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UNDERSTANDING OUR MEMBERSHIP PROBLEMS
by Abraham Benjamin
Membership in Masonic Lodges reached its all time high in 1958 with over 4.2 Million members in the United States. During the last 30 plus years Freemasonry has been experiencing a 3% drop in membership per year. Until recently this constant decrease in overall membership has been ignored by the Grand Lodges. In response TO membership decrease the Masonic Renewal Committee of North America was created by the Northern and Southern Jurisdiction Supreme Councils of the Scottish Rites along with several Grand Lodges and other Masonic bodies. Part of their charge was to examine our membership problems and help Freemasonry get "back on track". It is important for us, as Masons, to understand what has been happening to our membership during these past 30 years. We must also understand what has been changing in our society.
The social prestige of Freemasonry has been lost during the past 30 years. Before the 20th century there were no automobiles, radios, television sets, or movie theaters. Men enjoy and need to have fraternal relations with other men. During the years before the automobile men found that the only place to fulfill these needs was by joining a fraternal organization. Freemasonry offered a prestige over other fraternal groups.
Let's look at some Masonic falsehoods that deal directly with membership.
YOU CAN'T RAISE THE DUES!
The dues structure of Freemasonry at the turn of the 20th century created a prestige for the organization. The common man could not afford to become a Mason. Freemasonry had an image of limited membership. With this image men, sought out to join. But Masonic Lodges adopted the policy of a static dues structure. By employing this method of never raising dues, obtaining membership became easy and many "common" men started joining.
The Lodges have built their financial strength on a steady flow of new members. Grand Lodges over the years have refused to raise initiation rates on the fear that new applicants might be discouraged. Lodges are also afraid to raise their dues. They fear that they will lose members. Freemasonry now costs less per year than a newspaper subscription costs per month in a major U.S. city.
Currently Freemasonry is not bringing in the new applicants as was enjoyed in the past. Lodges have used the money brought in from new applicants to finance their operating budgets. Today Lodges are discovering that they must break into their permanent funds to supplement their yearly operating expenses. Lodges are starting to do less for their membership. Members were accustomed to having free dinners and social activities. Now that Lodges have to charge for the dinners and social activities, the membership does not attend as they used to. The members are not interested anymore in the activities of the Lodge when they have to pay for them.
Why not raise the dues and start providing activities that the members want? Let's take a Lodge of 1000 members paying $35 per year in dues. This equates to a $35,000 operating budget for the Lodge. Of this money $30,000 is required for Masonic Center dues, Grand Lodge dues and cost of doing business (notices, postage etc). Let's raise the dues to $100 per year. What a radical idea! We will probably lose half our membership. Ok. 500 members at $100 per year equated to $50,000 per year, a gain of $15,000. The expenses of the Lodge should drop 40% to $18,000 per year. With 1000 members at $35 per year we had $5,000 per year to spend on our membership. With dues at $100 per year and 500 members we have $32,000 per year to spend on our membership. Obviously if we raise our dues in this hypothetical Lodge we will have more resources to meet our members needs and expectations. So why not raise the dues!
OUR MEMBERSHIP WILL HIT A "LOW" AND THEN START TO RISE AGAIN
Masonic membership is not cyclic. Our gains in the 1940's and 1950's is not part of a cycle. From 1870 to 1958, except for the Depression, Masonry has seen increases in membership. The curve has been a steady 4%, or so, gain in each year, while other fraternal organizations have seen drops in membership. For example, the Odd Fellows have experienced a 90% drop in membership during this century. For the past 125 years, Freemasonry has experienced growth in members in 74 of those years. It was during the past 30+ year (1958 to 1993) period that the Fraternity had to deal with decreasing membership, shrinking budgets and the public dissatisfaction with all Fraternal organizations.
