Shadows Burned Onto the Walls – Addressing Freemasonry’s Biggest Problem
by Robert H. Johnson
Freemasonry is a wonderful organization. It’s members hold it to the highest regard. Whether active in all things Masonic or simply a man who receives the degrees and caries his dues card around for the rest of his life without attending another degree or meeting, we value the membership. At the thought of getting suspended for non-payment of dues (NPD), we pay a forgotten invoice. At the thought of closing the temple, we rally to fund-raise. When confronted with facts regarding the organization’s declination, we hold endless dialogue until we all feel good and convinced about our future, our current action and our past choices.
Today, Freemasonry claims 1.1 Million Members (MSA N. America). A mere 50 years ago, we had almost five times the membership. This speech isn’t intended to cover or rationalize the dwindling membership. We know the reasons. Definitively, we gained members who valued something the fraternity had, a social aspect, a gathering place, which was a rare occurrence in the linear progression of time, that is, it aligned with the societal norms of the day. Have no fear, just like styles go through cycles, so do societies trends in some ways. We will again see uptick in membership, someday.
More to the point, this fraternity, which boasts a membership that loves itself so much, that would seemingly do anything for the Craft, has for all of this grandeur in the mind, empty lodges, empty participation, and empty sidelines. There are arguments for why this is — fulfillment being one. But this is still not what I am referring to. We have, even in the ranks of the craft a general issue of participation.
A lodge meets for business on a summer meeting, a rarity since it usually goes dark this time of year. The Worshipful Master called a special meeting to discuss finances, come up with a way to raise funds and collect volunteers. Men show up, they even come out of the woodwork, as it was unusual for the Master to call such a meeting. It must be important. The members heard the report, they were roused.
A date was picked. An event was planned and volunteers were gathered and assigned duties However this was not without the Master having to ask men sitting in the lodge if they would assist. This should have been a red flag. But it wasn’t. Fast forward a few months. Calls, emails and communications regarding the event were received by all.
It’s the morning of the event. A bit foggy outside, but warm. The Master pulls into the parking lot. Empty. It’s early yet, they’ll trickle in. He walks to the door, unlocks it and wanders inside. He hits the lights, turns on the coffee and heads back out to the car to grab the box of donuts and treats he purchased to feed his volunteers.
The Master then begins to set up the lodge for the event. He re-positions tables, pulls out a few more since he is expecting a crowd. He sets up the lodge for anyone who wants a tour and before you know it, it’s been an hour. The event is set to start soon. Just then, a member walks through the front door. It’s not one of the volunteers, but a member of the lodge and decides to see what he can do to assist. The Master has the brother wander around and just straighten up the place a bit. Another hour passes. No one has come. The Master makes several phone calls to his officers. He leaves voicemails, gets hung up on by full mailboxes and those he did get ahold of, well it turns out they can’t make it due to some family event. The Master sat down, took a breath. Just then, the other brother who had shown up earlier announced he had to take off, but wished the lodge luck on the day’s event.
The front door to the lodge closed as the Master sat there in his chair, not even touching the coffee he poured. He stood up, walked to the front door, locked it. He walked back to the kitchen, dumped the coffee, gathered his items and left for home. The donuts left on the counter, likely to be eaten by the members at the next meeting if the mice don’t get to them first. On the drive home the Master felt a sense of something that had been growing. He had many questions come into his mind.
Where was everyone? Why didn’t they come? Why did they say they would be here if they couldn’t? Why did this always happen? And maybe most importantly, why was he still surprised by the turnout?
A few hours later, a man pulled into the parking lot of the lodge. He had read about an event at the local lodge. He was interested in joining and thought this was a great chance to get some information so he decided to work it into his day before grabbing some lunch with his family. The family waited in the car as the man walked to the door of the lodge. From the parking lot, the lodge looked closed and the lot was also curiously devoid of cars. But, there was a parking garage and so perhaps that’s where everyone parked.
The man got to the door, gave a gander inside through the glass windows. No lights. No noise. No one. It was empty. The lodge was closed. The man thought he must have missed it. Maybe it was a different day. He checked Facebook. No, today was the day of the event. It should be open right now. He turned and headed back to the car. As the man strapped on his seat belt, his wife asked him what was wrong. The man simply declared, no one was there and drove his family to lunch.
When things like this happen, we think about so many things. We condemn it. We justify it. We go the rounds month after month and wonder what the magic formula is which might offer some form of menial success. At first our leadership tends to become upset at the men who seemingly shirked in their duty to the lodge. After some years, this same scenario can play out and instead of anger, we justify the action of non-participation. We chalk it up to, “Family first” or the volunteer mentality. We then come back to square one and ask ourselves why this is.
Ultimately, we find that this may actually be as it has always been. One hears of the glory day of Freemasonry, when fifty or more men would show up to dinner, when the wives had an auxiliary and made the meals, served dinner and played cards whilst the men were in the meetings. The kids were in the parlor, talking about DeMolay, Rainbow or Job’s Daughters. But this truly is a myth, while it may have happened once in a while, it was certainly never the norm. One need only pull out the minute books and count the signatures to verify this.
