Much has been said about Masonry’s decline in membership. Before getting into it, let’s stare down this decline so we know what we are talking about. First, we have to look at the facts without any value judgments.
There is general agreement that this decline is caused by a range of different factors, but the primary ones are:
- Beginning in the 1960s, the Boomer generation did not come to Masonry as their fathers did, which effectively severed the generational link in the United States
- As a result, Gen-X and Millennials also came in reduced numbers
- Masonry’s existing population aged as time moved on
- And a combination of natural mortality rates and brothers “going dark” or going non-payment of dues (NPD) tells the rest of the tale.
Looking at the Grand Lodge changes in the US, between 2016–2017, all states lost membership (while population growth continued) with the exception only of Alabama, Utah, and Hawaii. The average GL lost 4% of its membership, and New Mexico shrank by 13%. Striking one of the most optimistic tones I can find, the Grand Lodge of California in their “The Future is Bright” annual report for 2019, they say that membership is near flat. Not actually flat, still declining, but near flat.
Is This Bad or Good?
Discussions of Masonry’s declining membership remind me of the old Rorschach inkblot test, where psychological subjects were shown what were effectively random ink blots, and asked to interpret them. The point here is that the meaning of the inkblot, or the declining membership is not objectively clear; but we might possibly learn a lot about the people running around in 2020 by looking at their reactions to the data, and how they interpret it.
Is this inkblot threatening or positive? That probably depends on who you are. And so too the same applies with the size of Masonry as a fraternity. Whether it’s bad or good depends on which lens you’re looking at the problem through, or which “radio station” you’re listening to.
There are also disagreements within Masonry on where we should put focus. Some brothers want a fraternal organization that focuses on socialization. Others want a service organization that improves the community. Others want focus on masonic education & esoterics. None feel they’re running the show, and so it will always be attractive for a group to lay declining membership at the feet of the opposition. “It’s not enough masonic education”, they’ll say. Or maybe it’s the lack of social contact, with too much focus on the minutes and paying the bills. There is much discussion in the style of Chris Hodapp’s article How the 1960s Really Killed American Freemasonry’s Future, which traced decline to the disappearance of the McGuffey Reader. In this style of discussion, social complexity is swept under the rug in favor of identifying the one thing that caused the decline; the keystone removed, so to speak.
The actual causes of the decline are many, various, and nuanced. They result from cultural shifts, generational issues, practice issues within the craft, and those are only the first three categories of causes, not the actual causes themselves, there are others. I will not pretend to give you a pat “this is what did it” answer, and I’ll resist your pat answers as well.
The actual causes of the decline are the perfect inkblot: complex enough to be seen however the viewer wishes.
Battle for the Future
The past is history, and the future is a mystery. But we can use the debate itself as a way of understanding battle for the future of Freemasonry. In that debate, a few curious things emerge:
- There is an unspoken assumption that more membership is better, and that masonry was stronger when it at its peak. Most people acknowledge that dollars and head count are not what Masonry is about, but the debate is founded over concern about it!
- Most masons fall victim to the assumption that “things used to be better”. There is no evidence for this whatsoever. The craft and life in general was always complicated and messy. If you don’t believe it just ask your secretary and spend some time reading the old minutes.
- Generational tropes (the young are lazy and uninterested) are all over the place. These tropes occur every single generation, and they’re always wrong. “This generation is different” people always say. We strike a very poor balance between “times change” and “people are people”, while we are supposed to understand that freemasonry speaks to something universal in people.
- There is no structural fix. Freemasonry is quite decentralized; with many grand lodges lacking a single overall coordinating body. Indeed within the Grand Lodges, their power over the subordinate lodges is quite limited in many important ways. This decentralization means that change must come from the bottom up in many different places and ways, because top-down change is quite simply structurally impossible.
Taken together, the future will be dominated by Freemasons who reject the errors in the first three points, and who understand that individual effort and bottom up-change (point 4) are the only thing that works. This is an emergent system, and is an organism, not an organization.
There are talkers, and there are doers. Loud voices of past masters are one thing, and practices put in place by current masters in lodges today are quite another. No matter what the nature of the debate, over the long haul, talkers will always lose out to doers.
Using this third principle, the leading indicator for where the craft is going is to look at the most active lodges in your jurisdiction, and then look at what their officer line thinks, because there you identify the doers for the next 5 years or so.
The Path Forward
The Scottish Rite has put out an excellent work called The Path Forward, which we excerpt here.
Timeless messages that resonate is a great place to start. As is the warning that these things must be real, ongoing, and genuine, and not just marketing slogans. Thinking about my experience as a candidate, all of that checks out.
The Scottish Rite also has some interesting observations on Millennials specifically, the subject of much Masonic moaning.
Deceptively Simple Answers
Ignore the problem. Do not worry in the slightest about declining membership. There is no overall structural fix anyway. It simply isn’t our job to fret about the future of the craft. Our job is to interact with our local lodges, and to make them the places we want to be. To create for ourselves the meaningful experiences that we promise others.
Collectively, this will not save the craft, because the craft doesn’t need saving. It will perpetuate the craft though in the only way that has ever worked through centuries.