MASONRY ALWAYS FLOURISHES DURING TIMES OF WAR
Luckily this is an incorrect statement. If it were true we would have to rebuild the Soviet Union and start World War III. It is true that Masonic membership increased after World War II, at a dramatic rate. But Masonic membership increased at a constant pace before, during and after the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I, and the Korean War. During the Vietnam War Masonic membership decreased at a steady pace. War time has no effect on Masonic membership.
IF IT WAS NOT FOR THE DEPRESSION FREEMASONRY WOULD HAVE CONTINUALLY GROWN, EVEN TODAY
Actually, Masonic membership started to decrease in 1928, two years before the Depression started. In some states of the United States, Masonic Membership started to decrease in 1925.
WE CAN SAVE FREEMASONRY BY DOING THE SAME OLD THING THE SAME OLD WAY, THAT'S WHAT OUR MEMBERS WANT
Our own membership does not like what we do. The Masonic Renewal survey of 1988-89 indicates that 90% of Freemasons in the United States do not believe that Freemasonry should be changed. What is important to understand is that 85% of those 90% have not attended a Lodge meeting or social activity in the past 3 years. Only 15% of Freemasons are active in their Lodges. Most Lodges actually experience about 10% of their membership at their stated meetings.
Since 90% do not want change and 10% come to stated meetings, only 1% of the Lodge membership wants change and still attends the meetings of the Lodge. It is that 1% that feel that Freemasonry must be changed to attract new members. Older members generally sit on the sidelines knowing that change must occur. Unfortunately, when change is proposed they will be the first to resist it.
The laws and regulations of the Fraternity were established over 200 years ago. We cannot expect men of the 21st century to live under such antiquated laws. It is important that Freemasonry maintain its landmarks and foundations. These traditions are important to keep. It is the laws that Grand Lodges have made and their numerous restrictions that must be reviewed. We must change our laws and regulations to meet the needs and expectations of the 21st century man.
When a non-Mason notices that his Masonic neighbor does not attend his Blue Lodge or the Lodge's activities, it leaves him with a negative view of Freemasonry. How can you ask a friend to become a Mason when you personally do not attend Lodge? In addition, if 85% of newly raised Masons do not attend Lodge after 6 months of being raised, we must examine what we do. The message is clear! The Lodge does not meet the needs and expectations of new members. They join Lodge and the find out that Freemasonry was not what they thought it was.
Unfortunately, some believe that showing some video tapes and printing some fancy brochures will cure our problems. It is important that we get out into the public and show non-Masons what Freemasonry is about. But the first step is to fix our Lodges! We must do what our video tapes and brochures say we do. We must get into our communities and make a difference. We must develop a real charity and support it. We must create the fraternal environment that we prize and that we say we have. Only then can we go out and show our videos and give out our brochures.
POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO PEOPLE TODAY
As the United States became an urbanized country the need for pomp and circumstance decreased. In the 19th and early 20th century when the United States was rural with some large cities, formality was very popular. After the 1950's with the invention of the suburbs and urbanization, formality decreased. In the Masonic Lodges we still like to wear tuxedos and suits. The black tie event is not popular today.
Men would like to take off the tie and coat when they go to Lodge. Even in churches men are removing the ties and coats. The need for formal clothing has become somewhat limited to high school proms and weddings. Why does Freemasonry insist on forcing its members to wear clothing that they do no normally wear? Think about it. Would your membership come to more meetings if they could dress informally?
Men who wear coats and ties at work all day want to remove these clothes and be relaxed. Wearing the tie and coat makes the professional feel that he is still at work. The factory worker has to put on the tie and coat to come to Lodge. This man does not see the need to look like his manager. Therefore, he resists this situation.
Let's change the need for formal clothing in our Masonic Lodges! Some states have begun to make this change. The "stuffy" look of the Lodge must go. Do the Grand Lodges own formal wear shops or have stock in them? Let's change to the needs of the 21st century man.
WE DON'T NEED TO GIVE MEMBERS A BENEFIT FROM MEMBERSHIP
Fraternal organizations in the United States hit an all time high of 800+ organizations with 30 million members by the year 1900 (US population at that time was 60 million). Why did these organization do so well? The answer lies in the fact that the organizations gave a benefit to their members. For example, the Odd Fellows gave life and medical insurance to all members.
