Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Nine Lives of a Masonic Lodge

The internet tells me that a guy named Erik Erikson came up with a theory about eight stages of psychosocial development. Since eight is close to nine, I figured I would use his well thought out stages as the starting point for a talk about the nine lives of a Lodge. My legal team advises me that for the record, I should state that this is more of an homage than any sort of plagiarism. And since I added a stage, I’m already far more creative than Erik Erikson’s parents were when they named him. Legal asked me to take that last sentence out. I told them no.

Infancy, or We have a Warrant, now what? Standard Lodge No. 3579 (totally fake name) is now a constituted to work as a Subordinate Lodge. There is much to be done, but with hardly a dollar in the bank, they can’t do much more than gurgle, coo, and put their toes in their mouths. Fortunately they have a lot of siblings in the District who will help.

Early Childhood, or Let’s get growing. Standard is meeting in another Lodge’s building for now, but they are excited. The officers and members attack every problem in front of them as soon as it arises. They meet a couple of nights a week to coordinate fund raisers, pick regalia and supplies, and plan for the future. It is interesting to note that there is no distinction here between Officer and Member involvement. A large percentage of each shows up to lend a hand at every event.

Preschool, or Time to make friends. Standard is now meeting four or five nights each month to confer degrees. They have nearly doubled in size since they were given their Warrant. Outside of Lodge, the members are eager to talk of their Masonic involvement, and the joys of creating something all their own; consequently, their friends enquire about joining. The world is theirs for the taking.

School Age, or There sure is a lot to learn. At this stage, learning is fun, though. The Trustees now actually have money to invest, and they are able to generate some income. They ask their sibling Lodges for advice, and more importantly, they are willing to listen to it. The Lodge has just a few Past Masters, and they are still willing to help when called on.

Adolescence, or I need my own space. Standard is now thriving. They love their siblings, but sharing a room is becoming more challenging. They have made some great investments and the excited and active membership is willing to donate money, time, and energy to construct their own Lodge building. For most Lodges, this is the longest life stage. It can last 20 years or it can last 150 years. As long as the members work in harmony with each other, the Lodge can stay right here and prosper. If discord begins to develop and is left untreated, though, the Lodge will enter the next phase.

Young Adulthood, or You’re not the boss of me. The Lodge enters this phase when one of two things happens: either the new officers do not feel that they are being allowed to govern the way they choose, or the Past Masters feel that they are being marginalized. It is not difficult to see both sides of this argument, and many of us have worn both sets of those shoes at some point in our Masonic career. Once interpersonal problems begin, members will begin to choose sides. If these problems aren’t addressed, the Lodge will begin to fracture. If Standard’s up and coming officers survive the Young Adulthood phase, they will, with some luck, be able to return to the glory days of adolescence.
We have all fantasized about getting to relive our youth, and if Standard is smart, it can learn from its early mistakes and begin to live in harmony again. If not, things will get a lot worse.

Middle Age, or Kids these days. If they do not learn from their mistakes, more and more Past Masters will have to step up to fill chairs and do the work that they thought they had retired from. They love the Lodge too much to watch it fall apart so they do what they must to get by. If those who are tasked to repeat offices or fill chairs do it with a terrible attitude, complaining about the new members not pulling their weight, the situation will worsen quickly. No man has ever chosen to be a Mason so he can sit in a room and listen to people complain, and if that’s what he hears, he won’t do much more than attend sporadically.

Old Age, or Hey you brats, get off of my lawn. Standard is now being run almost entirely by Past Masters. Outside of the Officers, few people even attend Lodge. Money may not be an issue, but vigor certainly is – their pulse is thready at best. A few new Masons join, but they are quickly disillusioned by the lack of energy and opportunity that awaits them and consequently do not get involved.

Death, or I can’t be sick; I feel fine. Standard failed to heed the warning signs, and now it has to make the difficult decision to merge. There really is no reason to expound upon this; we have all seen it and know how sad and ugly it can be.

Where is your Lodge? Are you worried? Don’t be. The good news is that, no matter which of the first eight stages your Lodge finds itself in, the aging process can be reversed. It may not be easy, but until death, no Lodge is terminal.

