As all masons are acutely aware, membership throughout the masonic organization has been declining for some time. Blue lodges are closing or consolidating with other area lodges, Scottish Rite valleys are selling their large buildings and moving to much smaller buildings or are going mobile by conducting meetings in area blue lodges or hotels and event venues. The York Rite and even the much heralded Shrine temples are downsizing as well.
My own lodge once boosted a membership of over 400 members. Today membership rests just under half that number and is declining by 5 members per year on average. Estimates show my lodge will cease to be financially viable by 2030 if not sooner. The state Grand Lodge as a whole is declining by 1200 members per year and will cease to be financially viable by 2050 if not sooner. Since the year 2000, nearly 20 lodges have either closed or consolidated with other lodges, due to declining membership.
To date, no one at the local, state or national level has presented any real solutions, ideas or plans to resolve the issue or at least curb the tide of the accelerating membership decline. The few solutions that have been proposed tend to only deal with current membership retention rather than a solution or even recognition and acceptance of the problem.
However, this problem is not unique to masonry. All membership based organizations, from churches, sports leagues, scouting, professional associations, labor unions, chambers of commerce and other civic groups are all experiencing accelerating membership declines with numbers of new members not keeping pace with aging memberships and a general lack of relevancy in todays ever increasing time starved lifestyles.
Long time lodge members constantly complain about how the new members are not attending lodge regularly, participating in degree work and their overall lack of involvement. They gripe about how the members of the current generation lack the same sence of duty and responsibility to the lodge that they had.
In short, time is running out and the best time to fix a problem is before it becomes an emergency. We need to accept the realities of the needs and interests of today’s generations and those to follow. If we don’t meet their needs, someone else will. “Educating” them on our causes will not work. As much we may disagree, they are not concerned about our causes. They are only concerned with what will benefit them and how they can make an impact that they view as beneficial to the causes they support and care about.
They are not interested in joining an organization because it is the right thing to do. Their primary motivators are benefits for themselves and the community. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves and want to make a difference in world and have a personal impact on it. Nothing is more important to them than their family, friends, and the social network they have developed due to similar interests. Given the opportunity, they will choose to spend their precious time within their network than in ours. Any organization that attempts to separate the man from his family, his community or his social sphere and does not engage with the man in those environments and activities will be met with resistance, complacency and will soon have no place in their world. They have little interest in spending hours away from their family and their other interests to pursue learning rituals, lectures, degree work or even our traditional fundraisers.
Faced with this dilemma, we have we have only two options.
Adapt or die.
Our only option is to embrace this changing environment as an opportunity and not view it as an obstacle to be beaten back so we can return to the good ole days.
Faced with this opportunity, how should we best advance into this new era and connect with new potential members? How do we reach them when they are ready to explore new opportunities to better serve their community and expand their network?
1. Embrace technology
This is a generation that gets the news from Facebook and Twitter. They watch Netflix and YouTube instead of television. They do not have a newspaper subscription and have no home phone. They use their smart phones to connect with the world and have never used a phone book or even written a check. They do their banking online. They order pizza and pay for it over the internet all while tracking its delivery in real time. This is a connected generation that expects information to be available when they want it. They refuse to be tied to a specific place and device to consume knowledge and information. They connect to their social network within minutes of waking and remain connected until minutes before retiring in the evening.
2. Improve communications
We need be more connected to our members and our communities with information of value, using whatever communication technology is available. We need to connect often and more transparently. This generation is use to getting their news from the internet. They discover new activities and events on the internet. They connect and share ideas with others using internet based communications. If we are not where our customers are, we will not reach them.
3. Engage the membership
I once heard a wise past grand master say, “the problem with young masons is they are always wanting to do stuff”.
That axiom could not be more true of today’s generation. Today’s crop of younger masons and potential members are more socially active in different ways than generations past. They crave relevance and meaning all while staying active and ever changing. We need to find ways to engage new members with their entire families and their friends in meaningful activities and bring everyone together as a community, not just a group of men working to bring in other men into our never ending circle of lodge degrees and stated meetings.
We need to segment our membership into groups and tailor our vast offerings to those different segments in ways that best suits that group.
4. Rethink everything
From our initial contact with a new candidate to their raising, we need to rethink our processes and find new and exciting ways to make the experience of the masonic initiation more rewarding and meaningful. A newly raised master mason should not be left to their own initiative to seek ways to be more involved in the lodge, engaged with the membership and active in the community. We need to be sure new members, their families and their friends find our lodges to be not only inviting, but also beneficial in their lives…spiritually, intellectually, and socially.
We do not have much time left before our ship takes on more water than we can successfully bail out. With the accelerating pace of decline, the time to act is now. We need to start embracing, communicating, engaging and rethinking at the local, district, state and national level.
I have heard many respected members convey the notion they would rather focus on quality than quantity and I couldn’t agree more. However, they fail to recognize the basic laws of nature, economics, and statistics and that without sufficient quantity, there will be no pool of quality individuals from which to develop the next generation of masonic leaders.
The institution of masonry has faced challenges in the past with declining membership and was forced to fundamentally transform in order to survive.
We are facing another such event horizon. I think we would be well advised to embrace this opportunity to guide its transformation into a better, stronger and more inclusive fraternity that we can all be proud to call our own.
In the end, it ultimately remains our decision to evolve and progress or to ignore and stay the course. Either way, the status quo will not hold and our beloved fraternity will be transformed.
We can only hope that our actions will create an organization that is thriving in future years rather than one that our children read about in the history books as the great fraternity that once was.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.