Making a great ceremonial team

By Ben Pycraft

Ceremonialists are a unique group of Arrowmen. If you walk through every council camp, you will likely not find a lodge ceremony ring identical or a team that performs the same way. This group is so diverse, it produces many Arrowmen with a cutting edge desire to improve and maybe even become the best. Ceremonies continue to attract many of the Arrowmen who gather for NOAC every time it is held where they can be recognized for their hard work and talent. Lodges always look for ways to improve, but what makes winning teams great?

The purpose of ceremonies is to provide an unforgettable experience for candidates. No matter the membership level, every Arrowman was once an Ordeal candidate, and it is likely the Arrowman remembers one of their ceremonies well. What drives Scouts to be involved with ceremonies is the desire to ensure that each candidate receives a satisfying experience, hopefully a life changing one. While providing a great ceremony is the goal, an impressive performance would also reflect well on the team which explains why so many people question what makes teams great.

Before taking the highest award at NOAC is an consideration, a lot of work in ceremonies happens first. Many lodges may find themselves at different states of membership with their ceremonies teams. Some recognize the “hump effect,” or the up and down trend over many years of having great ceremonies, but then seeing a need for improvement. Sometimes the best ceremonialists age out or move away to college, leaving a gap to fill. If you don’t have the next performers ready, it can take time to be brought back up to speed. This article will have three parts, from focusing on teams working to get started with new members, teams looking for good tips and tricks for best practices and finally getting into some traits that could take a great team and bump their game up to receive national recognition.

Getting a team started is often the most difficult of tasks. A great way to attract interested members is by providing great ceremonies. Youth will be captivated by the ceremony and will want to get involved. If, however, you continue to struggle with recruitment and retention, you might find this step more difficult.

Perhaps the best way to start up with a new team is to sit down together and walk through the text; take copies of the ceremonies and dive deep through them. That’s the method that Tutelo Lodge follows along with many other lodges taking on a ceremony they have never performed before. The ceremonies adviser, Gary Harvey, finds it important to “read to understand, not read to memorize.” To him, aspiring ceremonialists try to cram their head with the right words, instead of thinking deeply about why those words were said and the meaning them. Ceremonies have so much symbolism, power, and meaning that this article won’t be able to address its full extent. For an in-depth look at ceremonies and getting teams started, grab a copy of The Drum: A Training Aid for Ceremonial Teams by Jay Dunbar, writer of the Pre-Ordeal and Brotherhood Ceremonies.

Traditions like sitting through and reading to understand is one habit of many that has led to Tutelo to have great success in ceremonies. That’s why it’s no surprise that at NOAC 2015 the team placed second in the Pre-Ordeal competition and placed third with the previous team at NOAC in 2009. To Harvey, a powerful characteristic that defines a great ceremony team is the passion behind the single principal. Those who are so driven to work hard to provide a great experience for candidates are what make the difference between a good ceremony and a great ceremony. They also utilize as many members of the lodge who want to help as possible. “Roadies” help the team with set up, tear down, coaching, torch bearing and other behind the scenes work. While doing this, those roadies get to see the ceremony over and over again, making it stick easier when they become principals themselves.

Evaluations and positive feedback are also extremely beneficial to personal improvement. Harvey said that “I have never seen a ceremony that I didn’t learn something from.” He believes whether it be a fantastic ceremony or a ceremony with new team members struggling through it, he has always noticed something he can positively take from it which is why feedback is so important.

When giving feedback after a ceremony is performed, first allow the youth to evaluate themselves, talk with the team about how a practice or ceremony went and then provide any feedback that would be positive and uplifting to make the experience better. That’s the method Paul Teasley follows, the ceremonies adviser for Nawakwa Lodge. Experience alone doesn’t always make the best ceremony team. He has seen a brand new ceremonialist work hard with passion in his heart and then knock a part out of the park in his first ceremony. Of course this can be rare, but it’s the drive that’s important. Paul says ultimately it’s you, the ceremonialist himself, that is the deciding factor, not just the resources available, but how hard you work to get it done.

Also, don’t forget to have fun with the team. Whether you meet in person regularly or get together over Skype or other ways, just be sure to have contact. Don’t take yourselves too seriously. In Tutelo’s ceremonies meetings, Gary says they are lucky if they even get a whole hour of real work done out of an hour and a half meeting. A team could also establish a good tradition like Nawakwa Lodge, where the whole ceremonies team travels to a special area they have at their council camp. There, they have seclusion to walk through all the ceremonies without fear of candidates seeing it too early or even just hanging out in brotherly fellowship.

To get the ball rolling in an entire lodge, a special event themed around ceremonies would be a great idea. Greg Coghlan, an associate adviser for Portage Lodge, is planning a lodge-wide training weekend in March that has a focus on ceremonies. Along with other committee activities, attendees will help assemble regalia to be used for brand new chapter ceremonies teams to use for Cub Scout Arrow of Light Ceremonies and various lodge ceremonies. They’ll also be taking participants that have an interest in ceremonies and providing the training to equip them with the experience and opportunity. This is a great tip for drawing in a group with a general interest and allowing them to grow closer together and receive vital information to get into ceremonies.

Another great practice is the ceremonies weekend event being planned by Section SR-7A. Paul Teasley and Gary Harvey both described the event, which is being planned to take place in April before their section conclave; it is being planned by individuals from each of the 6 lodges in the section. At the event, they are having many important trainers travel in to staff the event, including 3 out of the 4 original principals that performed the first run of the new Brotherhood Ceremony in front of the National Order of the Arrow Committee. Also joining them is Jay Dunbar, the author of the current Pre-Ordeal ceremony. Paul and Gary noted that if it is a great success, they’ll consider opening it up to anyone outside the section who have an interest in working on ceremonies.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that often times when you look at lodge leaders, you see many who have ceremony experience under their belt. Perhaps the symbolism in the text, the skills picked up when performing or the friends made along the way lead many ceremonialists to have an increased desire to help the organization thrive. What is certain is that the skills acquired from working through ceremonies creates great habits and ideals that have fantastic uses throughout life. Do not be afraid to get in that ring. If you are interested in getting involved, approach a ceremonialist or adviser after a ceremony, even volunteer to help clean up or set up. Get your foot in the door, let your passion for ceremonies take over and see where the trail takes you!

Let's go back to our initial question briefly. What makes a ceremonies team great? A team will reap the effort that is put into the ceremonies. No matter where you may find your team right now, there exists opportunity for passion to make its way to improvement. A team can have great resources like amazing regalia, a breathtaking ceremony ring, a multitude of roadies and advisers and years of experience, but what makes a team great is the passion in the hearts, minds and consciences of the principals. Strive to ignite the spark so that it may grow in the hearts of the candidates!

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