The debate over the symptoms, causes, and cures for the long decline of Freemasonry has endured for so long that it is now practically a Landmark of the Fraternity. These following three voices, taken from this debate, provided the inspiration for this paper on “change” and its relationship to the state of Freemasonry today.
In the first work, What Are We Trying To Save?, Brother Thomas W. Jackson blames societal changes for Freemasonry’s membership losses, and questions the need or advisability for any changes whatsoever.
The second paper, It’s About Time, was published ten years ago by the Masonic Information Center (MIC)(part of the Masonic Service Association of North America) as a result if its 2004 report to the Conference of Grand Masters in North America (COGMINA). That report focused on the need to raise the public’s awareness about Masonry. With the overwhelming approval of COGMINA, the MIC steering committee formed a special task force to study the issue of masonic public identity. It’s About Time was the product this special Task Force.
The final paper is Voting With Their Feet by S. Brent Morris. Interestingly, both Jackson and Morris were also members of the MIC Task Force that authored It’s About Time; and, interestingly, some of the perspectives they offer in their private writings differ from those presented by the MIC Task Force.
What Are We Trying To Save?
Thomas W. Jackson
“The problem with Freemasonry is that is does not practice Freemasonry anymore.”
In What Are We trying To Save?1, Brother Thomas W. Jackson explored the nature of Freemasonry and the issues facing it coupled with an admonition about efforts to change and adapt. Brother Jackson posited that one of the reasons for Freemasonry’s growth in the past was that we “projected to the world an image which good men wanted to be part of.”2 He highlighted three reasons that he believes explain why Freemasonry became as great as it did:
He concluded that the “deletion of any one of these reasons would have prevented the Craft from becoming what it did or remaining as it has, and I am convinced that the loss of any one will also destroy it, at least in the historic form for which it is known.”4
Brother Jackson’s main thesis was that “we are making many decisions today” about changes “that seem to indicate a lack of interest in preserving the integrity of the Craft.”5 He opined that we have changed Freemasonry more in the past 20 years than in the prior 250, and that the cumulative effects of these changes have not only failed to arrest the rate of our decline, but have been detrimental to the long term health of the body of Freemasonry.6
Brother Jackson insisted that “the loss in membership can neither be blamed solely on inadequacy of leadership or failure of our system” and that “it is time for us to recognize that our decrease in numbers is due to a sociological condition of the time and not to our inability to cope with change.”7 In effect, he exculpated the last 50 years of masonic leadership from responsibility for the state of our Fraternity today when he concluded “My Brethren, I honestly do not believe that any difference in our structure or our leadership would have shown results much different than they do today.”8
Brother Jackson then pointed to the evolution of our Fraternity into “the world’s greatest charitable organization” and suggested that by “concentrating most of our efforts on raising money to give away” we are distracted from the “avowed purpose” of Freemasonry “to take good men and make them better.”9 Quoting author John Robinson, “the problem with Freemasonry is that it does not practice Freemasonry anymore,” he lamented “and how can we when the vast majority of our Members do not even know what to practice.”10 Preaching that our charitable works “must be secondary to our primary purpose,” Brother Jackson proclaimed that “quality will attract quality, and quality will ensure survival. We must always remember that Freemasonry was never meant to be an organization for every man. We cannot hope to grow or even remain the same by lowering our standards.”11
Brother Jackson concluded:
We are confronted today with monumental problems concerning our integrity as an institution. Many of the problems are originating outside the Craft, but, regretfully, most originate from within. Those from within should be more readily solvable but we as leaders must be willing to sacrifice our egos for the welfare of the Craft. We must be willing to surrender personal ambition for the sake of the future of Freemasonry.12
It’s About Time
Moving Masonry into the 21st Century
“When memories exceed dreams, the end is near.”
It’s About Time13 opened with the observation that, in spite of numerous initiatives adopted by its leaders, membership in Freemasonry has been dropping for the past 50 years. The report’s authors noted that even in the face of successful one-day class initiatives, the increasing number of dimits and NPD’s show that “clearly, Masons were not satisfactorily addressing the ways of keeping our members involved and enthusiastic about Masonry.” They concluded that the “time had come for us to take full responsibility for our sad state of affairs and begin to move forward, embracing the fact that we have a lot of work to do.”14
To underscore the gravity of their message, the Task Force highlighted the following quotation by business organization consultant Michael Hammer from Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat:15 “When memories exceed dreams, the end is near.”16 Truly, Freemasonry, more than any other organization, revels in the faded memories of its past glories. When young men pass through the West Gate, instead of wise leaders and fabled experiences, they find only empty seats and faint echoes of a faded glory.