It may will take effort, time and money, but it can be turned around. If your Lodge has trouble finding officers, identify a few who have run the Lodge well in the past. They should have energy, a positive attitude and willingness to serve again. Ask them to serve in succession, maybe even multiple terms if they are willing, and to develop a long range plan.

Make your Lodge a place that people want to visit. If it looks the same as it did fifty years ago, perhaps that’s why the younger members aren’t coming out. Paint, furniture and wi-fi don’t cost that much, but they send the signal that the Lodge is looking toward the future and not living in the past. That is the message that you want new Members to take home.

Finally, give your Brothers a reason to come. Great programs are essential to Lodge success. Entertaining programs can sometimes cost money. So spend it. Have a nice meal, invite the families, and pay a good speaker. Advertise it with a separate flyer – printed in color (gasp!) – in the monthly notice. Make the Brethren want to come out.

So is your Lodge going to be nimble, vibrant and young at heart or is it going to sit in its rocking chair and complain about how candy bars used to cost a nickel and were twice as big as they are now? The choice is yours.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Seven Deadly Cynics

I can be cynical sometimes. My guess is that none of you who knows me personally just gasped at that revelation. In my own defense, my cynicism is born from the fact that it can sometimes make people laugh, and I enjoy making people laugh. Again, no one gasped. The problem is that just as a good attitude can be contagious, so can a bad one.

In a Masonic context, cynicism wears many faces, and the damage that it causes can range from something as seemingly harmless as depleting the energy and excitement of the members to the total destruction of the Lodge. There are several different kinds of cynics that you are likely to spot in your Masonic travels. I’m sure there are far more than seven, but I stopped there so I could make use of clever wordplay in the title of this column. (Remember, I like to be funny sometimes.) I will not try to explain what motivates each of these cynics; I will leave that to the psychologists. I will, however, try to offer ways to combat those attitudes

It will never work. The Brother who comes to the meetings with a litany of reasons why we should keep doing things just like we have is usually the first to remind you of how crowded the Lodge used to be, how busy they were conferring degrees or how much time and money they spent building the Lodge that you’re sitting in. What he forgets is that there used to be quality programs and frequent social events, even church visits in regalia. He also forgets that, at the time, his building, which was state of the art, and quite likely looks exactly - and I mean in a right-down-to-the-bright-orange-60s-modern-furniture-in-the-lobby kind of exactly – like it does now.

How do you fix it? Make it work. Have a family movie night complete with popcorn and pizza. Have a ladies' night with entertainment just for them while the meeting is taking place. As for the building, update the fixtures, furniture and carpet. Most of your Lodges can afford to do some or all of that. It’s amazing what a few changes to the building can do to the attitudes of the members.

Men join here just to get a ring. Also, men join here just so they can join the Shrine. Ask yourself if you’re giving them reasons to come back. What does Shrine do that we do not? While fun is part of their creed, it is not forbidden in ours.

We need to do something new, but we can’t get rid of that. Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – applies here. It is disturbing to talk to an incoming Master and hear that he has trouble bringing members out to Lodge, only to see his programs are an exact copy of the last three years. Things that don’t work should go away. We change light bulbs when they burn out. Why don’t we change Lodge programs when they do?

What’s the point? No one comes to Lodge anymore. Do we give them a reason to? If the only event listed on your Lodge notice is The Exemplification of the Examination of a Visitor, why would they bother? I would venture that, given the choice, many Masons would rather stay at home and watch a Real Housewives of Atlanta marathon than see the proper way to examine a visitor for the twentieth time. Give people a reason to come to Lodge. Don’t let that be the only draw, because quite frankly, it is not a draw. Schedule something afterward that has a broad appeal and invite their families so they don’t have to spend a night away.

 I already served as Master. It is time for someone else to step forward. We owe a great deal to those who have served before us, but as a Past Master, you must remember that the right to have the initials PM after your name comes with the implied responsibility to continue to serve when called upon. If you are tired of filling chairs, help the younger elected officers find a way to replace you. That may mean you need to pick up the phone and call someone. Just do it.

I’d like to step forward, but no one wants to give up their job. Ironically, I have heard this and the preceding complaint in the same Lodge during the same year.

