by Charles W. Yohe, 33rd degree
It is no secret that most North American Grand Lodges and associated Masonic bodies have experienced a substantial decline in membership for well over half a century. Could it be that Grand Lodges have inadvertently contributed to their own decline as a result of putting emphasis not on the practice of Masonic tenets, but on ritual delivery and record keeping? According to M.W. Brother Roger Van Gordon, Past Grand Master of Indiana, in the late 1860s after the Civil War, Masons came back to their homes and lodges and proceeded to put their lives back to normal. In the course of doing so, lodges (in Indiana at least) became complacent about the mundane business associated with running the lodge. Additionally, they cared very little about precision in the ritual work. Rather, the emphasis apparently was on being Masons and living Masonry.
As one would likely expect, the Grand Lodge became very concerned that the record keeping and ritual work was not being properly executed and launched a campaign that stressed care and precision in both aspects of lodge life. Over the next 150 years or so, lodge members were cajoled into closely conforming to their Grand Lodge’s ideas of how lodges should be operated. Sadly, along the way, the true tenets of Masonry were left behind and largely forgotten. Lodges forgot to live the values that are such a vital part of our institution. No longer did lodges look out for their members or widows in distress.
Says M.W. Bro. Van Gordon, “We got from the lodges what we stressed – good ritual work and good record keeping. But that was at the expense of the tenets that Freemasonry teaches and that are so vital to setting us apart from other organizations.” As I listened to what M.W. Bro. Van Gordon was relating, I couldn’t help but wonder if something similar wasn’t true in Connecticut and other jurisdictions. A perusal of our annual lodge “inspection” report reveals that our emphasis is very similar to what M.W. Bro. Van Gordon described.
“To be sure, we should all strive to present good ritual work in our lodges.”
Each of our candidates deserve nothing less than the best we can absolutely give. But more important than the words and the delivery of those words is reinforcing the meaning behind them through our own actions. Lodge and Grand Lodge officers need to constantly evaluate and ask the question “Am I truly living Freemasonry? Am I a living example of what Freemasonry teaches?” The answer many times is “No.” While the tenets of Masonry are designed to help make good men better, they, in and of themselves, do not guarantee that positive change will take place. Clearly, we each need to redirect and rededicate our efforts to improve.
In recent years, I’ve seen positive and encouraging progress toward this end. But if Freemasonry is to survive and grow, we each need to redouble our efforts. How? By doing the things that dramatically reduce the number of suspensions for non-payment of dues and requests for demits. How do we do that? It starts with accepting a prospective member’s petition. Are we doing a proper job of vetting prospective members? How does your lodge go about appointing an investigating committee? Does that committee consist of Brothers who have been properly trained and prepared to be good emissaries of the lodge but at the same time, do a proper and thorough investigation? Do they ask the right questions? Are they truthful and honest about what Masonry expects and demands from its members? Or do they ‘soft peddle’ our requirements?
“Once the investigation is complete and the petition has been balloted upon, how does the lodge follow through with the candidate?”
Is a properly trained mentor assigned to the candidate right from the start? Is there good communication with the petitioner to not only prepare him for the initiatory experience that is to come, but to begin to teach him what Masonry is all about and to show him that the Lodge truly cares about him and values his contribution to our fraternity? Does the mentor remain actively engaged with the candidate throughout the initiation process and beyond – for at least the first 18 months to two years?
Further, does your lodge show concern for the welfare of each of its members? If a Brother does not attend lodge, is there any attempt to contact him to ask why and to let him know he is missed? Is there proper concern shown for the Brother’s welfare as well as that of his family? Do the tenets of Masonry actively shine through your lodge as evidenced by its efforts to provide relief to Brothers or widows in distress?
Does your lodge have good ongoing communication with all your members – not just once a year when the annual dues notices are sent out? And if a Brother’s dues are not promptly remitted, is there a retention committee actively involved in determining why and showing genuine concern in cases of financial difficulty? The proper time for the retention committee to act is early in the year – not in October or November prior to the lodge voting to drop Brothers for nonpayment.
Is your lodge involved in making its surrounding community better through its active involvement? Does the lodge sponsor activities that can potentially benefit the community such as blood drives, organ donor sign ups, child identification events, etc.? Is there lodge support of other worthwhile endeavors within the local community? This is not to suggest that Masonry is another service organization. It is not, but as a lodge, Masons should be visible and supportive of activities that benefit and improve the community.
I am of the belief that all these things are key to reducing the losses we experience each year due to suspensions for non-payment of dues (NPD). In short, each of us must pledge and work to do a better job of living Masonry. In 2016, Connecticut Freemasonry would have experienced no net loss if only we eliminated our losses attributable to NPD suspensions. A larger concern is whether or not we met our obligation to help, aid and assist our Brothers who did not or could not pay their dues because of financial hardship. We owe it to each of our members and to Masonry to diligently seek to determine the exact reason why a Brother has not paid his dues and to assist when necessary. Many of our members, especially our older members, are too proud to admit that they can’t afford to pay their dues. It is our obligation to assure that this does not happen. In short, we need to apply the tenets of our beloved institution to the way and manner that we treat all our members.
As M.W. Bro. Van Gordon said in his presentation, Grand Lodges have placed the emphasis on the wrong things – the ritual and the record keeping – for well over 150 years. It will take time to correct the course and get the emphasis where it belongs. It starts with you and with me. Let’s begin today. I suggest that a good place to start is in contacting those recently dropped for NPD. Conduct an “exit” interview to determine why they have chosen this path and endeavor to restore them as members.
“Going forward, resolve to emphasize the practice of Masonry – in your lodge and in your everyday life.”
The Northern Masonic Jurisdiction has provided an excellent model for the concern that every Grand Jurisdiction should be exhibiting toward its members. In Connecticut, I am encouraged by the number of Lodges that are holding multiple “Masonic Days of Caring” during which they reach out to Brothers and widows by completing necessary maintenance and supportive tasks to make life just a little bit better for all. If we emphasize and encourage lodges to put our tenets and teachings into action and live Masonry, I am convinced we can reverse the declining membership trend. Remember “If you’re not part of the solution, you are definitely part of the problem.”
III. Charles W. Yohe, 33rd degree is Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge at Connecticut and director of communication.