Whither Are We Traveling? - Part Two
by Midnight Freemasons Contributor
WB Darin A. Lahners
As we continue to explore Dwight L. Smith's seminal work, "Whither are We Traveling?", we begin to explore his answers to the ten questions he posed for self-examination of the state of Ancient Craft Freemasonry in 1963. The questions he asked are as important and relevant now as they were then.
Question 1: Can we expect Freemasonry to retain its past glory and prestige unless the level of leadership is raised above its present position?
Dwight begins to answer the question with a story he heard about a man who petitioned a lodge, was accepted and was given his Entered Apprentice degree. The man never returned to complete his other degrees commenting that the brethren of the lodge might have felt they made a mistake in electing the man due to his lack of interest. To this, MWB Smith echos the below:
"But it was not lack of interest that caused him to go out of the door, never to return. It was disappointment and disillusionment. The performance of the Master of that Lodge was such that it constituted an insult to the candidate’s intelligence. Because the head of the Masonic Fraternity in that community was careless and sloppy and crude, because he was attempting to do something for which he was not prepared because he was trying to give “good and wholesome instruction” on subjects he knew nothing about, a good man was lost to Freemasonry.
On first hearing, that story made a profound impression upon me. The more I have
thought about it, and the more I have seen it duplicated, the more I am convinced that the Number One responsibility for any tapering off of membership, any lack of interest and attendance rests squarely upon the shoulders of our Lodge leadership."
Continuing, he makes a point of discussing the men who had served the lodge in the past 100 years as Master, and how each of them probably held positions of importance in their community. In the case of my Mother Lodge, this is somewhat true. The men that formed St. Joseph #970 were the doctors, dentists, bankers, newspaper editors in the community. While many communities still had these in 1963, we have seen not only the number of businesses (and hence business leaders) decrease in small-town America, but we have also seen a number of these positions now being occupied by females who are ineligible for Regular Masonic membership. However, he does make a coherent point about many meetings he's attended and even lead as Worshipful Master, stating:
"Looking back on some of the meetings the year I was Master, it is a wonder to me the Lodge held together. Many of my meetings were such a first class bore that I would do almost anything to avoid getting trapped in such gatherings today."
He then makes three observations which I will address one at a time:
"1. We must pay more attention to proficiency in the East.
We make a great to-do over proficiency of candidates. We want to devise some method whereby new Master Masons may be forced to memorize a set of questions and answers. But we do little or nothing to ensure proficiency where it really counts. A Master is expected to be Master of his Lodge – not a weakling to be pushed around. Theoretically, he “sets the Craft to work and gives them good and
wholesome instruction.” Yet what do we require for election as Master? Simply
that a Brother serve as a Warden. That is all. There are no minimum requirements
as to ritualistic proficiency; nothing regarding history, symbolism, philosophy,
ethics, law, tradition. Only a so-called degree for Past Masters which, in far too
many instances, is a farce. We elect a Master and expect him somehow to become
a leader. It never occurs to us to require evidence of leadership first."
Many states require proficiency for someone to be a Master of their lodge. I know this to be the case in both New York and Virginia. My Grand Lodge does not require this. Personally, I wish they did. I wish they did because while I consider myself an above-average ritualist in being able to open my lodge 1-2-3 and close it, I have never conferred a degree. I've learned the ritual, but not being in the practice of conferring them, I do not feel confident in doing so. I've never conferred one because I've never had to. There have always been men that have been able to do so. While I understand this is somewhat of a cop-out, the fact is that necessity is the mother of invention or at least the mother of anticipation. I've been enabled to procrastinate because there are men that can do the task better than I, and instead of challenging myself, I've allowed myself to focus on other Masonic activities, like editing and writing for this blog. However, had this been a requirement to serve as Master in my jurisdiction, I believe that I would have risen to the challenge at hand.
"2. There is far more to being Master of a Lodge than the mere recitation of a
ritual. We are paying the penalty of years of “mass production” practices, and a
bitter penalty it is. When Masters of Lodges are so lacking in imagination and
vision that they cannot conceive of a Masonic meeting unless a degree is
conferred, then we need not expect a revival of interest and attendance and we
need not look for an upswing of membership short of war.
I would a thousand times rather see as Master of a Lodge a man who can provide
real leadership, a man who can give “good and wholesome instruction,” a man
who comprehends what Freemasonry is all about, even if he cannot confer a single
degree. Suppose he can not recite the ritual. So what? There always are those who
are eager and willing to do ritualistic work, but there are precious few who can
provide inspired leadership.
