Suppose, for the sake of argument that it takes 2 full-time people worth of work to conduct all of the business of your average Masonic lodge. In order to keep an entity such a lodge in operation, it has some basic overhead, separate and apart from the fundamental work of Freemasonry.
What does that work consist of?
- Administrative – bills, building, supplies, trestle board, stated communications
- Membership – petitions, votes, investigations, dues cards, sick & distressed
- Financial – dues, budgets, reports
- Programs – charity drives, volunteer campaigns, etc.
These things are the basic work of having and running a Masonic lodge, but we have not yet gotten to the essence of what Freemasonry is or is supposed to do. Whatever your perspective on the “true meaning of Freemasonry” it probably only starts after this work is complete.
Who does the Work?
Now suppose the lodge has 100 active members. You can see that the work burden (2 people full time) is tiny (2%) and easily shared. Many hands make light work. It will always be the case that some step up and do more than others, and yet a lot of work can be farmed out to brothers who will assist.
Is that really how it goes?
Fast forward to 2021. The work hasn’t shrunk. What is expected of a lodge hasn’t changed. But the active membership roster has. I know of many Masonic lodges who might have 12 reliably attending brothers, with say 6 who are the true core doing most of the administrative work.
With fewer active members the burden is now clearly both necessary and crushing. We will have a tendency with low levels of active membership to burn out members with thankless administrative tasks. If you don’t believe me, ask your friendly neighborhood lodge secretary.
If many hands make light work, few hands make heavy work.
Freemasonry of 2021 is derived from “Big Masonry” of the 1950s that enjoyed huge membership roles, and in that context, could afford for itself grand buildings, large-scale charity projects, and many appendant bodies; each adding to the administrative overhead of the institution itself. To be clear: this administrative overhead was not a problem, because at 3 million plus masons, many hands make light work.
The same levels of administrative overhead are untenable with an organization less than a third the size. Operating a charitable foundation a building, and a set of programs is an appropriate task for a large organization, and it is not a wise task for a small group of friends. Increasingly, lodges resemble the latter, not the former.
This is not an unfocused gripe that Masonic lodges in the USA need to put some tasks down, this is a direct prediction that they will, because the level of work is unsustainable for an all-volunteer force.
The decision is not how to maintain the current level of Masonic infrastructure, the decision is how best to consolidate & shrink it. This can be done in a planned & strategic way, or it can be done in an ad hoc and disorderly way by simply letting lodges fade away or have shotgun marriages arranged with the situation becomes dire and the options are few. Without early consolidation, the effects are more pronounced. Masons get “scattered” into a situation you may have seen in your area where you might find 8 unhealthy lodges instead of 2-3 larger, healthier ones. What an amount of overhead to carry to the detriment of the membership of those lodges.
Possible Solution Approaches
Because Freemasonry is decentralized in its structure, no single solution can be chosen. There are a variety of different paths which will most likely all happen in different jurisdictions in parallel:
- Natural decay. The easiest solution is no solution at all. This manifests in terms of lodges that lose gravity, and eventually either do a shotgun wedding consolidation, or are forced to fold and turn in their charters
- Facilitated Matchmaking. One strategy might be to proactively arrange consolidation relationships in advance of when they are needed. The positive opportunity: 2 marginal lodges consolidate into 1 strong one, the administrative overhead is cut in half, and a healthy lodge remains
- Rules Relaxation. Alternatively, you could keep the lodges as they are, but relax requirements or otherwise broaden what is thought of as a blue lodge. Is it strictly necessary to have stated communications with bills / minutes / financials every month? Does each lodge need a fixed meeting location or can its location move about? The trick here is to find the right balance that avoids throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
If all three of those options look uncomfortable, difficult, and problematic: you’re right, and best I can tell this is 2021. The important thing to bear in mind is that not deciding, or delaying, is a positive endorsement of the default option 1.