Whither Are We Traveling? - Part Five
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. This week we look at:
Question 4: Are we not worshipping at the altar of Bigness?
MWB Smith starts this section with the following:
"One of the most serious trends in American Freemasonry is the development of the oversized, impersonal Lodge. Even though such a condition is utterly foreign to all the traditions of Freemasonry, little or nothing is being done to correct it. On the contrary, Lodges are encouraged and expected to become even larger. What the result will be, no one knows. It may require a crisis of the first order to bring us to our senses.
The entire philosophy of Freemasonry is built around the individual – the erection of a moral edifice within the heart of a man. All its symbolism is individual symbolism; all its tradition and practice is aimed at making individuals wiser, better, and consequently happier. Mass movements simply have no place in Freemasonry, and never have had. Then why do we worship at the altar of bigness?
For one thing, we are Americans. We measure civilization in terms of automobiles, TV sets and bathtubs. We count the number of gadgets as shown in the census reports and assume that means we are more civilized."
The above lines remind me of some of the quotes from both the novel Fight Club and the movie of the same name. There are two in particular which I think echo MWB Smith's sentiment. The first is: "You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you're satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you've got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you." The second quote is: "Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy sh*t we don’t need." I believe that MWB Smith sees that American Consumerism is one of the ills of society which has inflitrated Freemasonry. In the American quest for Bigger being better, he saw that the membership numbers would be unsustainable and that eventually in adding members (many of which probably shouldn't have become members in the first place had the west gate been guarded properly) would cause many lodges to lose the fellowship and comradery that would help keep them active.
WMB Smith goes on to state:
"In the United States, the average membership of Masonic Lodges is about 252; in Canada’s nine Jurisdictions, 166; in the seven of Australasia, 117; in Puerto Rico, 92; in Scotland, 85; in England, 80; in Mexico, 70; in Germany, 53.
Interestingly enough, the small Lodges overseas have little or no attendance problem. The Brethren receive a summons to attend their Lodge and they attend because it is worth attending, and because the membership is small enough that there is a congenial, closely knit unit – a community of interest, if you please. And certainly no one can accuse the overseas Lodges of not “doing things.” In their benevolent work and in their impact on community life, they put us to shame.
In the 49 Jurisdictions of the United States average membership ranges from a high of 482 in the District of Columbia to a low of 115 in North Dakota. There is even a Lodge in Kansas with some 5,700 members. (I almost hesitate to mention the fact for fear some of our itchy Hoosier Brethren will set out to exceed that record of doubtful distinction.)
Only nine Jurisdictions have a higher average membership per Lodge than Indiana’s 336. They are all in densely populated States. (It will give us grave concern, I am sure, to know we are tenth instead of at the top.)
Is all this talk some curious notion the Grand Secretary has all by himself? Not at all.
Some of the best minds in American Freemasonry are deeply concerned. Speaking of poor Lodge attendance, Past Grand Master Ralph J. Pollard, of Maine, observes: “This problem is probably inherent in our American system of large Lodges and relatively low dues. It is one of the prices we pay for bigness and cheapness … Probably the best long-range cure will be found in more and smaller Lodges where more Brethren can be put to work and where a warmer and more intimate fraternal spirit can develop.”
And in a masterly address before the Conference of Grand Secretaries in North America in February 1962, Dr. Thomas S. Roy, Past Grand Master of Massachusetts, observed, “If we permit our Lodges to increase in membership to a size inconsistent with a close fellowship, then we have created the conditions for non-attendance. The Grand Lodge of England is chartering new Lodges in England at the rate of over twenty-five a year. It is of some significance that, according to the latest figures, the average membership in all Lodges under the Grand Lodge of England is roughly eighty."
I will just say this. Our collective obsession with numbers has to stop. I'm guilty of it, Dwight Smith is guilty of it, many of the authors of this blog are guilty of it, most importantly, Grand Lodges are guilty of it. Do I think that some lodges have grown too large? Sure, I'm sure that's the case. However, regardless of the size of your lodge, I believe that you will only ever get at a maximum of 20 percent of your total membership to show up at a stated meeting or event. If you have 60 members of your lodge and 12 show up to a stated meeting, then you are right at 20 percent. In many cases, you are going to be less. Unless you have a Traditional Observance lodge or affliation lodge, where your membership is capped at a certain number, then you might need to have a higher number of active members; otherwise, I think we need to stop obessing over numbers.