Communicate. There can be a perception among new members, anxious to get involved, that they are unwelcome. If the new member, a chef by profession, can’t cook at the pancake breakfast because Bob has always done that, we are failing to use our assets wisely. Bob may be relieved that he can finally sleep in on a Saturday, and his new role as Mentor may give him renewed energy.

Who cares? We are nothing more than a social club. Most of you who have read my blog even a few times before know exactly how I feel about this. The fact that you are reading it right now indicates to me that you don’t agree with that either. I believe that the Brother who says that is voicing his frustration that our numbers have dwindled and that today’s Masonry isn’t what he fondly remembers from forty years ago, rather than the conviction that we have nothing to offer today’s man.

In all these examples, the underlying theme is fear of change. Glaciers change more quickly than Masons. We need to learn to be more fluid. When flowing water encounters a rock, it doesn’t stop and weep over the obstruction. It finds a way around. When you meet a cynic, you must do the same. Ask for his input. See what he would do. When he tells you, smile and thank him for volunteering to spearhead it.

If any of those descriptions reminded you of yourself, pledge to change your attitude. Pledge to change your Lodge. We can reach our full potential when we all work together.

If I were truly a cynic, I would conclude by saying, “Thank you for your time, though I doubt you were even paying attention.” I’m not a cynic though. I refuse to believe that our best days are behind us. Each of you is a Mason because you chose to be. You have a gift that Freemasonry can use. Offer it. Offer it and help us prove the cynics wrong.

We both know they are.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Five Points on Fellowship

There is a destiny that makes us brothers;
None goes his way alone:
All that we send into the lives of others
Comes back into our own. ~ Edwin Markham

As Masons, we are doubtless familiar with the five points of fellowship, which serve as reminders of the duties we owe to our Brethren. That is not, however, what I want to talk to you about tonight. Instead, I want to highlight five points on fellowship in the hopes of enhancing our interpersonal experiences within the Craft.

First, fellowship needs common ground. Luckily, Freemasonry provides that through the shared experience of initiation. We all came to the outer door, humbly sought entry, and our admission to this inner sanctum was the first acknowledgement that we were part of a new family. That first step that you took across the threshold also served as the first step in beginning a new friendship.

Next, fellowship needs honesty – not a yes-that-dress-makes-you-look-fat kind of brutal honesty – but a commitment to being your true self in front of your Brethren. Look at the man to your right and the man to your left. It is safe to say that either’s life has not been without a struggle. Maybe one has trouble with his job. Maybe the other doesn’t feel he is being the best father or husband. Whatever his demon, you can be sure he is fighting it in much the same way you are fighting yours. When we greet each other on the level, and without pretense of perfection, we begin to build the framework of deep friendship.

If honesty is important to good fellowship, then it is essential that we do not judge. More simply, fellowship needs blinders. Does that mean that we are to drive the get-away car, acquiesce to every bad behavior, or enable our Brother in those things he struggles with? No. We are charged to correct his errors, support him, and help get him back on the right path. Wearing blinders means not condemning your Brother for his faults, but instead seeking to understand why he made them and assist him in changing his ways.

Fellowship needs an exchange. It cannot be one-sided. In order to receive honesty, one must be honest. To be heard, one must be willing to listen. A friendship is an intricate puzzle with all the tabs and blanks interlocking. At times, you will need to lean on your Brother, at other times, you will be the sturdy column for him when he needs it most. And it is important not to keep tabs. At times, you may feel that you are giving more than you are getting. If you feel like you are doing all the work, you probably are. That could change at any moment though, and in all likelihood, that Brother will remember your kindness and be there for you.

Lastly, fellowship needs nourishment. That can come in many forms. In the literal sense, some of the strongest bonds I have formed within this Fraternity have come in the social time before and after the meetings. The regimented structure of our meetings does not encourage the strengthening of one-on-one ties, but it does serve as an incubator for those feelings of goodwill and belonging that can be strengthened over dessert, coffee, and conversation after we adjourn.

In the abstract sense, fellowship is fed by time. All of things I mentioned earlier? They take time. Common ground, honesty, forgiveness, and exchange – none of those comes naturally or instantly. Time is the most essential element to good friendships. Just as a flower opens one petal at a time, so do we slowly learn to trust enough to reveal our true selves to one another.

