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Two Trajectories For American Freemasonry: Consolidation Or Implosion

Brother Kennedy has been taking some undue flack lately for posting that Freemasonry is dying without posting much in the way of solutions. Masonic author of this site, Tim Bryce, writes, “You cannot treat a patient unless he knows he is sick.” So Kennedy’s first step was to let you know how bad the situation is. Now he follows that up with answers to what can we do?

Bro. Lance Kennedy

Two Trajectories For American Freemasonry: Consolidation Or Implosion

By
Brother Lance Kennedy

Once upon a time, there were two cities. One city was called Detroit and the other Pittsburgh. Both cities experienced untold prosperity during the first half of the twentieth century. Detroit became the nation’s automotive manufacturing hub while Pittsburgh was “Steel City,” America’s forge. For decades the two cities prospered, but in the late-1960s the global economy changed, and the cities and their region, the Steel Belt, began a rapid decline.

The Steel Belt became the Rust Belt as its population dwindled and economy dried up. Detroit lost over 56 percent of its population between 1970 and 2016 while Pittsburgh lost 42 percent during the same period. The two cities were dying, that is declining at a rapid pace that left unabated would result in total ruin. Their citizenries wondered what could be done to reverse the trend. One city chose one path, while the other chose another, and the results tell the tale of their respective implosion and redemption.

I promise to return to this tale, but in the meantime, I ask your leave to venture back into our ongoing discussion regarding the decline of Freemasonry.

...any organization that is struggling with its identity, losing members, and bleeding revenue must immediately focus on excelling at its most basic function

I am writing this article on the heels of my recent piece entitled “Freemasonry is Dying.” In the first week after being released the article received over 20,000 individual views and hundreds of shares across Facebook and other social media platforms. I am humbled by the numerous messages sent to me from like-minded brothers from around the world. I wish to thank every brother who read the article and helped begin a conversation about what must be done to reverse our downward trajectory.

More than a few brothers replied to my analysis one way or another, many writing articles of their own, which I applaud. Some agreed with my contention that “Freemasonry is dying,” while others argued that the Craft will hit an equilibrium and level off in terms of absolute membership, so there is really no need to fret. Still others claim that I am incorrect in my assertion that the Craft may be on a terminal decline and in fact, we have already hit our nadir.

I find it hard to argue that an institution that has lost 75 percent of its membership in fifty-nine years is not dying, but others may disagree. In 2044 there might be a handful of Masons left, but I would not consider the Fraternity to be really living, but rather walking dead. After all, there are numerous historic examples of mystery traditions that thrived for a period then disappeared without a trace, two examples being the Eleusinian Mysteries and the cult of Mithras. Why think Freemasonry is immune from their fate?

Now that the dust is settled, voices have calmed, and passion subsided, I wish to clarify what I wish to achieve by writing my last article as well as address the two trajectories before us as a Fraternity, one of intentional consolidation and another of haphazard implosion.

My clarion call that “Freemasonry is dying” was intended to shake the reader to his core with the raw data gleaned from the Masonic Service Association of North America’s (MSANA) database. The MSANA’s data, comprised of roughly three-thousand data points, show a steep decline in our membership since our numerical apogee in 1959. Not only has the absolute number of Mason’s declined, but the percentage of the population claiming Masonic membership has declined as well.

While I warn of the dangers of our shrinking membership, I have also been blunt about my aspirations for a smaller, more elite Craft that has shed itself of the excesses of the post-World War I and World War II eras (see “10 Propositions for Texas Freemasonry”). This seeming contradiction is not one in the slightest. I am not concerned that there are fewer Masons today than in 1959 or any time for that matter. My concern lies with the fact that we are attempting to hold together an aging infrastructure with fewer and fewer men, and wasting our time and treasure in the process.

As our numbers decline, which will continue to do so for the next decade or more, we must come to terms with the fact that an organization built to function with over four million Masons cannot do so with less than one million men. Not only an organization that requires many men to operate, but one that has largely refused to recalculate its pricing and overhead since the mid-twentieth century.

We cannot maintain the infrastructure of 1959 in 2018 let alone in 2030. We certainly cannot do so with dues based on incomes from the 1960s (e.g. $120 per year) and endowments (i.e. lifetime memberships) priced in the $500 to $1000 range.

