I’m going to make a proposal. It's not a modest proposal so your children are safe. I've been thinking about what could really help solve the Craft’s woes in regards to membership. Unfortunately, everyone believes that the problem is that we aren't known to the outside world enough or that we’re not taking our Gentle Craft seriously enough. I would argue, however, that we don’t have a raising problem or an education problem but a retention problem.
I have been pouring over old Annual Communications returns in my Grand Jurisdiction and the numbers don’t lie. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the number of raisings was very consistent; the only difference was the number of withdrawn and stricken brothers. That trend continues to this day. Sure, we still have a number of brothers that are passing away but that number is outstripped by the number of demits and NPD’s. Looking at how our Masonic fraternity is designed, I think I may have found one aspect that needs to be addressed.
I began my search by looking at how other Grand Jurisdictions and different rituals deal with its members. I struck onto this article by W.Bro. Alex G. Davidson. What is striking about the Swedish Rite is that it is a complete system of degrees like the Scottish Rite. A brother seeks advancement to the next set of degrees. Attending each set of degrees takes years. When a brother is voted and allowed to enter the next series of degrees, he is no longer a member of his former lodge but becomes a member of this new lodge. What really struck me was not how the degrees were arranged but how the position of Master was dealt with.
In many American Lodges, the number of members is in the hundreds, especially in city lodges. Unfortunately for most brothers raised, they will never be able to sit in the Oriental Chair. In fact, the probability is very, very low. That means that at any given time, a brother who joins a lodge will never be able to serve as a leader and will never receive the title of Past Master. And yes, we hear all the time that not everyone should lead but spare me, there are many brothers that should be leading in the East but don’t because their timing stunk.
Here’s my solution, the style of the American lodge is to be huge, so why not split lodges in half, or even better, make it easier to start a new lodge? In Minnesota, it takes 25 Masons to start a lodge. This may seem like a low number but in fact, to get 25 Masons to initially agree on a new concept is not as easy as it sounds. So here is what I propose, reduce the number of Masons required to open a lodge to the constitutional minimum. In Minnesota, that number would be 12 because 12 is the number of required officers in a lodge. Sister lodges could loan their equipment to the new lodge until they have the money to purchase their own. This change would require a change in our Code but I think it would provide more benefits than would create more liabilities.
Making it easier to start a lodge would also give our buildings more tenants to help defray the cost of property taxes and other costs associated with owning and operating a building. Sadly, we see many of our cherished temples sit empty for the majority of the month, our lights darkened, and the halls collecting dust waiting to be sold from lack of interest. Instead, each temple should have at least two lodges meeting in it during every month. And yes, I believe even regional centers should have two lodges. If the population can support at least one lodge of 50 brothers, it can support two lodges of 25. Having more lodges with smaller numbers would provide more brothers with more opportunity to serve in leadership roles.
Of course, I realize that this idea has its detractors. The number of lodges that close has leveled off thankfully but many lodges still consider the idea of consolidation and merger, on a yearly basis in some cases. It could also be argued that smaller may not always be better. A lodge that is smaller has less financial resources to weather economic downturns. Also, it may take years to get to the point of being able to buy new equipment which can really drag down a lodge’s finances as well.
I think these challenges are surmountable. Lodges could join together to buy shared regalia. Perhaps a lodge does not need to have officer aprons, just pendants. Lodges could work together on degree work for the first few years. Lodge brothers could buy their own aprons with a separate joint lodge shared apron box. Dues could be set at a correct level with an inflation percentage increase each year to cover rent and other costs. There are many ways to support a smaller lodge system.
If I haven’t convinced you that smaller lodges would lead to better Masonry by give more brothers more leadership opportunities, here’s another possible solution: require a brother to be a member for at least 5 years before being asked to join the progressive line if there is one. That way, the only way that a brother can show leadership and preparedness to take on the role of Master would be to take on a committeeman’s role or to take up some other important role in the lodge such as learning the lectures or presiding over a degree. The progressive line could be shortened to just three officers, the Master and both Wardens. That way, many brothers could be tried out in different officer positions to give them a different perspective from year to year. Or perhaps, a brother can only be elected as a Warden or Master if he has served in all the other roles in the lodge, Secretary and Treasurer excluded. That is seven positions and seven years to prepare before even being elected as a Warden. That way, no brother is thrust into a chair immediately after his raising.
One final proposal if neither of these are palpable: the role of Master and Past Master could be significantly reduced, and the Past Master distinction perhaps done away with entirely. In the Swedish Rite system, after a brother has served his year in the East, he steps down and is again invited back into the Craft. No Worshipful Brother, no Past Master. Like Cincinnatus returning to his fields, the Master again becomes a citizen of his lodge, knowing he has done a good job but without the requirement of excessive adulation.
I’m a Past Master and I’m very happy with what I did in my lodge. I set the Craft to work and boy did they ever work. Of course, it wasn’t just my instruction that got them to work; the best ideas came from the Craft. The Master is not some guru who dispenses wisdom from his mouth like a Pez Dispenser. The best Master allows the Craft to vet ideas and he gets himself behind whatever the Craft has chosen as the right course. Once I was done, I was happy to return to the rolls of the lodge. If a brother calls me “Brother” instead of “Worshipful Brother”, I don’t wince or correct them. I take the phrase, “meeting on the level” quite seriously. My having served in the East doesn’t make me any better than any other of the brothers I have met. I carry the distinction as an honor bestowed by my lodge and I’m honored to have served them but I also want to be on the level with all my brothers.
In conclusion, we can fill our lodge halls every night, give brothers something to do, and give greater group cohesion if we reduce our numbers, lengthen the time it takes to be Master, or reduce the role of the Past Master. Sadly, the only hang up that we have is that to give a brother something to do, we’ve defaulted to either throwing him into the officers’ line immediately after his raising or we tell him about the great things he can find in the Rites, OES, or Shrine. We have the resources in our own lodges, we just need to be willing to take what we have and refocus them on our brothers and the Craft in general.