One of the things that I often hear get brought up in comparison to the future of Freemasonry is the Oddfellows. As an oddfellow myself, I feel that comparison is a slap in the face to the Oddfellows. The Oddfellow Lodge that I below to is in Tuscola, Illinois. They are an active and thriving community of artists (for the most part); and I believe that they are probably more active in their community than the Masonic lodge there. To be honest, the Oddfellows as a whole are better positioned to survive and to recruit membership going into the future because they are more socially progressive by allowing women and are in my personal experience more LGBTQ+ friendly.
While I'm not going to go into a diatribe about either, I will only say that if Grand Lodges are concerned with bringing in new members, they might want to actually enforce their so-called "Social Media" policies. The reactions of the majority of Masonic membership on the more popular Masonic Facebook Groups towards either subject does not reflect Freemasonry in a good light. If they are truly concerned about bringing in new membership, then they need to do more to police the members that have joined while the west gate was left mostly unguarded.
MWB Smith then asks: "What happens when we worship at the altar of bigness?
1.Well, in the first place, our annual waste of leadership is nothing short of a sin.
Every year our Lodges welcome into Masonic membership hundreds of men with a great potential for inspired, dedicated leadership – and then we make certain they will have no opportunity to exercise it. Only one Master can serve in a given Lodge per year. We close the door on the best we have because we are too shortsighted, too solicitous of numbers and bank account to divide our membership into smaller units and utilize the manpower that is going to waste.
2. We provide too few opportunities for new members to use their talents, and then wonder why they lose interest and drift away. I have heard Lodge officers complain bitterly about new members coming once, twice, three times, and then no more. But why should they come when there is nothing for them to do except listen to the minutes and allow the bills? There is no place for them; worst of all, no one seems to care.
3.The fellowship of Freemasonry does not thrive in the mass. When will we ever learn that fellowship, that sweet and precious jewel of our Brotherhood, is an intimate thing not shared with great numbers? Some of the most priceless memories of my 28 years as a Mason center around individual contacts with just a few of my Brethren in the Lodge room and about the table – those times when we were doing things together, rejoicing in prosperity, standing steady in adversity –but always together. Thank God there weren’t a thousand of us. If there had been, I daresay my interest in Freemasonry would have withered on the vine years ago.
What must be the feeling of a newly raised member when he discovers that his Lodge, which promised him fellowship and intimate friendships, is but a huge, impersonal aggregation of strangers – a Closed Corporation!
And we wonder why the membership curve goes downward, and why Masons do not attend meetings of their Lodges!"
My personal opinion is that MWB Smith is suffering from cognitive bias in his first statement. I don't personally believe that every man that joins Freemasonry wants to be the Master of his lodge. I believe that many members have no desire to go through the Officer line. So while I believe that MWB is correct in stating that a larger lodge would impair one's ability to serve in the Officer's line, I also believe that in many cases, there is still a smaller pool of active members that would be potential officers.
He is absolutely correct with his second statement. We need to do a better job of finding each members talents and using them for the benefit of the lodge which is what WB Bill Hosler argues in this article: http://www.midnightfreemasons.org/2021/08/call-to-service.html. It is absolutely imparitive to give each member a purpose and make them feel a sense of belonging which leads into his third point.
On his third point, I would agree that a lodge must be welcoming and open to it's new members. Every lodge needs to have as it's priority a mentoring program that connects the new members with more experienced members of the lodge and needs to prioritize the membership experience (more on this in later articles). Impersonal lodges that are cliques are not going to be welcoming to new members regardless of their size. I do not see a correlation between a lodge's size and it's accomdating new members. This being said, I do believe that we would be better off with 10 lodges of 25 members instead of one lodge of 250 members (If such Lodges still exist).
MWB Smith finishes this section with the following:
"What are we doing about it?
1. Just making certain that new Lodges will be formed, that’s all. Then why aren’t we at work on a long range, patient effort to correct a serious condition? Well, first of all, remember, we are Americans, and in all areas of life we worship at the altar of bigness.
