Three weeks ago I was sitting with a candidate about to undertake his Entered Apprentice degree at historic Homer Lodge #199 in Homer, Illinois. Something happened that evening that I don’t recall ever happening to me previously in Freemasonry. Granted, I’ve only been a Master Mason since 2011, so my Masonic experience is less than 10 years. However, I was so caught off guard by it, that I felt it necessary to discuss it. The candidate, Tyler and I were eating dinner prior to his degree, and he looked around the dining room and asked me: “Are all these guys here for me?” My reply, was: “Yes, they’re all here for your degree tonight.” To which his reply was: “That’s awesome.” It was in this moment, which only shared between the two of us, that I realized that it displayed the power of our fraternity. He was the first candidate that I had ever heard recognize the effort that these men, who were for the most part essentially still strangers to him, were putting forth for him and express that he felt gracious for it.
On a grander scale, what the candidate acknowledged was something many of us already know, our strength lies with our active membership. According to the Masonic Service Association of North America, in 2017 the Grand Lodges of the United States of America had a combined 1,076,626 members. Extrapolating this number further, let me argue that 10% of that membership is active. For the purpose of this article, I’m defining active as a member that is attending regular stated meetings and degree work more often than not. That leaves 107,662 members that are responsible for keeping their lodges going, and participating in degrees, for the whole of the United States as of 2017. I would suspect that the number maybe down to around 100,000 members in 2019 as well as close to a million total members given attrition.
Furthermore, I’d be willing to wager that the average age of the active membership is somewhere in the mid 50’s to mid 60’s. What does this mean? Personally I take it as a challenge to step up my game. I turned 46 on Saturday, October 19. While I consider myself a decent ritualist, there is still much that I need to learn. Why? Because at some point, the brothers that are currently doing it won’t be there to do it anymore. I don’t mean to be morbid, but that’s the reality. They’ll either be physically unable to do it, or they will be dead. When that happens, who is going to carry the torch? The answer needs to be the rest of us. Participation matters.
If we want to impress upon our candidates the importance of being active Freemasons, then we need to stop telling them that “you get out of Freemasonry what you put into it.” We can’t keep setting the bar low for the members we’re bringing into the fraternity. We’re only contributing to the population of those that will go through the degrees and never attend a meeting. Worse yet they might attend a meeting, but we either run them off due to sheer boredom at hearing the minutes read, bills paid, debates over giving the Rainbow Girls an extra five dollars this year, or grumpy past masters “Helping” them after the meeting since they were forced to be Junior Deacon due to lack of participation of the other members who also don’t want to attend the meeting due to the same experiences. Sound familiar? If we had active membership, then we wouldn’t be in a situation where a new Master Mason would have to sit in a chair with five minutes of instruction prior to a meeting, and then have him humiliated, err I mean “Helped” by a past master that thinks they’re doing the new guy a favor.
Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Because we keep repeating the same mantras like “You get out of Freemasonry what you put into it.” or worse yet, “We’ve always done it this way”, we are practicing insanity. While we set expectations for how a candidate should act as a Mason during the degrees, we don’t lay out the lodge’s expectations for them after they progress through them. We need to start stressing the importance of involvement, not only for our continued success, but for their own growth as Masons.
How do we do this? The answer is really quite simple. We need to set the expectations of the candidate from the beginning. We shouldn’t be waiting until a candidate is through all of their degrees to set the expectations that they should be active. We need to indoctrinate them to the idea. We need to set the expectation as part of our investigation process. We need to ask the investigation committee if they set this expectation with the candidate. If they didn’t, then propose delaying the vote on the candidate’s membership until the expectation is discussed. Yes, I know that I’m only human, and Yes, I have missed Masonic Events due to sickness, family issues, and work. I’m not asking to create an army of automatons that do nothing but attend stated meetings and degree work. The candidate will be human also. There will surely be times when he will have life happen, and cause him to be absent from a meeting, degree, etc. We still need to make sure that Family and Work are prioritized over Freemasonry, and that the candidate knows this. Obviously we don’t want to cause someone to have marital problems over Freemasonry, or to lose their job due to their participation in Freemasonry. However, we should be able to set the expectation with them.
When you’re interviewing a prospective member, it’s important to invite them non-tyled lodge events. If they show up for these, and more importantly show an excitement to be participating; then you should be able to view this as an indication that they will continue this activity after they are raised. You see, sitting down with a man in his own home to investigate him doesn’t help you gauge how he interacts with the members of your lodge. It doesn’t allow for a situation where he has to put effort forth to be investigated. If he wants to be a Freemason, he will show desire to be one. He will come to meet you at your lodge prior to a meeting; or go bowling with your lodge, my point is that he won’t mind putting in the effort to interact with his future brothers. If you have any doubt that they will be an active member, then we need to make sure to throw the black ball. We need to devote our time to bringing in members that are actively participating in Freemasonry, instead of being so desperate for membership that we don’t care if they participate or not. To borrow from a popular ad campaign: Just OK is Not OK.
Tyler being awestruck at the display of the men showing up for his 1st degree tells me that he’ll be one of them someday. I don’t have fears about him being inactive. He’s shown up for every dinner before our meetings while he was a candidate, and experienced his first meeting as an Entered Apprentice this past Monday night. I feel confident that I did the right thing by voting for his admission into Homer Lodge. I have volunteered to be his intender as he goes through the degrees. You see, if you want to set an expectation of participation, then you have to be an example of it. Participation matters. It matters.
WB Darin A. Lahners is the Worshipful Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph and a plural member of Ogden Lodge No. 754 (IL), and Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL). He’s a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of the new Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282, and is the current Secretary of the Illini High Twelve Club No. 768 in Champaign – Urbana (IL). He is also a member of the Eastern Illinois Council No. 356 Allied Masonic Degrees. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.