Before I begin, I want to make sure that I disclose that this is my own personal opinion and does not reflect any official opinion of any Masonic Body that I am affiliated with. I know a lot of Freemasons that take offense when some of our brethren publish something that says Freemasonry is dying. We are seeing more attrition than we are seeing replenishment of members. That is a fact. If that means we’re dying, then we’re dying. I’m not sold on that as being our fate. However, I will say that we have a lot of hard decisions to make about our future. That being said, Freemasonry is local. The decisions you make can only impact your local lodge or as I am going to suggest in this article local lodges.
To begin, what I see as a major issue in Freemasonry is an existential struggle within Freemasonry borne out of an identity crisis. We have a distinct subset of members that want Freemasonry to be a social organization, we have others that want it to be a mystery school, others that want it to be a philanthropic organization, and others that probably have another idea entirely of what it should be. In fact, I would be willing to bet that if you sat your own lodge membership down and asked them what they wanted Freemasonry’s identity to be; you’d receive a different answer from each member. Some of the members will most likely regurgitate the tried and true: “Freemasonry takes good men and makes them better.”, while others might actually come up with something original. Freemasonry has a rich history, but our members can’t even agree on our origins. Some of us think we came from the guilds of the middle ages, or from the Knights Templar, or from the mystery schools. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our membership can’t agree on what we are as an organization. My point is: as members, we don’t know what we want to be. Ultimately, what Freemasonry was up to this point shouldn’t matter. We need to start focusing on what we want to be. My caveat is, you can only do this at your local lodge level.
If you’re anything like me, I know you’re thinking that your local lodge is part of the problem. In my case, we’ve got a bunch of older members that don’t want to change anything. We literally take six months to decide to change a light bulb. Masonic Education? When it does happen, I’m usually the one giving it, and I feel rushed through it. The members don’t want to do anything outside of the lodge. In my case, I had a plural membership in two other lodges within 10 miles of my home lodge. I have just withdrawn my membership from one of the lodges, so I have a plural membership in one of those two. In total, I was paying 145 dollars a year for my dues. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with paying that amount of money for dues if I’m getting something from the meetings. Personally, it’s hard for me to justify paying money for something that is advertising something it’s not delivering. Let’s take a real-world example: If you’re hungry for pizza, and you order a pizza, but what you receive is ketchup on a saltine cracker, are you going to pay for the pizza? Any sane person is going to demand a refund or a new pizza.
Freemasonry for many of us has become just this…Ketchup on a saltine. Maybe when you first joined you didn’t know any better. You kept going to the meetings because you felt like you were missing something. Then, you kept going because you felt a sense of duty to do so. Suddenly, you’re one of the officers, because let’s face it, you’re a warm body and the chairs need to be filled. Then you’re a Warden, and before you know it, you’re Worshipful Master. All of the time, you’re eating ketchup on a saltine.
Then something happens. In my case, it was a visit to Lodge Vitruvian No. 767 in Indianapolis, Indiana. I’ll call it the Morpheus moment, as it’s analogous to the scene in The Matrix where Morpheus offers Neo the Red Pill or the Blue Pill. As described by Morpheus: "You take the blue pill...the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill...you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” For Neo, the red pill represents an awakening to what reality is, and the blue pill represents the status quo. The same happened to me after that visit. It gave me a glimpse of what Freemasonry could be. This vision was: Quarterly stated meetings, a traditional Observance/European Concept Lodge, formal dress for all lodge functions, an education program given at a Festive Board after every meeting, and the belief that dues should be paid to provide for and maintain the quality of the lodge and its programs. After visiting there, I realized that I had been eating ketchup on a saltine all of this time. I have been taking the blue pill when I should have been demanding the red one.
Many lodges don’t know how to serve up anything other than ketchup on a saltine for its membership, and unfortunately, as nasty as it is, it is some nourishment for its membership. It keeps the lodge alive, barely, but it’s not really attracting new membership nor is it retaining it on the off chance the lodge does get new membership. Most of the members don’t know any better, so they keep eating it. So many members are so used to it, that any suggestion of changing the menu is met with resistance. In order to keep the harmony of the lodge intact, the menu remains ketchup on a saltine.