Two men came to my office to talk over what had to be done to form a Lodge in a rapidly growing community. Let us call the community Suburbia. One of the Brethren made a significant statement that has been ringing in my ears from that day to this: “In my Lodge of more than 1,500 members,” he said, “I haven’t a ghost of a chance to ever go through the chairs. A new Lodge at least would give me the chance.” That Lodge was never organized, because a neighboring Lodge sent a committee to serve notice on the Brethren that “We regard Suburbia as a stock pile for our Lodge.”
2. Then, we are not at work organizing new Lodges because a new Lodge might cause some inconvenience to a horde of organizations now occupying quarters in our Temples. Scores of Masonic Temples in Indiana have room for one or two additional Lodges, but house only one. Instead of encouraging Lodges of Ancient Craft Masonry, which should be occupying our Temples, we shut the door on them in favor of groups which have attached themselves to Freemasonry’s coattails. Isn’t that statesmanlike thinking?
What happens to an institution designed to be simple becomes complex, when units meant to be small become oversize and unwieldy, when work intended for many is restricted to a handful, when something that should be intimate becomes impersonal?
What happens? Look around. Exhibit A is all about us."
There is a lesson to be learned in MWB Smith's first point. I take this from my own Mother Lodge's history. My mother lodge was formed by members of Ogden Lodge. These men petitioned several times to form a lodge in St Joseph Illinois, but they were blocked by the other members of Ogden Lodge. It is my understanding that it took the intervention of the Grand Master at the time to allow St Joseph Lodge #970 to be born. Why? Because Ogden used St. Joseph as a recruiting resource and did not want to lose the membership they had already from St. Joseph. All this being said, I believe that now we see the opposite problem with a few exceptions. I believe that in the next ten to fifteen years we are going to see an unprecidented closing and consolidation of lodges. While I bemoan this, I also see potential benefits. Case in point, I am a member of both Homer Lodge #199 and St. Joseph Lodge #970. I am a plural member at Homer. I was up until a few years ago also a plural member at Ogden Lodge. All of these lodges are located roughly less than 10 miles from each other. In a rural area, where we are having to plural just to keep the lodge alive, don't we need to ask the question if we'd be better off just consolidating the lodges? Wouldn't one lodge made up of the active membership of the three lodges be stronger than three seperate lodges that are struggling to make quorum every meeting? I think it's something to consider sooner rather than later.
Secondly, I think MWB Smith was correct and continues to be correct his second point. However, I think the motivations of many of these organizations are now mercenary. I believe that many new lodges are unable to use current Masonic buildings due to the ruling bodies of those buildings setting rent so high as to discourage the use of building in an attempt to use the new lodge as solution to keep the building open. Let's face facts, many of our older buildings require a tremendous amount of money and effort to maintain. Also, many of our average Lodge buildings were not built as multi-purpose, or with retail space to allow the income from said space to be used to help maintain and upkeep the building they reside in.
I am lucky in that both the lodges that I belong to have such space, so that eliminates at least the need for us to do massive fundraisers to keep the doors open. Many lodges do not have this luxury so it leads itself towards the exploitation of other Masonic bodies using their space. This in turn leads to two results:
1. The other Masonic body using the space can no longer financially support it's agreement so it is either forced to close, consolidate or leave that space.
2. No other Masonic body is willing to occupy that space as they see what happened to "X" body and do not want a repeat of the events.
For being so called brothers, I have found in my personal experience that Men can be prideful. Instead of wanting to look for solutions that include the other Masonic bodies that occupy the space, they often give them no say in the governing bodies that control the decision making for the building they occupy. So what happens is a situation where the "governing" body decides to raise rent on the other Masonic body, without getting their input or working towards a mutually beneficial solution. So what instead happens is that the "governing" body raises rent, and makes the space unaffordable to the lodge that is currently occupying it, and forces that renting body into making a decision that I highlighted above. Instead of a win-win solution, instead a lose - lose scenario occurs. I have seen this happen more than once in my own personal experience.
In my next article, I will explore the next question MWB Smith poses, which is: Question 5: What can we expect when we have permitted Freemasonry to become subdivided into a score of organizations?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.