Recognizing this, the Task Force made a dramatic statement that gave the report its title: “It is about time we brought our actions in line with our aspirations.”17 They characterized their report as a “fraternal call to action . . . communicating to our fraternity the need to focus on making Masonry relevant to our changing communities and our 21st century lives.”18 They implored that we ask the “tough question:” “Who are we as a fraternal organization within the context of the 21st Century?”19
To begin to answer this question, the Task Force reviewed the statistical decline in membership over the past century, observing “Freemasonry is at its lowest membership level in at least 80 years.”20 They identified four common reasons given for this decline: 1) that we are in a “downward cycle”; 2) that we “lost the Vietnam generation;” 3) that people are just “too busy” to participate; and 4) that “people no longer join the way they used to.”21 The Task Force deftly dismissed these feeble excuses pointing out “that any organization wishing to attract members must offer something of great interest to even be considered worthwhile.”22
They correctly pointed out that our decline was not due to a shrinking pool of potential members. In fact, the pool of potential members has grown dramatically. It is not that people and society have changed; change is inevitable. It is that Freemasonry as an institution has failed to adapt. Put simply, Freemasonry fails to offer “something of great interest” to young men today to “attract” their time and money. “This can only mean that Masons have simply not kept pace with our changing lifestyles.”23 The Task Force continued, stating that “membership loss is not the major problem . . . [but] merely a symptom of the problem.”24
Next, the Task Force provided a brief historical analysis which reviewed how the fraternity evolved with each succeeding generation. Two points stand out from the analysis. The first is that, at its inception, Freemasonry “attracted leaders to its membership” (emphasis added).25 The second is that Freemasonry “provided a moral philosophy relevant to the individual and to communities.”26
The Task Force then identified some of the weaknesses within the current Fraternity, the two most pertinent of which, in my opinion, are that “Masonry is no longer identified as an elite organization” and that “current Masons do not understand the true meaning of our fraternity.”27 Continuing, the Task Force asked a series of probing questions about the existing and desired public perception of Freemasonry—the benefits that the Fraternity offers in a 21st Century context; who needs to hear our message; whom we should attract as potential members; and, what is the core of our identity.28 All were good questions.
According to the Task Force, “Freemasonry wants to attract fellow journeymen who are seeking enrichment in body, mind, and spirit through participation in a brotherhood committed to good works and personal growth.”29 Attempting to identify the core of our identity, the Task Force stated that Freemasonry must be “lodge-centered” and that we must make it an experience that is rewarding, enriching, and relevant to its members, their families and the greater community.30 The question left unanswered is does merely being “relevant” offer a compelling enough vision to attract the great men of the 21st Century?
In the report’s closing sections, the Task Force outlined some action steps. First, it stated “we must look squarely into the challenge of performing Masonry to the betterment of our fraternity and ourselves.”31 Next, it admonished that we should break out of our lethargy, and “exercise the same determination that we admire and celebrate in our heritage.”32 Finally, it detailed a laundry list of tangible as well as intangible assets that Freemasonry possesses and suggested that it is our management of these resources that has failed, concluding that: “Our Masonic resources are great! Our resource management skills are rusty.”33
But after doing an admirable job of analyzing the reasons for our present difficulties, and recognizing the many resources at our disposal, the Task Force limped to a disappointing conclusion that failed to deliver an actionable plan for renewal for the bodies best positioned to implement new ideas. First, it listed 10 suggestions to help lodges “take action now” to “plan meaningful activities that put Masonic values into action.”34 None merit specific mention here.
Under the heading “Move Masonry into the 21st Century,” we got an admonition to “cast off negativism” and make Freemasonry “the fraternity that you want—brother by brother, lodge by lodge.”35 The Task Forces closed their report with the warning that “We have not a moment to lose.”(emphasis in original)36 I would agree, but after 15 pages of insightful, scholarly, and sometimes courageous prose, the Task Force fell flat with a mere page-and-a-half of minor lodge-level suggestions and airy platitudes such as “cast off negativism.”37
In the final analysis, Its About Time is all diagnosis and no cure. The authors proffer a few suggestions for individual lodges and chide individual Masons to be more enthusiastic, but—tellingly—they do not present even a single proposal for change at the grand lodge level. Not one. Perhaps it’s about time that we realize that, like the Task Force, we have been attempting to cure the wrong patient.
