasters follow their sons into boy scouting, the unit may need to reorganize. The pack committee chair may need to become the Cubmaster. The treasurer may need to become the committee chair. The commissioner helps the committee define its vision and keep the process moving forward. This is often done by bringing the Chartered Organization Representative into the picture and recruiting resources from the Chartered Organization to help with the transition. The Commissioner’s experience and resources often create a sense of calm because the unit does not feel so alone.

They help units celebrate successes that the unit may ignore. Units often do not realize what they are doing well because their only frame of reference is their own experiences as an adult and sometimes as a youth. Unit leaders may think that they are failing if things don’t go as planned. A commissioner helps bring perspective. Most commissioners serve more than one unit and/or have years of experience in a different unit. Commissioners also meet monthly to discuss the issues of the day. They end up with the perspective of many units across the district. All of this exposure to different units means that Commissioners can often see successes that the unit does not.

Special tasks

The commissioner service also handles the strange departments.  Continuing education and rechartering are imperative to the health of units. Consequently, they fall into the commissioner service domain.  Special round table commissioners can be appointed and are needed to administer and run the Boy Scout and Cub Scout roundtables.

This past year we were blessed with the assistance of Mat Gerdenich in serving to lead  rechartering. He has chosen to make that his specialty as a commissioner. I’m delighted to report that he will be returning for 2016.

Teaching What Commissioners Do

As I am reaching my first anniversary in the position of North Star District Commissioner, I have had contact unit leaders in all of our packs, troops, and crews. I have helped boys make Eagle in ways that I never imagined. I have seen struggling units solve problems. I have seen misunderstandings be fixed quickly. I have seen volunteers having more fun because they are less distracted by misunderstandings. I have seen volunteers move into positions that fit their personalities and passions better. I have seen volunteers at District find their positions to be interesting and exciting.

For all of these people, I have had to teach my role as the District’s chief ombudsman.

Thanks All Around

I have received thanks from many leaders. Yet for me it is not only the thanks from the wonderful scouters that makes this job rewarding. It is seeing Cub Scouts from Pike Township enjoying the hospitality and friendship with Pack 358’s Eagle Creek Park hayride. It is seeing unit leaders light up in seeing new opportunities for fun and adventure with their boys that they had not considered possible. It is seeing more scouters see increased volunteerism as  they become better at recruiting and describing the vision for their unit.

While we still need more unit commissioners to expand our reach and effectiveness, I am delighted to report that we have 10 active commissioners in place or coming online. We have three more that are looking to retire.

I would like to make a special thank you to Troop 358 for making a special effort to help staff the commissioner service fully. They have several candidates for future positions.


 As we look to recruit more commissioners and bring new units on line, we need your help in finding more commissioners. A twentysomething Eagle Scout or a recent retiree both make good recruits. They do not need to have experience in scouting. A businessman with a good network of contacts may be able to bring resources to the district that a young eagle scout cannot.

One of the ideal recruits is a father whose son has recently aged out of scouting. He may still be interested in volunteering but is not as interested in participating in troop activities on a weekly basis. This father could be very helpful unit commissioner.

Please keep your eyes open and let us know if you find good future commissioners for us.