When we look into Freemasonry, many of us want to find a cure for what is ailing this beloved Craft. But what exactly is ailing us? Is it laziness? It it apathy? Is it a sense of worthlessness? Maybe it’s all of these things.
In an organization that’s been built over the last 70 years to sustain a massive membership, it’s no secret that the sheer amount of members we had were not all truly interested in what Masonry is supposed to be. That continuity between the social trend and something Masonry offered, opened the doors and those doors were never truly closed again. We’ve initiated many men who had no idea what they were joining. A fact that was confirmed by the Grand Lodge of Colorado in the 1990s. Results came in from a survey they sent out to all those who were suspended for NPD.
The more men we let in, the more possibility for failure exists. This is simple probability. The more members we have, the greater probability that our lodges are flooded with men who are not truly committed in the way we want them to be. We’ve lost nearly ⅘ of who we were. I, myself have justified this in terms of what I call refinement. I and many have called attention to the fact that we’re measuring ourselves to a false standard. Something that was not the norm and while the fact of membership numbers can be shown to us, the myth of epic participation haunts us still.
Are our members lazy? All too often our members will confirm that they will be at an event. They will tell us how excited they are, and when we’re setting up for the event, when we’re bringing in the donuts and putting on the coffee, we notice no one is coming. We check Facebook and see those same excited members posting about going to the gym, waking up late or some other family event. Begin the cycle outlined in the above narrative.
We might inquire with this member why he didn’t show up. The answer is all to often, that they forgot. We ask ourselves again, “How do you forget? It’s on social media, we did a call, you RSVP’d via social media, which means it’s on your calendar, the phone even alerts you the night before the event!” But we dare not press the issue for fear of being unbrotherly. We are after all, family first and they are volunteers.
Are we apathetic? In the beginning? No. As a seasoned Masonic Veteran? Absolutely. When we use terms like “Veteran”, it typically conjures imagery in our minds of a man who’s spent tens of years completing tasks, pulling his weight, making it happen, whatever it was, no matter what. A breast filled with bars and rank insignia.
This may also apply in Freemasonry. But in truth, today’s Masonic veteran has been in the craft less than five years. They’ve been Master of their lodge. They headed up masonic Education to some extent. They’ve taken their expertise in modern technology and dedicated countless hours to bringing the local lodge or maybe even their Grand Lodge into the 21st century. Recent data compiled by the State Education officer of Illinois 2017 / 2018 shows definitively that the average time from joining today to being Master of your lodge is little more than five years.
These Masonic Veterans of today, push with everything they have for results. All to often, they’re met with questions regarding their motive, their attitude and their expectations. They are told to “Be the Change”, which is absolutely the epitome of irony in an organization so against progression. And finally, after years of trying, they give up. They agree to do one thing, fulfil themselves and leave the Craft to fend for itself. If the leadership across the organization is not going to listen, then there’s no point in talking. They become apathetic to the entire organization. Men just stop caring, and can we blame them?
It seems all too often the men who are working for the betterment of the craft do so only at the meetings. To be seen, to shake hands to offer assistance and yet in the space between meetings, there’s nothing being done. The apathetic see this as title chasing. They watch these men climb the ranks and for what? A purple apron? A red hat? A white hat? The awards going to men who have done little to progress the Craft and done much to tout the Craft and perhaps only when someone is looking. Where are these high ranking members when the local lodge needs them? Where are the regular dues card carriers when the lodge needs to simply open?
We’re left asking ourselves the same questions we started out with. And I fear there is no real answer. We romanticize the fraternity. We utilize our inherent human flaw of justifying inaction because it allows us to justify our reason for perpetual action. Our senior members, many of whom succumb to the cognitive bias of declinism, or believing the past to better than it was. The modern Brother, trying so hard to live up to these things and eventually, giving up.
This speech is not intended to be a call to action, as it’s infrequent that words can drum up any kind of long lasting support for a cause. Sure, speeches have riled mankind to win battles, wars and to vote. But whilst you all may sit here in the audience, agreeing with the words I’m saying, while you nod your heads in agreement, while you take notes and write down ideas about what can be done, we should all understand that after this moment, after today, after next week, you’ll have forgotten. And none of this will matter to you until that next meeting, that is, if we even show up.
I offer no solutions but to fulfill your own Masonic desires, to vote with your feet and let whatever happens to Masonry happen. Work to improve things and if it doesn’t happen, then try to move on and focus your energy where you think it will make an impact. Don’t let the apathy, laziness and fair-weather Masonic experience get you down. As a great man and mentor once told me, “You have to be okay with Masonry the way it is. Work on your own path.”
If you were taking notes, if you were having little ideas about things while hearing or reading this, I hope you stopped and wrote those down. Those are the ideas which can be tried and tested, those are the ideas which may change the future of this fraternity. To be sure, not all of the ideas you’ll conjure up are good, but some of them certainly will be. If we don’t work to make our experience better, to get ourselves in the seats, to read the books, to bring those things to the lodge, to make men better, it’s going to continue to be an empty experience both literally and figuratively. We gaze at the shadows of the great fraternity, burned into the walls with wonder. Like an archaeologist looks upon a dead language, we are reminded that while we respect the past, we cannot be a slave to what was. It’s time to work harder on what you want.