Now that I have smashed my data-encrusted sledgehammer over your head, and the heads of tens of thousands of other readers, I want to impart my honest conviction that the way to Masonic deliverance is by rapid and intentional consolidation.

As promised at the onset of this article, and since I am a man of my word, I will return to the tale of the two cities called Detroit and Pittsburgh, which holds important lessons for our fair institution.

In 2013 New York Times columnist Paul Krugman asked the following question in an article titled “A Tale of Two Rust-Belt Cities”: “[I]s the crisis in Detroit simply a function of the industrial decline of the U.S. heartland, or is it about internal developments within the metro area that have produced a uniquely bad outcome?”

The author states that both Detroit and Pittsburgh possessed “iconic monolithic” economies and both cities’ metropolitan areas experienced comparable declines in their labor markets from 1970 to 1990. From 1990 to as late as 2006, “the eve of the Great Recession — you could argue that there wasn’t a whole lot of difference in aggregate performance between greater Pittsburgh and greater Detroit.” However, after 2006, Detroit’s economy plummeted while Pittsburgh weathered the storm.

Krugman concludes his column with the following statement, “It’s hard to avoid the sense that greater Pittsburgh, by taking better care of its core, also improved its ability to adapt to changing circumstances… If you like, sprawl killed Detroit, by depriving it of the kind of environment that could incubate new sources of prosperity.”

A study released by the Brookings Institute in 2013 substantiates Krugman’s thesis. Greater Detroit topped the list of metro areas with the most decentralized, that is sprawling, labor forces. In 2013, only 7.3 percent of greater Detroit’s non-farm workers were within 3 miles of its central business district (CBD), while 77.4 percent of its workers were over 10 miles from its core. In comparison, 25.2 percent of Pittsburgh’s workers were within 3 miles of its CBD while 45.2 percent were over 10 miles away.

“Now, Lance,” you may ask, “what about other sprawling cities like Dallas or Los Angeles? They haven’t seen the same decline as Detroit.” You are correct, however, unlike Dallas or Los Angeles, Detroit was hemorrhaging people as it sprawled. To quote one writer, “[Detroit] was drawing existing residents from the center to the periphery. Homes in the central city were abandoned — and the tax revenues that came from those households evaporated. Detroit, unlike some of its wealthy suburbs in Oakland County, only saw one side of this migration — the losing side. And it was poorly equipped to deal with the fallout.”

What I glean from these articles is that after a period of long-term decline sets in, or rather the beginning stages of death, which we call dying, a city or an organization is left with the paths of Detroit or Pittsburgh. We can choose to be like Detroit and attempt to maintain a sprawling edifice, figurative or literal, while simultaneously experiencing a shortage of revenue. The alternative is to follow the path of Pittsburgh and take care of our core at the expense of the periphery. In short, any organization that is struggling with its identity, losing members, and bleeding revenue must immediately focus on excelling at its most basic function. In Masonic terms, the initiatic process, or rather, making Masons.

What I will now prescribe is the bitter pills of truth that so many refuse to swallow:

  1. We must accept the fact that Freemasonry is in extremely unhealthy condition, losing membership at a rapid pace, and attempting to maintain an infrastructure designed for a much larger membership base. In other words, accept that we are dying, though we are not yet dead. Any attempt to soften this conclusion is a practice in euphemism.
  2. We must make the difficult decision to cut off and remove recognition from any and all organizations that do not make Masons or support the initiatic experience, namely the Order of the Eastern Star, DeMolay, Rainbow Girls, and the like. These institutions must stand or fall on their own merit. Other appendant bodies must be evaluated on an individual basis.
  3. We must consolidate lodges in areas experiencing rapid decline. Such consolidation must occur in urban as well as rural counties. Most counties need only one lodge. In most areas multiple adjacent lodges saturate the market and create negative competition for fewer and fewer initiates.
  4. We must sell off buildings requiring millions of dollars to repair, especially those that are used once or twice a year, and when used are filled at half-capacity. For example, if a Grand Lodge’s building is in disrepair and requires $18,000,000 to restore, the Grand Lodge should make the determination that the building is a liability on its balance sheet and cut its losses. The Grand Lodge could purchase a smaller structure for its administrative uses and rent a hotel and conference center for its communications.
  5. We must demand that our constituent lodges meet certain minimum standards of dress, ritual, and general decorum. Our populations are increasingly professional and urban. They demand a certain level of formality and rigor. For example, Texas’ population is roughly 85 percent urban and 15 percent rural. It is essential that we meet the needs of the areas where we can see the greatest potential growth.
  6. Finally, we must understand the needs of the men of Generation Z. So much focus has been placed on what Millennials want, and rightly so, since they are the largest generation in the United States. However, the oldest members of Generation Z are now eighteen years old and are now eligible for membership in our Fraternity. After hundreds of conversations with young Masons, my guess is that the next crop of initiates will want similar things out of the Fraternity as Millennial men, namely the mysteries delivered in a formal, mystical, and demanding manner.

