Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I Propose...

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 During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the number of raisings was very consistent; the only difference was the number of withdrawn and stricken brothers.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.


Unknown said...

Another benefit from the smaller lodges is that you actually get to know the members of your Lodge. My Lodge has 250+ members and I have met about 10% of them. It is hard to fulfill my obligation when I don't even know what my Lodge Brothers look like. If the lodge is 25-50 people and one of them doesn't show up for a couple meetings or get together people will notice. In a 250+ member lodge he is just another face in the crowd.

Millennial Freemason said...

Bingo. Giant lodges may look good on paper but the retention rates are often very low. Why join a giant lodge if you'll just disappear into the ether unless you're the lucky brother in the line? I think smaller or affinity lodges will be the key in the future. I would also add that I think the philosophy has been, each lodge must have its own building so as not to compete. Therefore, one lodge will have a huge unused building. Sure, other Masonic bodies could also meet there but even then, that is maybe 2 weeks of use if every conceivable body and their various events are added in. We need a new strategy. We need many more lodges to create "close knit Masonry" that will give brothers things to do and to actually know their lodge brothers.


Justa said...

Unfortunately, my experience has been smaller Lodges simply have too few people to do what needs to be done.
There's not much of a reason to think a Lodge that gets only 10% of its members out will get a higher percentage if the number is smaller.

Millennial Freemason said...


You may be right. I do have a question, were these small lodges originally big lodges that had since shrunk down or had they started small and stayed small? I think if the members are dedicated to the ideal, then it is possible to run an effective small lodge. What I hadn't written in my article is that the Grand Master should review all petitions to form a lodge and the review should be done very strictly, especially if the number is at the minimum. Also, if there is more than one lodge in the same building, they should pool their resources for degrees, etc. I have another article to address that.


Togeika said...

Nick, how does slowing down the progressive line increase participation? As a newly raised member of Cataract No.2, it appears to me the main motivator for involvement, is the new member's desire to participate. I've been told several times, "Don't wait to be asked. If you want to do something, jump right in." I've found this to be true so far. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

Millennial Freemason said...


Excellent question. My train of thought, and trust me, I'm no guru so don't take it as truth, is that we should encourage the new Mason to be a member of the Lodge well before he enters the officers' line. Of course, my own experience is that I entered the officers' line the fall after my raising and I wouldn't have traded it for the world. I guess what I'm trying to say that I really have no leg to stand on but I sometimes think we should help the Mason prepare himself for leadership through a certain number of years of training.

I think you're right that you should jump in and the system is designed that way right now. I just worry for those dedicated Masons who are overlooked in favor of another in a leadership position. Jealousy and contentions shouldn't exist but we must always remember that we are not perfect stones but rough and a brother may feel he has been passed over even when he knows the other brother is as worthy of the position as he is.

What do you think?


Richard Matthews said...

Brother, in South Australia we have exactly what you have proposed but, face the opposite problem of struggling to fill seats as our craft is spread to thinly. It takes but, 7 members to petition a new lodge; 7 members being all tha is required to open a lodge. The average size of a lodge is 30 subscribing members with only a third of that being regular attendees.

Brothers purchase their 3rd degre apron but are loaned EA and FC aprons from a collection that the building in Which the lodge meets owns. Our Freemasons foundation and Grand Lodge museum have a collection of second hand aprons available for those brethren who are reduced to the lowest ebb of poverty and distress.

Masonic complexes are filled with on average 4-7 lodges so that the "temple" (SAC refers to it as halls, I tend to believe that it should be temple) is filled many nights a month rather then just the once; our lodges also only meet once a month.

The problem we face Is that many brethren are forced into office before they wanted to due to the needs of the lodge. Or we are required to rely on visitors to fill seats as we may have too many lodges.

I believe our retention issues are due to Young members not having a strong social stance, enter YFN which, you have previously featured. This and the fact the Modern Freemasonry needs a facelift and is unfortunalty being dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming at times. (multimedia/ interactive tracing boards anyone?)

Anonymous said...

I agree with Richard Matthews when he says that a small number of members can lead to you relying heavily on people that doesn't want to fill officer roles just yet. And I do like the idea of having loaned EA and FC aprons.

South Australia seems to have the same problems that we face here in Brazil.


Millennial Freemason said...

Excellent comments brothers. I'm curious what that magic number is. Perhaps 25 is correct but I'm still not sure. I just see some ideas as having initially little support that, if allowed to come to fruition, could be very good for the Craft.

One idea that should be implemented in every lodge by-laws is the requirement to memorize the 3rd degree catechism before taking a place or station. This ensures that the brother taking the chair has dedicated himself to at least a small level of Masonic education.