In every county in Ohio, and in every State in the Union, there is one thing that is at the top priority in every Masonic Lodge. MEMBERSHIP. Almost every Lodge in the United States over the course of the last 20 to 30 years has seen the numbers on the rolls of the craft for their lodge dwindle to numbers that would have been thought unthinkable 30 years ago.
In 1984 membership in the United States was close to 3 Million. In 2014 it stands at 1.2 Million. I would say that in the next year or two, if it already hasn't, membership will fall below 1 Million masons in the united states. The Masonic Services Association didn't start keeping records until 1924, which at that time there were 3.1 Million Members. If i had to guess i would say that membership hasn't been this low since the aftermath of the Morgan Affair around the early-mid to mid 1800's.
The Grand Lodge of Ohio, which at one time was well over 250,000 members is now at around 85,000 Members over 485 -490 lodges. Our own lodge which at one time was well over 700 members is now close to what it was when it was chartered at 200 members. All this equates to one thing, less money to go around. So what happens? Everyone starts to panic. Lodges are going out and asking its members to be more proactive in bringing people in, even though your not suppose to recruit members. They start to have more public events to try to spark interest in the public. The Grand Bodies come out with programs and classes to help lodges to replenish their rolls. They try to promote a new public persona of were not a secret society but a society of philanthropic men who want nothing more than to help the community. We start providing One Day Classes to make it easier for men to join. They no longer have to wait through 5 months to a year or more to receive the 3 Degrees, they can just get them all in one day. (Now I'm not knocking one day classes entirely, they have brought in a number of Great Masons that have been Great Leaders in the Craft. I also believe that in some circumstances a one day class is a necessary way to go.) Now all of this has gone on for a number of years, (myself only being a Mason for 10 years, I'm not sure exactly how long they have gone on before me) and we still have the same continued result. LOSS OF MEMBERSHIP. So the question then is, why are we still doing what is not working? Should we even care that we are getting smaller? Is there a better way, or a different way, to look at this issue.
Now like i stated earlier, i have only been a Mason for 10 years. In those 10 years Hugh L Bates Lodge #686 has Raised 46 Members. Of those 46 about 6 are active and serve as officers, one of them, myself, just finished serving as Master. Of the rest you have about 4 -5 who will help when needed, 2 who have been past master. (one of which is no longer a member), and one who had to move to another state for work. With that being said, in my opinion, bringing 46 men into the craft over 10 years with only that retention rate means only one thing. WE ARE DOING SOMETHING WRONG. We are not doing what are Charter instructs us as a Lodge to do. We are not making Masons, we are telling men that for a fee every year they can call themselves Masons. Let me get this part clear, its not their fault, its ours.
Like I said before, we freaked out because of the loss that was happening, and were just worried about getting people in the door, and not doing what we needed to to keep them there. We stopped caring if they understood what it meant to be a Freemason. We stopped educating them in the "secrets" that we have. We stopped educating them about the history of Masonry. Most of all we stopped instilling the Pride in a man who took the journey to become a Freemason. Now in recent years through the advent of technology and Grand Lodges realizing that things needed to change once again, there has been a revival of instruction and education. I actually dropped out of the officer line about 5 or 6 years ago, because i became disinterested in Masonry, it wasn't what I had expected, it didn't fulfill the need that I thought it would. Then by luck, I discovered Masonic Podcasts. For those that don't know a podcast is like a radio program that can only be listened to from a computer or smartphone. These shows gave me what i was looking for. Funny thing is most of the guys doing these shows have only been in for at the most 15 years. They started their show for the same reasons that i became disinterested. Grand Lodges are promoting better education programs and leadership training that focuses more on the candidate and not the lodge. The younger Generation through movies and books and the internet and Facebook are starting to show an interest in the craft, and the Most important part of all, we as members are finally starting to talk to our friends and families about Masonry and show the Pride that we have for it. My only concern is, are we doing enough to keep it going, are we making enough changes that we don't repeat what we did before and start to loose our identity. I think that if we stay with the mind set of we have to have hundreds of members for our lodges to be successful, then we are missing the boat entirely.