Now imagine my current scenario, in the three lodges that I belong(ed) to, we are barely making quorum to open a meeting, the older membership is dying off or getting to the point where you can’t climb those stairs to the second floor, there isn’t a lot of new members and on the off chance that there is new membership, it is driven off by the lack of substance of the experience (ketchup on a saltine). One of the lodges is providing an educational program every meeting, while the others are not. The writing is on the wall. These three lodges will eventually become one lodge. So I dare ask the question, why should we wait to consolidate? If I had my way, I’d start my own lodge, like Vitruvian. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that I could find 19 other Freemasons in my area that would be willing to join me. If you’re reading this, know me personally, live in my general area and you’re willing to take such a chance, drop me an email or text. That being said, if I have to eat ketchup on a saltine, isn’t it better to eat it once a month instead of three?
In my mind, the answer is yes. I’d rather not eat it at all, but if I have to, the less that I can eat it the better. But more importantly, maybe having to force your membership to confront a decision to consolidate, you might be able to do something that you hadn’t been able to do prior to now. You might be able to get them to agree to look at changing the menu. Maybe you’ll get them to agree that what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working and that it is time for a change. Let’s hope that’s the outcome. Maybe your members will agree to clear the trestle board and you can design a lodge that will appeal to everyone. However, for the purposes of the article, let’s say that doesn’t occur, and you decide to consolidate with the other two lodges.
The major benefit that I see from consolidation is the growth in active membership. Say for example each lodge averaged about 10 members per meeting. Imagine what you could do with 30 active members. The first thing to do would be to get those 30 active members to agree on the mission of the lodge. There would be a new trestle board that needs designs. In the post covid world, you might actually be able to engage your communities again, and have programs that help the community, like hosting reading programs at the library, sponsoring AED/CPR classes, and supporting local charities by volunteering time instead of just money to name a few ideas. You could suggest having a festive board with an educational program just to try it out to see what the reception is. Or at the very least, you might be able to get enough members to be interested in having an educational program that took place outside of the stated meeting. That way, if your members weren’t interested in attending, they didn’t have to, but you still have a good percentage of the membership that might show up. You’d be setting the menu, so hopefully, you can all agree that if ketchup on a saltine is what caused your lodges to merge, it probably might be a good idea to avoid serving it in the future. The most important thing is that you’d have enough membership to support the programs above.
In my scenario, two of the three buildings have renters and make income. I would immediately put the one that does not up for sale. I would then look at converting one of the other lodges into a space that could generate more income, in this case, there’s enough room to make a nice loft apartment out of the space with minimal investment. The other lodge building would be held onto as the primary meeting spot for the new lodge. With the income from the sale of the other building as well as the rental income, along with a discussion on how raising dues to make programs like the above possible would be beneficial, you might be able to get them all to agree that the lodge can afford more than ketchup on a saltine.
I truly believe that a lot of Freemasons don’t know what Freemasonry can be because they’ve never been offered a choice. If all you ever knew of was ketchup on a saltine, and someone offered you pizza; would you accept it? You’d be wary of taking a bite. But guess what, once you were convinced to take that bite, do you think you would go back to eating ketchup on a saltine willingly? I know that I haven’t. I’ve been fighting for change. Unfortunately, change does not happen overnight and it only happens at the local lodge level. It also happens incrementally. One member at a time. That’s what I think often gets lost in the shuffle, in order for change to happen, you need to be willing to be the one to offer it. You need to start offering pizza to the other members. If that means traveling to a lodge locally or not so locally that seems to be offering pizza, then do that. My eyes were opened when I saw a lodge offering something different. That’s ultimately the choice for the future of your lodge. You continue to serve ketchup on a saltine, take the blue pill and see what status quo brings your lodge, or you can serve pizza, take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes. I hope you choose the red pill.