West Gate or Revolving Door?
Issues Surrounding Retention
RWB Doug Franklin, SGW, GL BC & Yukon (2017)
In our beloved Craft today, we are often reminded that retention is the best way to build and sustain membership. Although statistics vary, some twenty percent of Brethren leave their Lodge, and the Masonic Order, within one year of being raised.
Another statistic suggests that more than forty percent of initiates are lost after five years. A related number, and equally troubling, is that an average of only twenty percent of members is active in their Lodge at any given time.
In his book entitled Millennial Freemasonry, Bro. Kent Henderson suggests that fifty years ago, the average length of a membership in Freemasonry was thirty years; forty years later, in 2007, it had shrunk to approximately four years. Such statistics are not the object of this presentation, but only serve to remind us that, for many newly-made Freemasons, the West Gate is also a revolving door.
In order to address the matter of retention, we should examine the context of the problem. First, what motivates seekers to join our Craft today? I believe that, over many generations, motives among seekers have not been radically different. Reasons for men joining Freemasonry basically include the following:-
wanting to belong to a group, especially one which includes family members and friends; a favourable impression of the Craft, including its tenets and personalities who are members; and the mystique of Freemasonry.
First is the question of belonging. Men have joined fraternities for hundreds of years. And, during that same span of time, many fraternities have risen and fallen.
Is fraternalism in the twenty-first century on the way out?
To a great extent, evidence seems to indicate this.
Fraternal Orders modeled on Freemasonry have seen a dramatic decline in membership. Such Orders include the Elks, Eagles, Moose and Odd Fellows Lodges. These fraternities in particular have reacted to the general downturn of interest in fraternities in significant and sometimes drastic ways. In the case of Moose and Eagles, these fraternities have nearly eliminated traditional initiation ceremonies with ritual parts.
Instead, candidates hear words of welcome from the presiding officer, undertake a solemn promise, and are then shown a video about the objects of the fraternity and obligations of its members.
The Odd Fellows have retained traditional ceremonies, but have dramatically changed qualifications for membership and now allow women to join their regular Lodges.
What about Freemasonry? In recent years, we have seen some fundamental and controversial measures to attract members. Some jurisdictions in North America advertise for prospective members in the media.
Other jurisdictions have one-day classes, with exemplifying candidates only experiencing the Degree ceremonies, while dozens and even hundreds of other candidates witness them. This is tantamount to taking football players, ready for action, seating them in the stands, and then asking them later how they enjoyed the game! I believe that enticing seekers and eliminating the need for a personal initiatory experience have not been successful in building fraternalism.
Experimentation and tinkering do not appear to make a difference. Why?
Returning to our question about the apparent decline in fraternalism, perhaps society today is not amenable to joining social organizations. This is an era of instant communication, virtual relationships and often passive gratification, through entertainment. The concepts of volunteering, serving, giving of self and the learning of values are not celebrated as they once were.
What evidence do we have that society today is not embracing these concepts?
Some of you are familiar with the campaign “Be a Shriner Now”.
This elaborate and costly initiative has included advertising on television, the internet and social media. One of the most interesting findings resulting from this campaign is relevant to Freemasonry. Of all the responders to the campaign who would appear to be qualified candidates for the Shrine, only one in ten is prepared to become a Freemason in order to become eligible for Shrine membership.
On the matter of declining interest in fraternalism in society today, this is a sober lesson. I ask you, if we erect a flashing neon sign over the over the West Gate, what will be the result?
And, what about the idea of joining Freemasonry because family members and business acquaintances are Brethren, and the seeker wishes to be a Brother as well?
There is no question that the circle of friends and family can be an incubator for future Freemasons. Overall, I believe that this can be positive. It is not, however, an unerring fact.
I’m sure that some of us have seen men initiated in our Craft for the sake of getting family and especially fatherly approval. Brethren in this category unfortunately represent a sizable number who pass through the revolving door.
Then, there is the mystique. Without doubt, we are receiving petitions from men, and particularly younger men, who have explored aspects of Freemasonry through books, articles, the internet, and popular culture generally. Curiosity can be a strong motivator and can also be positive.
Still, absent thorough and frank vetting, curiosity from seekers cannot be relied upon to sustain our Brotherhood. Personally, I have had a chat with a newly-raised Master Mason who revealed that becoming a Freemason was an item he could now cross off his bucket list! Predictably, this Brother, whom I had helped to coach in his Degree work, was on his way out the revolving door.
I believe that we must understand these conditions in order to address retention problems. What course of action might we take? I suggest several approaches.
We begin, of course, with a cautious pathway to the West Gate. What qualities do we look for in seekers? I suggest that two basic traits we should require are commitment and loyalty. In our society today, commitment and loyalty seem almost old-fashioned and, perhaps for many, too abstract. How do we convey to a seeker that Freemasonry relies on the commitment and loyalty of all its members?
Discussing commitment of time with a seeker requires careful thought. It is essential to describe realistically the time required by a new initiate to learn his work and to be involved with Lodge activities. In other words, give concrete examples of commitment. To this, you might respond,
“We don’t want to scare away a seeker by talking about commitment of time.”
I would suggest, in response, that many a Brother going out through the revolving door would tell you that no one really explained to him when he was seeking that the Masonic journey required time. The commitment of time required by members was the object of a study by the Masonic Services Association in 1988.
The study revealed that the free time available for fraternal association among the majority of seekers in the age group of 40 to 54 years was five hours monthly.
Of equal interest to us, the spouses of this age cohort set this limit of time even lower: to three hours per month.