After the turn of the 20th century, trade unions started to grow. These unions were able to get benefits for workers. Unfortunately, for fraternal organizations, the benefits that were given by companies caused the fraternal benefits to have little or no value to the working man. Odd Fellow membership has dropped by 90% over this century. The need to join organization like the Odd Fellows and give them money for benefits obtained through work does not make sense to the average man. The Odd Fellows have not changed to meet this change in needs.
Freemasonry increased until 1958 because it fulfilled the need for fraternity and the feeling of Brotherhood. Freemasonry has no benefits beyond Brotherhood (well no advertised benefit). After 1958, men have found fraternity elsewhere. With the lose of prestige of the Fraternity, professional men have turned to the Country Clubs to find the fraternal relations they want.
Freemasonry must give a benefit to membership beyond Brotherhood and Fraternity. To those who say no to this statement consider this: Why has membership been dropping since 1958? Why are 85% of our members happier in front of their TVs then coming to Lodge? Why won't your sons and grandsons join? Why are there more sons and grandsons of Masons than there are Masons?
GIVE EXCELLENT RITUAL AND MASONIC EDUCATION AND THE MEMBERS WILL COME BACK TO LODGE AND WILL BRING IN NEW MEMBERS
It is true that if a man must endure ritual he wants it done right and well. Badly done ritual discourages everyone. The problem with Lodge today is that ritual has encompassed 90+% of the Lodge. By ritual I include the business of the Lodge. The reason for this is that we repeat the business over and over. It is always the same (with some very minor aberrations). If you look at your Lodge minutes from 50 years ago, they will read similarly to your minutes of today. We have been doing the same thing over and over for over 200 years!
If men like ritual so much then why do we get such poor attendance at extra meetings. It is at the extra meetings that the degrees of Freemasonry are confirmed. The average attendance at extra meetings is 2 to 3 percent. This percent is static from the beginning of our last growth spurt, starting in 1939, through 1992. There is no difference in extra meeting attendance, period. The conclusion is that after you have seen the degree done once, most men don't want or need to see it again.
Masonic Education is generally pushed down the candidates' throat. We tell the candidate that in order to get to the third degree that he must learn all kinds of information about Freemasonry. It is like being forced to go to Sunday School (when you were a child). If you force a man to learn Freemasonry this way he will resist it, learn to hate it, and avoid it at all costs. If you push Masonic Education incorrectly into the Lodges you will destroy your already poor attendance. No one wants to be lectured to.
Why can't we make Masonic Education a lifetime experience. Do not cram all of the teachings of Freemasonry into the 4 or so months it takes to get the three degrees. Make learning fun to do. Create opportunities to teach Masonic Education is a fun setting. Let's work to make our members want to learn more. It worked when you were going to school, it will work here.
WE CANNOT CHANGE
By now you should see that whether or not this is true, we must change. By the year 2010 there will be less than 800,000 Masons in the United States. As we lose membership we lose our financial base. If this trend continues our Lodges, Grand Lodges and Masonic homes will be lost. Who will pay to keep the buildings going if there are no Masons? Unfortunately, with today's costs, if we lose buildings and monuments they will not be recovered.
We must change now. The imperative is clear. The question you should now have is: How do I initiated change? The Lodge must find the leadership that will correct the falsehoods that have been described here and initiate a Masonic renewal effort.
The bottom line is that it is up to you. Only you can cause your Lodge to change to meet the challenges of the next century. It is time to realize our follies of the past and work toward insuring that Freemasonry survives for our children and grandchildren.
"A Radical in the East", S. Brent Morris, Iowa Lodge of Research #2, 1993
"Masonic Renewal Task Force Report 1988-1989", MSA 1990
"Masonic Membership Kit", Masonic Renewal Committee of NA, 1992
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Last modified: March 22, 2014