The following has been attributed to both George Eliot and Dinah Craik:

“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”

I love that sentiment. I also love that Freemasonry gives us the chance to have friends like that. Each of us probably had options on how we would spend this evening. We all chose to be here. When you go downstairs, tell someone why. It doesn’t have to be eloquent. It doesn’t have to be lengthy. Let it be from your heart, and that will be more than sufficient.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Three Myths about Lodge Attendance

As I have traveled through the District, I have had the opportunity to speak with many Brothers about how the Lodge has evolved over the years. One thing is clear: it is without debate that today’s Masonic Lodge is not the same as one we might have visited thirty, forty, or fifty years ago.

The Lodge is different. Society is different. That is okay as long as we remain mentally nimble enough to recognize and adapt to change. Too often we hide behind excuses like “times have changed,” or “all social organizations have declining membership” to justify our unwillingness to see our Fraternity through the eyes of the next generation. In essence, these excuses have become anchors; not anchors that steady us in stormy seas, but ones which keep us from even unfurling our sails and leaving familiar shores. What follows is a list of the most common myths about Lodge attendance.

Today’s man is too busy to come to Lodge. The myth of the overbooked schedule has been around for ages. In an effort to explain declining attendance, people point to the 1950s and how the wife took care of the house and kids, giving the man an opportunity to go to his social club at night.

While that may be true, it is equally true that men today still spend time together. Cigar clubs, bowling alleys, restaurants, and bars are full of men socializing on nearly any night of the week. Men regularly take time away from their busy family schedules to watch their favorite teams compete. They even participate in sports like golf, tennis, hunting, and fishing without negatively impacting their home lives.

What we need to ask ourselves then, is why they aren’t choosing Freemasonry.

One reason is that we are viewed as a sort of dinosaur that somehow survived the Ice Age. We only have ourselves to blame for that. We have held on to our customs, refusing to adapt to the change that has taken place around us. I was at a Lodge last June, and the program was . . . anyone? Anyone? You guessed it – Strawberry Night. I will resist the urge to begin a rant about how Strawberry Night is no more of a Lodge program than Freemasons at Gettysburg is a side dish for your roast beef dinner. At this meeting, there were thirteen of us – the Lodge officers, one visitor and me. Sadly, I can almost guarantee you that this year’s program for June will also be Strawberry Night.

If we fail to observe what it is that young men want, choosing instead to give them what the men of the 1950s wanted, we are sure to fail.

“Fine,” you say, shaking your head. “No one is going to want to _________.” No matter how you complete that sentence, as long as it is an activity that is within the bounds of decorum and social responsibility, it is simply untrue. In your Lodge, there is someone who would: go to an art museum, flower show, or concert. There is also someone who would volunteer at the food bank, homeless shelter, or church. There are still others who would attend yoga class, golf, ride a motorcycle, or shoot sporting clays. There is simply no way to know what people will do until you give them a chance to do it.

How do you measure the success of a first time event? Not by attendance. Every Lodge has a few intrepid souls who will brave the new adventures without fear or hesitation. Likewise, every Lodge has those who will sit by and see how the first run goes before they commit - rushing blindly into the unknown universe of ballroom dancing is reckless, after all. Quite simply, we should gauge success by the quality of the time shared, the bonds created, and the memories made.

The last, and arguably the most damaging myth is that Freemasonry has nothing to offer today’s young man.

Nothing can be farther from the truth. There exists no organization that offers a man what Freemasonry does. We give men a deeply symbolic, moving initiatic experience, an illuminated path to being their best selves, and a chance to meet men they would never have had the occasion to meet anywhere else. Additionally Masonry comes with an extended family that literally spans the globe. Masons are never alone, never without help, and never far from a friend.

Don’t believe the myths. Men need us, but they need to know about us. Don’t assume that your young neighbor doesn’t have the time to join a Lodge. Ask him. Let him know that if he gives us his time, we can teach him to be a better husband, father, and son. Don’t be timid about trying new events. People will come, maybe slowly at first, but they will come. Finally, don’t forget that what we offer is valuable. We take ordinary men and make them . . . Freemasons.