It is clear to us that a seeker, should he succeed in becoming a candidate, must be able to commit more than five hours per month when his Masonic journey begins.
Another commitment a Lodge requires is to keep current with dues payment. It is sometimes difficult for us to explain to a seeker that the Masonic journey is life-long. In addition to paying the necessary fee for initiation and the Degrees (now $400 in British Columbia and Yukon), the seeker will need to set aside funds each year for his Lodge dues.
If a seeker is reluctant with this long-term obligation he should not proceed; nor should we encourage him. Evidence presented by the Masonic Services Association in this regard is stark.
The largest single cohort of Freemasons suspended for nonpayment of dues is comprised of Brethren who have been in the Craft for only three years. Loyalty is very much a shared characteristic. We extend and also receive loyalty. Most seekers are aware of the strong bonds of Brotherhood in Freemasonry.
Seekers must be made to understand, however, that Masonic loyalty is quite special. It is a fuel which powers us on our Masonic journey. A seeker who cannot understand, or is uncomfortable with the concept of fraternal loyalty will not, I believe, become a retainable Freemason. An interview or even an informal chat with a seeker about his views on family, society and organizations he already belongs to, will soon reveal the nature and extent of his loyalty.
Discussion surrounding our time-honoured ballot need not be prolonged. Perhaps two observations might be useful. First, in reviewing the archived Minute Book of a Lodge in British Columbia I noted that, in the 1920s, approximately one in five petitioners was rejected by ballot.
It appears that the Brethren in those days were serious about protecting the West Gate. Second, Lodges in the regular Grand Orient of Italy hold two ballots.
The first is similar to the one we are familiar with in our own Lodges. However, after the first ballot, the Italian Lodge circulates the name of the petitioner among Lodges in its District and throughout its Grand Lodge Jurisdiction.
At the second ballot, visiting Brethren are not only eligible to cast a ballot, but also encouraged to do so. It is clear that our Italian Brethren take very seriously guarding the West Gate.
Conversations at the West Gate
The concept and practice of “guarding the West Gate” embraces much more than simple gate-keeping. It includes scrutinizing, but also counseling, mentoring and interviewing.
I would like to focus on possible conversations that might take place at the West Gate.
First, let us anticipate problems. Clearly, the seeker with mercenary or other unworthy motives must be counseled firmly, but politely, that Freemasonry is not for him. On the other hand, the seeker with relatives in the Craft and those genuinely curious are worthy of our time.
We owe them a fairly detailed explanation of Freemasonry, about who we are as Freemasons and, above all, what would be expected of them.
Mentoring at this point, even for relatives of Freemasons, should include invitations to open festive boards and Lodge activities, especially those including spouses and friends.
We must also counsel seekers that work, particularly memory work, is required of them. One small test is to give the seeker a passage of text, not necessarily Masonic, to memorize and recite several weeks later.
Second, let us consider opportunities. We have before us men whom we consider committed seekers and potential Brethren. Through our own experience, we recognize that quality time spent with a seeker at the West Gate is reassuring for both ourselves and for him.
We need to become acquainted with the seeker as a man.
What are his talents that he can contribute to your Lodge?
Once he has signed a petition, it is even more important that we keep in touch with the seeker. Various jurisdictions have programs for welcoming and integrating candidates.
In British Columbia and Yukon, we have the “Six Step Program”. Such programs are essential in securing retention within our Lodges. Without describing all of the details of the program, there is one overriding practice we should never neglect:
Do not leave the candidate by himself. Bring him to his Degree ceremonies and always have a Brother with him in Lodge and at the festive board.
Once he is initiated try, if possible, to coach him in a group rather than alone. Use that opportunity, where new initiates and candidates meet, to have some Masonic education and light refreshments. It is important to help our new Brother establish friendships.
Demonstrate to him always that he is not simply a member, but a cherished Brother.
Without overwhelming him, use his talents early in his Masonic journey.
Assure him that he has an equal share in his Lodge and explain to him that old, but proven adage, “The more you put into your Craft, the more you will get out of it.”
At meetings of your Committee of General Purposes provide reports and updates on the progress of candidates and mentoring. In other words, make retention a continuing part of your Lodge work.
To conclude, leaders in our Craft must do their utmost to guard the West Gate while actively managing retention. Our strongest tool, mentoring, can effectively put a wedge
in the revolving door. Time spent with seekers and petitioners is a valuable investment
of time and fraternal goodwill. Long ago, our canny Scottish Brethren invoked a saying both wise and filled with common sense:
“In every man asking to join our Craft you should see a Master of your Lodge.”
I will leave you with a question: “What qualities do you look for in a seeker?”
Davis, Dudley. A Workbook for Developing a Strategic Plan for Membership Development cited in Masonic Matters – Membership Survey. Grand Lodge of Minnesota, 2016.
Henderson, Kent. Millennial Masonry. Melbourne: Global Publishing, 2002.
Interview with Ill. Sir Dave Ramich, Imperial Shrine Membership Committee, Oct. 2015.
Interview with Simon R. LaPlace, Executive Secretary, Masonic Services Association of North America, 2017.
Masonic Renewal Task Force. Masonic Service Association of North America, cited in Terry Spalding-Martin Condition of Freemasonry , 2016.
How Do Non-Masons and Masons View Freemasonry? Masonic Services Association of North America, 1988.
R.W. Brother Franklin’s observations & comments not only address issues as he sees them to be today but provides excellent suggestions for our consideration and hopefully implementation.
Have a wonderful Day & God Bless