Our Fraternity may be dying because of external factors, but our condition was clearly exacerbated by internal ones. While we may be dying, we are not yet dead, and there is a way out of our present malaise. The way is to follow the example of the City of Pittsburgh by acknowledging our decline, consolidating down to our most basic core, and doing our most simple functions extremely well. The alternative is to be the fraternal version of Detroit, sprawling, mismanaged, constantly experiencing budget shortfalls, and failing to deliver the most basic services.

We have two paths before us. Which shall be choose? I echo what Dickens wrote in his A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

Fred Milliken: Fred is a Past Master of Plymouth Lodge, Plymouth Massachusetts, and Past Master of Paul Revere Lodge, Brockton, Massachusetts. Presently, he is a member of Pride of Mt. Pisgah No. 135, Prince Hall Texas, where is he is also a Prince Hall Knight Templar . Fred is a Fellow of the Phylaxis Society and Executive Director of the Phoenix Masonry website and museum.

View Comments (7)

  • Very interesting article. I believe the main reason Freemasonry is dying (at least in NY) is because almost no one in Freemasonry knows anything about Freemasonry. They are too busy with cigar nights, axe throwing nights (I am not kidding. This actually happened), official Grand Lodge Superbowl Parties, ladies nights, DD visits, etc. Its as if we are trying to compete with with local bar now. We've substituted ritual and education with "fun" and "good times". All these things are a waste of time and bore Brothers to death. Nobody focuses on the Craft and its ritual anymore. Those that do are far and few between. And the new Brothers that come in leave within 18 months because they dont get what thet came for, Freemasonry and its allegories. Its very sad.

  • My brother, I fall into the category of men who do not believe that freemasonry is dying, and that we've likely reached (or nearly reached) our lowest level. That said, I agree with most of your rejuvenation thoughts. Too many Masters have been told "make it better, but don't change anything". Because our member levels peaked in the 50s, we decided that we had it figured out then and it's been slipping away ever since. Unfortunately, the world changes, as do the men within it. We need to stay true to our roots, honor our history and traditions, but also change to make Masonry connect with the members of today. Appealing to their fathers and grandfather's tastes lasts only as long as they yearn for the nostalgia of it. It's time for the new generation to create a vision of their own, and as they make progress in developing it, their brethren will flock to their aide.
    Everyone wants to be on a winning team, and so we need to show even the slightest progress and they'll be inspired to make a piece of that their own. As long as we talk about how freemasonry is on a slow burn to irrelevance, we might as well tell every new brother that any effort he puts in is in vain.

  • Interesting article. Two months ago, I became an EA. I am working on my proficiency toward Fellowcraft, but finding the whole experience disappointing. I cannot attend Stated Meetings, a Lodge of Instruction, ride motorcycle with MM cycle groups, or attend anything with other lodges. So, how do you keep new Masons involved with lodge activity and learn from MM?

  • I concur with Bro Kennedy. I am a retired auto mfg, Chrysler Corp wwith 30 yrs, 25 in Detroit corp offices, before, during and after Iacacco. I have been M.M., M.R.S. and Noble for 22 years. Our 13 local lodges sit in the population centers of 1955, which in turn have morphed from middle class areas to substantially less. I soon discovered that, Masonically speaking, a new idea was soundly rejected redardless of the subject. In Lodge ritual practice was/is foremost, education virtually nonexistant. As a student of organizational structure and practices I state the current business model is a failure. The selection of Master has nothing to do with leadership ability. Should a superior leader emerge his light will but flicker for but a mere year. We need to bring successful business practices to fore including marketing. Otherwise there is no growth. Frankly I doubt if our future is even dim.