It is high time we start looking about for the best possible leadership and enlisting
the support of men who can lead. But instead, we consider only those who come to
Lodge, those who stick it out in the endurance contest. We “start in line” the man
who is on hand whenever the door is opened regardless of whether he has even the
most elementary qualities of leadership.
If the practice of automatic ladder promotion of officers must be discarded in order
to obtain the kind of leadership we should have, then by all means let us discard the
foolish custom. There is nothing in the winning of an endurance contest, in itself,
that qualifies a man to be Master of his Lodge.
If the so-called “line” of officers must be shortened to enable men of ability to serve their Lodges without devoting six or seven years to minor offices, then what are we waiting for? Why not shorten the line? Is not good leadership for one year more important than keeping a seat warm for six?"
I agree with MWB Smith. I do believe that not everyone is cut out to be a Worshipful Master. I also believe that there are some men that are poor ritualists but fantastic leaders. The ability to lead a lodge is more than knowing the ritual. Many of us can probably name a few times they felt their lodge didn't have adequate leadership due to the Master not being ready for the chair. In all honesty, this is where having a "progressive" line is a failure. The leadership of a lodge should be elected on their merits, not just because they are the next person in line. This also means that men who are good leaders need to mentor those that are not so that they can help teach them to be ones in the future. This will also make sure that there is a succession plan in place. It's not healthy to continue to recycle dais officers, but it's better than putting someone in the East that is not ready. I also think that we need to honor the wishes of our members who do not want to be put into a leadership position.
I do think that Dwight is optimistic in his thinking that we can find the best man for the job and enlist them even if they are not coming to the lodge meetings. If a Freemason can't live up to charges given to him in his degrees which list the expectation of him to come and serve his lodge, then you're most likely not going to find one that will say yes to becoming Master of that Lodge. Unfortunately, many of our lodges are going to have a handful of members to choose from unless we address the issues that are keeping men away from coming to the stated meetings.
"3. If Freemasonry is to command respect in the community, then the man who
wears the Master’s hat must be one who can command respect. The young
teacher who did not return for advancement because his entire conception of
Freemasonry was colored by what he saw and heard in the East. The Master of a
Lodge is the symbol of Freemasonry in his community. If he is not a man upon
whom intelligent people may look with admiration, then we need not expect to reap
a harvest of petitions from intelligent men.
Make no mistake. Men judge Freemasonry by what they see wearing Masonic
emblems. They judge a Lodge by the caliber of its leadership. If we persist, year
after year, in putting our worst foot forward, then we can expect to continue
getting just what we are getting now."
On this point, I disagree with Dwight. A Masonic Lodge is more than just the Master of the Lodge. The membership of the Lodge is the symbol of Freemasonry in their community. While I agree that men judge Freemasonry by who they see wearing Masonic emblems, the lodge isn't judged by the caliber of its leadership. It is judged by the activity it is performing in the community as well as the behavior of it's membership.
If your lodge isn't active in the community, you are not going to attract new membership. Men won't know that you exist because you're not doing anything to attract them. While the Master may be the one to set the craft to work and give proper instruction, it is the membership as a whole who are responsible for the labors. If you're not doing anything, then your lodge isn't healthy. In order to be healthy, a lodge needs to being doing things by being present in the community.
Poor behavior by membership in social settings (both virtual and real life) can also have a detrimental impact on a lodge's standing in the community. As an organization that has core principles that believe in the equality of man, tolerance of other cultures and religions, being a good citizen, the importance of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, and practicing the Masonic Tenets and cardinal virtues; behaving contrary to these on social media or in the community is also going to hurt the lodge's reputation in the community. How can we convince men in our community (especially younger men) to join our Fraternity when we do not practice what we preach? Authenticity has been shown in marketing studies to be a critical element for how Gen-Z evaluates products and resources. If we are not being authentic to our principles and teachings in our own behavior on social media and in social settings, we are only hurting our chances to recruit the men in our community.
Next week, I continue the article with an examination of Dwight's second question, How well are we guarding the West Gate?
WB Darin A. Lahners is our Co-Managing Editor. He is a host and producer of the "Meet, Act and Part" podcast. He is currently serving the Grand Lodge of Illinois Ancient Free and Accepted Masons as the Area Education Officer for the Eastern Masonic Area. He is a Past Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph. He is also a plural member of Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL), where he is also a Past Master. He’s a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282, and a member of the Salt Fork Shrine Club under the Ansar Shrine. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.