Voting With Their Feet
S. Brent Morris
“I love Masonry. Its Grand Lodges I can’t stand.”
—A Mason who voted with his feet
In Voting With Their Feet,38 Brother S. Brent Morris begins his analysis by pointing out the seeming paradox that, at least in Maryland “Masons have no interest in forming new Lodges” but at the same time appear enthusiastic about forming new masonic groups at the fringes of Masonry.39 He proposes that the reasons behind this phenomenon are that these “fringe” groups are both “easier to set up and maintain” as well as being “perceived as more prestigious and exclusive than Lodges.”40 He then asks the question that we all should be asking: “why can’t we generate that sense of exclusivity and recognition in a Lodge?”41
Brother Morris then identifies what I denominate as the unholy trinity of reasons for the root cause of all our woes: (1) we are “overburdened with constricting rules and nitpicking regulations;” (2) we have a “massively centralized authority” that is inflexible and unresponsive to the needs of its members; and (3) our organizational structure provides “short-tenured leaders who are given almost limitless power and no time to use it effectively.”42 The net effect of this unholy trinity is to suck the joy out of the local lodge experience. Grand lodge leaders should remember that Freemasonry is a voluntary association.
Brother Morris closes by asking:
What if Lodges were given the flexibility and responsibility to make decisions for themselves? And what if Masons were encouraged and rewarded to form and participate in new Lodges?43
* * *
Masonry is declining in membership as are nearly all other voluntary associations. Our members continue to be enthusiastic about the Masonic experience, just not in Lodges. There is hope for the Craft if we can focus our members’ enthusiasm back at the main body of Masonry, but this will require difficult changes. Some of the most urgent changes are administrative, but they strike at the heart of our Masonic culture as it has evolved over centuries. Our rewards structure is predicated upon presiding, and no one wants to reduce rewards. There is no reason why accepted management techniques cannot be used in Masonry, nor any reason why control cannot be returned to local Lodges. If we are not willing to put changes to a vote in our Grand Lodges, then our members will continue to vote with their feet and move their Masonic energies to more rewarding activities. And if we could conduct post-election polls, we’d probably find a lot of these voters saying, “I love Masonry. It’s Grand Lodges I can’t stand.”44
Whereas after 15 pages of analysis the MIC Task Force advised an anemic treatment regimen for the wrong patient, in less than seven pages Brother Morris is well on the way to prescribing the right cure for the right patient. The clear implication is that the cancer on the body of Freemasonry is our bloated grand lodge system, and the treatment advised is to substantially shrink that bloat and devolve power back to the subordinate lodges.
In order to execute the changes Brother Morris recommends, grand lodges must return to an organizational model in which individual lodges are primary. Brother Morris points the way by suggesting we apply “accepted management techniques” to Masonry.45 But he stops short, correctly identifying the problem, but not daring to do more than hint at the fundamental change that is required to achieve the organizational breakthrough we need to successfully enter the 21st Century. And, given the treatment typically meted out to those who question grand lodge authority and preach change, who could blame him?
At first blush, the thee papers appear to reach conflicting conclusions. One says that change is inevitable and that Freemasonry has failed to adapt to changing people and society, while another says that change is inevitable, but we must hold fast in the face of change. One faults inflexibility in grand lodges; another suggests that they have been too flexible. One even seeks to lay blame at the foot of individual lodges and fault individual Masons for their lack of enthusiasm! Most worrisome of all is the belief shared by all that most members today do not adequately understand the true meaning of Freemasonry.
When you boil them all down, however, they all really say the same thing: Freemasonry must attract quality members to survive. In order to attract quality members, it must provide a quality experience. To provide a quality experience, it must stay true to its principles. And to stay true to its principles, our members must know what those principles are and our leaders must place the good of the organization before their own personal ambition.
All the papers make one point abundantly clear: the individual local lodge is the single most important element to our future success. We cannot succeed on any level if we do not first succeed on the individual lodge level. To answer Brother Jackson’s question, “What are we trying to save?” . . . the answer is nothing less than our local lodges. And in the end, nothing more.