The Role of Grand Lodges
Grand Illusions
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
 — Aung San Suu Kyi

It’s about time for Freemasonry’s leaders to recognize that not only is the environment changing, it is changing at an accelerating rate. But while Freemasonry must constantly adapt to the continuously changing world to be able to compete, it must do so in a positive way that builds on the strengths of its ancient traditions and rich heritage, not destroys them. Many of our routine practices—which are very different from our ancient traditions—should be reexamined. Our rules, regulations, and, most importantly, our organizational structure and governing hierarchy, need to be reformed to meet the realities of the 21st century.

A good starting point would be to ask the same fundamental questions about the core ideology of grand lodges that we asked about Freemasonry in general in How to Preserve and Stimulate Freemasonry. As we learned in Built To Last, “a key step in building a visionary company is to articulate a Core Ideology.”[1] Core Ideology is the combination of an organization’s Core Values, which are “the organization’s essential and enduring tenets, not to be compromised for financial gain or short-term expediency”[2] and its Core Purpose, which is “the set of fundamental reasons” for an organization’s existence.[3] Taken together, these concepts define “who we are” and answer the question “what is important to us?”

So why do grand lodges exist; and what is their core purpose? I would suggest that grand lodges exist to propagate, serve, and support individual lodges that together constitute the grand lodge. I would further suggest that their fundamental purpose is to simply promote Freemasonry. But even a generous view of grand lodge doctrine belies the truth. Clearly, as any grand lodge officer will readily inform you, individual Lodges are subordinate and subservient to their grand lodge.

The obvious question posed is who exists to serve whom? What are the core values of American grand lodges: edicts; inspections; rigid Masonic Codes; rising dues; and one-day classes? Why do individual lodges need grand lodges, and what do they receive in return for their dues and fealty? Are grand lodge officers working hard to serve the best interests of the individual lodges that they govern, their members who are beholden to them, and Craft as a whole anymore?

Charles I, Louis XVI, and Nicholas II all failed to see until it was too late that their systems of absolute power were no longer applicable in the modern age. Lord Acton famously stated that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But in another speech called simply “Freedom from Fear,” Aung San Suu Kyi, a democratic activist in Myanmar and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, with great insight said “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”[4] And it is this fear that obstructs Freemasonry’s growth today.

Grand lodge leaders fearing the loss of their revenue streams promote one-day classes to inflate the number of dues paying members to shore up their financial security. But, as authors Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras cautioned in Built To Last, an organization’s “essential and enduring tenets” must never be compromised for financial gain or short-term expediency.[5] Yet, the grand lodges’ introduction of one-day classes that make it quick and easy to add a large group of new dues paying members makes this precise compromise. If telling the masonic story is one of the key distinctions of Freemasonry, then I would argue that one-day classes are the single most destructive innovation in American Freemasonry since the changes adopted at the Baltimore Convention in 1843. An organization cannot effectively tell an inspiring story, invoke a man’s passion, and create a culture of identity in a few brief hours.

Over the long term, our grand lodge leaders’ increasingly desperate preoccupation with quantity over quality has had a corrosive effect on the very core of Freemasonry. At the same time, these grand lodge leaders have frustrated and obstructed the much-needed creativity that young men are bringing to the Fraternity today.

To be fair, not all grand lodges are so openly hostile to new ideas. Some are supportive of new lodges, new technology, and new concepts (such as Observant Lodges). But others have proven to be hostile to any new group that may threaten the existing power structure. Even the formal adoption of reform agendas by a majority vote at a grand lodge session is not safe from the whims of autocratic Grand Masters.[6] In these jurisdictions and others, fear pervades.

Rather than do violence to the best traditions of Freemasonry, our leaders ought to take a hard look in the mirror. Dramatic change is needed in how our leaders manage and regulate our lodges. We need to sweep away the stifling rules that inhibit creativity and replace them with a more flexible framework that encourages innovations not in our core ideology, but in how our lodges function and what they offer their members. Leaders who understand that they have a duty and responsibility to propel our Fraternity forward must replace those officers who view their role as one of privilege, prestige, and power. We need leaders to fully commit to supporting local lodges in this effort. Fear should and must be driven out of the structure of Freemasonry.

In his work developing a new model of leadership, Dr. Oren Harari states that leadership starts with a dream, a bold vision that lays out audacious goals.[7] But leaders must delve much deeper than merely laying out a big vision. The vision must be clearly communicated and pursued with both passion and precision. Our leaders must commit to this new vision. There is no alternative—and there can be no turning back. The new vision that can offer Freemasonry a future is not mobs of new masons raised in one-day classes, but rather new lodges. If given the freedom and latitude to discover new ways to connect with today’s generations, new masonic lodges could bring in thousands of new Masons without the need to resort to one-day classes, and in so doing usher in a bold new age for Freemasonry.

  1. Collins, Jim and Jerry I. Porras. Built To Last. Paperback. New York: HarperCollins, 2002, 73  ↩
  2. Collins, 73  ↩
  3. Collins, 76  ↩
  4. Aung San Suu Kyi. Freedom from Fear and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1991.  ↩
  5. Collins, 73  ↩
  6. West Virginia Grand Master strikes down 16 progressive proposals by edict and expels PGM Frank J. Haas and others. See  ↩
  7. Harari, Oren. The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002  ↩

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