William M. Brass, 33°
Before any united effort by Masonic organizations can be achieved, some things need to be acknowledged, corrected, or eliminated.
In his Scottish Rite Journal essay "Masonry at the Crossroads" (January 1999), M.W. Bro. Norman Cohen, 32°, offered many excellent ways to halt and reverse membership decline in Freemasonry. The most important of his suggestions was: "While no one Grand Lodge can reverse our declining membership trend, we as a Masonic Community have that power—if we have the courage to use it. It will require the Grand Lodges, the Scottish Rite and York Rite, the Shriners, and other Masonic Bodies that owe their existence to a Blue Lodge dues card to join forces and work together and not act as competitors."
The several new videos, "Friend to Friend" programs, one-day conferrals, advertising campaigns, and new printed materials will have, at most, little effect unless a concentrated and concerted program of instruction and education is developed and promoted by all of the above. Before any such union can be achieved, however, there are some things that need to be acknowledged, corrected, or eliminated. We need to remember, no matter how exalted our title, we are simply Masons and, therefore, subject to the Grand Lodge. To initiate the process, the Grand Master should urge the presiding officers of the Appendant Bodies in his jurisdiction to meet and agree to work together to develop a comprehensive plan which all can and will support. Those invited should also include the leaders of the youth groups and Eastern Star. This assemblage may become the "task force" Bro. Cohen envisions, or it may set up another group composed of the best from each Masonic Order.
Either way, the task force's first objective should be to uncover those obstacles to membership which exist within the Masonic community itself. This involves determining what needs to be done, what can be done, and how to go about it. Obstacles might include dues and initiation structures, competitive attitudes, and the assumption that certain Appendant Orders are more important than any others.
One obstacle, for example, might be the attitude "The Blue Lodge is all there is." While it is true that a man will never be more a Mason than as a Mason of the Third Degree, it is misleading to a candidate or prospective candidate not to inform him that there is much more to learn, many more places to serve, and additional activities to enjoy within the Appendant Bodies. There are many candidates who join simply to become Shriners, because "that's where the fun is." Often enough, along the way, some of these men become attracted to one of the Rites or become active in the Blue Lodge when that was not their original goal. We should encourage this. We may have heard it said a certain Lodge "is nothing but a Degree mill for the Shrine." Maybe so, but that Lodge manages to meet and confer Degrees, sometimes lots of Degrees, usually with a full and good team when its critics have trouble getting a quorum to conduct a business meeting.
Another obstacle may be the suggestion that the goal is "to increase attendance at our meetings." While this is desirable and admirable, it is not realistic. As a young Grand Lodge officer, I heard about the "good old days" of Lodge attendance and the need to get back to what it was then. So I took the minutes of the oldest Lodge in my community, from its charter to the current year. The Lodge grew from the original 38 members to over 400 in 1957, then split into two Lodges, the combined membership of which was about 200 in 1975. The minutes revealed a number of interesting facts.
First, that the average attendance at its communications seldom reached more than 7% of its membership numbers at any time.
Second, that the slate of officers in attendance was seldom filled, except when Degree work was being done.
Third, that the only times attendance reached to near 50% percent was on the occasion when some prominent citizen was initiated, but more often when he was raised. During my years in the line, I checked other Lodges and found that the 7% attendance figure seemed to be about the average, even when the Grand Master made an official visit. Perhaps the realistic goal should be the increase in total numbers combined with a concurrent increase in total numbers in the Rites and the Shrine. We would then be apt to find that if we count the officers and ritual workers in each of the Rites and the Shrine, together with those men in Eastern Star, we will have really increased the number of active Masons. That should be the ultimate goal.
Another essential task has to be to determine the obstacles to membership which exist within society today. If we consider the prospective candidate is somewhere between 30 and 40 years old and the average age of present Masons may well be 65 years, we should be aware a tremendous gap exists. We need, then, to develop a plan for attracting members which will appeal to the 30–40 age group, not just a plan which might appeal to us. A survey several years ago found the average man in this age group felt he could spare only about five hours a month to any kind of fraternal body. We need to be able to show this prospect that those five hours can be very well spent within the halls of Masonry. But, we need to be able to show in his terms, and his terms are very likely to be based upon one concept, "What's in it for me?"
To create a plan for increasing membership by attracting that 30–40 age group, we will have to be realistic. Those men are called "bottom-liners." They will put their time and their money in things and places which are of value to them, as they perceive it. They will expect their expenditure of time and money to produce tangible benefits to them and to their families. That will be the toughest task of all.
Among those of us who are active in the Fraternity, there is little disagreement with the idea that Masonry is of great value to us. The problem we have is that we are seldom able to articulate those values. We know what we get out of Masonry, but when we try to explain what led us to the Order and what we got out of it, we too often find we cannot put it into words. The only real "secret" of Masonry is right there. We do not truly understand the steps that led us to the Order, nor what we really derive from our membership. It is a “secret” simply because we cannot put it into meaningful words, even to ourselves.
Each of us receives much, but because we are individuals, each of us receives different benefits from our Masonic membership. Yet, even here, there are common threads. We need to determine and categorize those threads, and then we need to determine how we can talk about them in terms that will appeal to those we hope to attract.
There is one ray of hope upon which we may be able to build. Among this 30-to-40-year-old group there is a yearning for a more moral order, a desire for more solidarity and stability than society is offering today. Some churches and other institutions have recognized this and have begun to change in ways which greatly disturb their more traditional members, but which do attract younger ones. Masonry will have to do the same. We have the values, we have the principles. Now we need to be able to see where and how we have to change our patterns, without sacrificing our values and principles. Remember, they have survived for hundreds of years, in many different ways, in hundreds of differing cultures and societies and always by changing the culture or society, never by changing Masonry's principles.