On The Membership Issue or: Why The Troma Rules of Production Doesn’t Apply to Freemasonry
by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Adam Thayer
I was listening to the "Whence Came?" You podcast today (which, as an aside, if you don’t listen to it, I highly recommend it), when WB Robert Johnson asked WB Michael Blasius about the membership issue that we are facing today in Freemasonry. I had to stop the podcast for a minute so that I could answer the question for myself (which, I’m sure the other people on the road thought I looked like a lunatic), and I’d like to share that answer with you.
We don’t have a membership issue. I should clarify that we, the Blue Lodges, don’t have a membership issue...
Everyone is concerned that we’re losing members faster than we’re replacing them, and this is absolutely true, but we don’t have a membership issue. The question really is, are we losing Masons? Because we can lose card carrying, dues paying members, whose shadows never darken our doorway after they take their Master’s degree, and it won’t actually affect anything (except for our revenue), but are we losing men who are making the world a better place? To that, I’m not actually certain; I believe we may be losing a few here and there, but I think for the most part, men who were first prepared to be Masons in their heart are remaining as Masons. They’re out there, practicing Masonry in the world, and that’s the most important thing that we teach.
So, who DOES have a membership issue?
Well, the Grand Lodges have a membership issue; to continue supporting all of the programs that they put in place during the “golden age” of Freemasonry, they need revenue. That is completely understandable, and I can’t fault them for that. Many of these programs do great work in the world, and we are all very proud of what they accomplish.
The appendant bodies have a membership issue; for them to continue their existence, they require more men to become Masons, so they can turn them into Scottish Rite Masons, York Rite Masons, and Shriners.
These additions to Freemasonry (yes, the Grand Lodges are additions, remember that originally independent lodges joined together to form the Grand Lodges) all are facing potentially catastrophic membership issues, but the Blue Lodge… The Blue Lodge is running along just fine, doing what it has always done, which is taking the raw material of good men and turning them into the tools to change the world for the better.
One of the potential resolutions that I’ve heard thrown out to combat the perceived membership issue is the one day class (you may have heard it called a “Blue Lightning”, and you may have even heard some pretty negative terms for it that I won’t justify by repeating here). Now, if you haven’t ever sat and spoken with me about it before, let me tell you now: I hate one day classes. I hate them with a passion. I hate the idea of them, the shrinking of a life changing event into a rapid fire orgy of lectures, and I hate the mentality that has led us to believe that they are ok to perform on a routine basis.
That’s not to say I hate one day Masons; one of my first mentors and dearest friends is the product of a one day class, and it didn’t affect his Masonic journey in any way. But I hate one day classes, and here’s why: one day classes cheapen the experience for the newly made Mason. That’s it, really. Our whole purpose of performing the degree work is to leave an impression on the Brother, and I don’t believe we can adequately do that in a single day. (Dear Scottish Rite, I’m looking at you here too, because there is absolutely no way a man can absorb 29 degrees worth of material, or even the few mandatory degrees, in a single weekend.)
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, men who were prepared to be made Masons in their hearts first are going to take the lessons and apply them as best they can, even though they were only exposed to them in a short, overwhelming burst. As they keep coming back and learning more, they’re going to find better ways to apply them in their lives.
As much as I hate one day classes, I hate degree work that has multiple candidates even more, for the same reason. Awkward confession: at my EA and Fellowcraft degrees, there were three of us as candidates, and I shared my Master’s degree with another brother, although we took our obligations and second section of that degree individually. Speaking first hand, it cheapens the experience for the individual if you’re sitting on the sideline, watching someone else learn the lessons that were meant to be taught to you directly. (Ahem, Scottish Rite… And York Rite too!)
All of this has lead me to think about Troma Entertainment. Now, if you’ve never heard of Troma Entertainment, good for you! I watch horrible, low budget movies, and as such I can’t help but have experienced a good many Troma movies. Troma Entertainment is a production company, known for ultra low budget movies such as The Toxic Avenger and Poultrygeist: Night Of The Chicken Dead. If those sound like absolutely terrible movies, you’re right, although “terrible” isn’t a strong enough descriptor.
Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Films
On every Troma production, the three House Rules of Production are posted in highly visible locations, so that everyone on the cast and crew sees them enough times to never forget them. They are, in order:
SAFETY TO HUMANS
SAFETY TO PEOPLE’S PROPERTY
make a good movie (that last one is in very small print, compared to the other two)
I worry sometimes that we try to apply this same mentality to our degree work. Of course, we want to make sure that everyone involved is safe, that is definitely important, and we want to treat our buildings with respect and make certain that we don’t burn them down by using too much flash powder (that happened to a Past Grand Master I know, who managed to set the curtains on fire during a Scottish Rite reunion), but then at really small print at the bottom we say “give the candidate a good degree experience”, and I think we’re going about it the wrong way. Giving the candidate the best experience possible should be our priority; put it at position one, in bold print, all caps, and the largest font you can possibly squeeze onto a piece of paper. If it was to be put on a website, put that in scrolling and blinking text, so that everyone sees it enough times to never forget: our job in degree work is to give the candidate the best degree possible.
If we approach degree work with a candidate-centric approach like this, all of a sudden everything changes. We’re there to impress our lessons on him, and impress how important those lessons are so that he can use them to become a better man.
I don’t know how your lodge operates when it comes to degree work, but I know how mine does: we practice, and we practice…. We practice again… Then, when we think we have it down, we practice some more. Sometimes, we’ll show up to practice not knowing what we’re practicing; we don’t know what degree we’re working on, and in that degree, we don’t know what part we’re performing. Sometimes, we’ll even draw roles out of a hat. We practice so much that the people who do our degree work KNOW every single word and every single footstep of the degrees. This gives us one very distinct advantage: when it’s time to do our degree work with a live candidate, we’re not focused on the words, we’re not focused on where we’re walking, we’re focused on giving our candidate the best experience, and that makes all the difference in the world.
From the minute the candidate enters our building, we’re focusing on the candidate. Nobody is worried about forgetting their lines, because they have locked them into their memory as deeply as the names of their own family members. Nobody is worried that everything is set up correctly, because we’ve done it so often that our crew (which is mainly just our Tiler) can do it in their sleep. All we’re focused on is if the candidate is being taken care of. Is he having a good time? Does he feel welcomed into the lodge? Is he meeting his soon-to-be brothers and getting to know them?
This candidate-centric approach sets the tone for the whole evening. When we go into the degree work, we spend the whole time focusing on the candidate. There are no brothers chattering on the sidelines, and no members shouting out corrections during the degree. They’re watching everything that’s being done to make sure that the candidate is picking up what is being taught, to look for areas that the candidate might be getting confused for later discussion, and to be sure he is understanding it (insofar as a new candidate can understand everything that is thrown at him in a degree).
How does your lodge do degree work? A number of lodges that I’ve been to as an apprentice custodian do things differently; they focus on the ritual itself. Now, that’s not to say that a focus on ritual isn’t important, because our ritual work is very important. These lodges, however, are focusing on the ritual to the exclusion of the candidate! They’re so concerned about being word perfect with every lecture, and having every footstep hit the exact place that it should, and oh yeah, by the way, we have a candidate here as well.
The candidate ends up feeling left out, like he’s not really a part of the degree, as much as he is just a prop for the brothers to use to make themselves look good. If your lodge does this too, don’t fret, it’s easy to fix! Practice, and then practice some more. And then when you know it, go ahead and practice some more. Get it so ingrained that you forget about performing, and focus on making your candidate have the best experience possible. If you do that, you’ll find that everything else falls in line; your candidates keep coming back because they felt important, and they might even bring in one or two special men who will also become Masons (notice: Masons, not Members), and by this method the Craft continues to propagate itself.
This will also help bolster the ranks of the Grand Lodges, and will work its way into helping build back the appendant bodies, but if you start doing this for the purpose of bringing members to these groups you’ve missed the whole point of what I’m saying, because you’re no longer doing it for the candidate. I’ve seen a number of appendant bodies starting to look at ways to make new Masons in the thought that they can get them to join the bodies immediately as well and build back up the numbers; these efforts are doomed to fail, because they’re only going to bring in members who will stay in Freemasonry for as long as these groups can hold their interest.
I’m going to summarize with a phrase one of my bosses used to repeat: always focus on the customer, and everything else will fall into place. As long as we remember that our candidates are our customers for degree work (and all of our brothers are customers of the lodge all year long), our focus will stay true, and we can finally relax a bit about membership!
WB. Bro. Adam Thayer is the Senior Warden of Lancaster Lodge No. 54 in Lincoln (NE) and a past master of Oliver Lodge No. 38 in Seward (NE). He’s an active member in the Knights of Saint Andrew, and on occasion remembers to visit the Scottish and York Rites as well. He continues to be reappointed to the Grand Lodge of Nebraska Education Committee, and serves with fervency and zeal. He is a sub-host on The Whence Came You podcast, and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will not help you get your whites whiter or your brights brighter, but he does enjoy conversing with brothers from around the world!