We are in the mists of a revival and it is a great thing to witness. The only issue that i see people having though is that it is not bringing new guys to the lodge in droves like they did from the 20s through the 70s. The older members that built the lodges and kept them going are no longer able to attend and are sadly coming to the time to move to that celestial Lodge above. Result is we are still loosing members, or are we? We Brought the new members in, in the past, but were not able to retain them. As stated before in 10 years we put through 46 Men with only 6 active. Not a very good ratio at all. The last 5 though that we put through in the last 3 years, of them 4 are officers and very active, and the young man that we are currently putting through is showing the same excitement that the other 4 did. We are doing something right. we are finally teaching the candidates the way that we should, can we do better, of course we always can, but its a little step at a time.
As our membership continues to decline it seems that Masonry within the lodge is becoming richer and more meaningful to its members. One Lodge in Ohio, Arts & Sciences Lodge #792 has capitalized on this idea. They started in 2010 with the sole purpose of having a more meaningful masonic experience for everyone. Education is at the top of their priorities. Wether that be history, esoteric, symbolic, or whatever strikes their fancy for that evening. They take their time with their candidates and make sure they are well educated before they advance to the next degree. They have a healthy officer line who are willing to learn the work and take on new roles, and they also have more than half of their membership come and participate in every meeting. Oh, and did i mention they have less than 50 members.
This started me thinking about the benefits of this, and one thing stands out. FRATERNITY. with only having 25 to 50 members you would know everyone in your lodge, they wouldn't be just another dues payer. it would actually be feasible for members that are active to contact members that have maybe missed a meeting to see how they have been and if everything is ok. You would have a better fraternal bond of friendship between the members. If life happens and you miss a couple meetings and someone you actually know calls or comes to your house to check on you or to get you to come to lodge, you would feel a greater appreciation and be more willing to go because YOUR BROTHER reached out to you. Your lodge would once again be a family. This is what we are lacking in masonry, the close family aspect that we once had. Our lodge is slowly getting that back. We are slowly once again becoming a family. Our wives and girlfriends know each other, we have met each others kids and other family members. We have members volunteering to do things because they want to not because they are being forced to. Our Members are slowly starting to have Pride once agin in being a member of Hugh L. Bates Lodge. If our Membership keeps falling and we fall below 50 members, I feel as long as we keep instilling the EDUCATION and the Pride in our new candidates we will be just fine, because we will still be a close Fraternal Family.
I see this eventually happening with lodges all across the state. As the numbers keep falling, lodges will have to eventually reinvent themselves into what will work. The days of the Mega Lodges of 1500 plus members i feel are over. Eventually what i see happening in the State is that you will have more lodges than what you do now, maybe 800 to 1000 Lodges, but with each having 25 to 50 members. They will go back to the small community lodges that meet above a store or maybe even in a converted barn. The focus will return on helping men to improve themselves and actually teaching the lessons that are talked about in the degrees. You will have more community involvement because the members are apart of that community. You will have more charitable giving at the local community level where members can actually see the impact of what they have done then to State Wide Charities. Eventually i see this bringing more men into the craft, because they will have that feeling of belonging and family, and self improvement. Instead of going through the degrees and still wondering what it is all about. Now in doing this Lodges will close for not wanting to change. Lodges merge out of necessity. The next 10 years will not be a fun smooth ride. In the end though i feel we will come out of this stronger than before with a greater identity of who we are as men and as masons.
So after my long confusing rant, in conclusion i feel we all need to just take a step back, settle down for a moment, and realize that no matter how low we go in numbers and even if our Grand Lodges tumble down, we will still have Masonry. It can't die and will not die. It may change its name or look like something completely different, but one thing will always remain. You will always have men who are desirous of improving themselves for themselves, their families, and their communities, and you will always have men who are willing to help them in that journey, and at the end of the day isn't that all that Masonry is, Men helping Men to become better Men.