  • While I agree that there is certainly a problem with a dramatic loss in membership, I disagree as to the causes and the simple “this or that” projection based on those false assumptions.
    I’m a member of Generation X, and have been involved in Freemasonry for going on 8 years. Before Freemasonry I was involved in the Jaycees and Lions Club, and saw the same dramatic loss in membership in both of those organizations. From a purely demographic point of view this makes perfect sense as the Baby Boomers that were the largest Generation have been dying off in increasingly large numbers, while followed by the smallest (numerically speaking) Generation with X and the only slightly larger Y. Freemasonry has the added problem of members in the “Greatest Generation” not discussing or making any effort to pass the lessons of the Craft down to their sons.
    On an individual basis it makes sense for each Lodge and Jurisdiction to do a hard self-evaluation and excise any infrastructure that is dragging the overall Lodge and Grand Lodge down, but attempting to make sweeping statements regarding appendant bodies is reckless arrogance. The relationship between Martha’s Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star and Anoka Masonic Lodge #30, AF&AM is very strong and mutually beneficial both for membership and financially. Our daughters in Job’s Daughters Bethel 48 easily support themselves and require only a space to meet and one Master Mason to act as Associate Bethel Guardian from the Lodge. Our DeMolay Chapter is also self-sufficient and has provided our Lodge with 3 excellent and dedicated Master Masons in the last two years, needing only a meeting place and one Master Mason to serve as Advisory Committee Chairman.
    Anoka Lodge has been a Gold Level Lodge for the last 3 years and has raised and retained more Master Masons than any two other Lodges in our jurisdiction combined. We have the first two York Rite bodies meet here, and an active Grotto.
    How are we successful?
    Well, here is where I start to agree with you.
    1. We take pride in our ritual. We call it the “Anoka Standard” that we hold all the bodies that meet in this building to. If you are sloppy, you don’t get to stay.
    2. Dues cards or a Tyler’s test must be presented or passed at every meeting.
    3. While a dress code (jacket and tie, tuxedo for officers) is strongly encouraged, we welcome our more rural brethren if they aren’t able to come as such. More often than not the welcome encourages them to return but the peer pressure of being the only one not in a jacket and tie will convince them to go the extra mile and pack a suit that can be changed in to.
    4. Proper decorum at all times. You must be wearing an apron before entering the Lodge room - even before the meeting starts. No speaking during voting, period. The Master can and does rap anyone down that he feels is getting the meeting off track. No crossing the floor between the altar and the Master’s Chair. Other basic Masonic rules of decorum.
    5. We genuinely like each other and meet outside of Lodge.
    6. We travel to other Lodges as part of the Travelling Man program and spread goodwill and fellowship around the State and surrounding States.
    7. We demonstrate and teach other Lodges how to be successful and be active in their community. It gives an added purpose to be able to say at the end of the year “we grew by 7 members, took care of our widows, installed an air conditioner in a Lodge building nearly 100 years old, and still donated over $25,000 to local charities.

    While in some cases drastic measures may be necessary, don’t rush to toss out the baby with the bath water when trying to “fix” the problems of the fraternity. Oftentimes what it takes is simple hard work.

  • I appreciate some of what you say about the need for change. The point made about demographics is a very good one though. Cast a wide but discerning net and you never know what you might learn. There is greater potential in later generations (I am a GenXer) than before us. My belief is that mine and earlier generations need to support them, and this will mean change.

    However, some of that change may require a loosening of forms without losening of spirit. I must disagree with the brother who beleives that formality is of particular interest to the younger generations. I would also humbly make request to consider the role of gender and women in the organization. If we are all Brothers and Sisters, then why must such sizable numbers of us face restriction?

  • I've always felt combining PHA with non-PHA lodges. As much tradition as PHA has, no one person is bigger than the fraternity and therefore PHA could be an appendant body or additional degree maybe. Or if that wouldn't work and some people felt PH's tradition is so important thwn make all lodges PHA lodges. At the end of the day, we have to get all brethren in the same lodges and drop the Jim Crow stuff. This is virtually an American issue and nowhere else (as prevalent).

    Another point would be to consolidate more. Have only one or two BLs in a metro area causing there to be more members pooling their dues into something nice hence presenting a more proper lodge experience. Change bilaws stating you had to have at least 100 members to start a lodge, (in case lodges got too big) not 10 or whatever most GLs say.

    Something has to change or mpst of us under the age of 40 wont be having a Masonic funeral.

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