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Saturday, March 17, 2007

So what?

I have been kicking this around for a while now, not really sure what to think about it. I wasn't even sure if I should talk about as it seems like an internal problem, and no one likes to talk about his or her foibles. But, like the adage goes, if you don't talk about it, how do you fix it? And with a fraternity like ours, we like to talk, a lot, so maybe we need to talk about this too.

On a recent digital field trip, I found myself at the MSANA, which is the Masonic Service Association of North America. They are a sort of National clearing house for all things Masonic, but specifically an informational collection agency that gathers data and published literature to for the overall benefit of Freemasonry. If you haven’t ever checked them out, I suggest you do.

What I stumbled across there were statistics on membership from 1925 to 2005. The statistics are the national numbers of membership in the United States. It was not graphed, so it was a pretty uninteresting grid of dates and numbers. From a surface analysis what it showed was an early high figure, a dip, a huge growth, and then a dramatic descent in membership, specifically from a period of 1960 to today. The graph below was created from these statistics.
What it charts is the membership numbers from 1925 to 2005. For a comparison, this graph:

is the US population in the same period. The numbers are dramatically different; Freemasonry at 1-4 million and the US population at 100 to almost 300 million, but what it illustrates is the dramatic rise in US population (about half of which are male +/- 51/49% or so). What I want to illustrate here is that as the US population has increased, while the population of Freemasonry has decreased.

So to the question, so what? We all know that the membership of Freemasonry is changing. Lodge rooms are seating fewer and fewer members, old buildings bought and built in the boom era are being sold off as membership roles shrink and charters evaporate, as if they never existed.

We know that already, this isn’t new news. Every Masonic publication has said this at some point or another that "our numbers are retracting, that we felt a boom with the returning vets of WWII and Korea, and that their numbers swelled our ranks to their record numbers, topping at a height of 4,103,161 in 1959". But since 1959 we have been in a steady decline in membership. Again the question, so what?

The decline of the 1960's and 70's if often blamed on the selfish attitudes of the "tuned out" generation, the hippy turned Baby-Boomer. With widespread distrust of institutions, and a growth in a personal individuality, no one wanted to join, even when they later came of age the attitude of "Forget doing what Dad did" and "why do I want to be a part of a secret institution of good old boys" prevailed. But was that really the problem?

I'm sure if analyzed completely, academically, we could explore the "why Freemasonry changed" notion from the 60's, 70's, and 80's, but let's save that for another time. What the numbers tell us is that in 10 year intervals, from 1960 to 2005, membership dropped by an average of 560,152 members. On the graph, you can see the decline to 2005. Now, I am not a mathematician (nor a journalist) but when I distilled the numbers, it came out to an average of a 20% decrease in membership per 10-year period. By the years it breaks out to:
1960 to 1970 a loss of 336,006 a decrease of 8.19%
1970 to 1980 a loss of 511,685 a decrease of 13.597%
1980 to 1990 a loss of 719,885 a decrease of 22.14%
1990 to 2000 a loss of 690,474 a decrease of 27.274%
And
2000 to 2010* a loss of 542,714 a decrease of 29.477%
(*calculated by doubling the loss from 2000 to 2005)
The average loss was 20% (20.2%, but we’ll drop the .2)

Again the question SO WHAT, we already know this, these numbers are not secret.

So I extrapolated, if we lost on average 560,152 members, per year for the next 10-year cycle, from 2010 to 2020, our national number of members would be 738,303. In ten more years 2020 to 2030 our national member base would be 178,151.

That number again is:
One hundred and seventy eight thousand, one hundred and fifty one
TOTAL Freemason's in North America by 2030. The last American Freemason would probably be somewhere in about 2034 or so.

Ok, so this is a worst-case scenario, this is an assumption that we will continue to lose the same 560,000 members a year, due to attrition, brothers passing, or low community interest. The overall numbers tell me that the loss % per year is INCREASING; not decreasing, but maybe the trend is just that, a trend. It should be said that at present, 2005 numbers show our fraternity at numbers lower than the 1925 watermark, when the US population was less than half of what it is today. So what is happening is not just a "correction", this isn’t our Fraternity going back to the "way things were" at the turn of the 20th century.

But, let me look at it from another angle. Lets say that over the 50-year period, we did average out to a 20% loss per year. These numbers are less frightening and show a slower descent over the next one hundred years. In 2030, where the first model takes us to extinction in the percentage model we sit at just over 800,000 members. It isn’t until 2130 that we get to fewer than 100,000. But again, that is at a steady 20% decrease no ups, no downs, steady. The trend on the last 50-year cycle has been one of a steady increase in percentage loss, 8.9%, 13.59%, 22.14%, 27.27%, and 29.47%. This model, though more positive, seems less likely.

Again the question, so what?

With those of us left, we become the inheritors of Freemasonry here in America, what are we going to do about it? I have read a Laudable Pursuit, as I am sure many other "on-line" masons have, I attend meetings, pay my dues, and heed the length of my cable tow but is that enough? Are dynamic meetings, meaningful Masonic education, Traditional Observance Lodges, Festive Boards, or low cost spaghetti or fish fry dinners the answer? Even the boldest Grand Lodge programs, like the Massachusetts Ben Franklin Marketing Campaign or the California Masonic Formation movement, enough?

So what has Freemasonry lost? What component of our fraternity did we lose in the transition of the 1950's into the 1990's that closed us off from the moral imagination of society? What did we lose? Was it the success of the offshoot "clubs" the focus on charity or drama plays rather than esoteric meaning? Did we, institutionally, become afraid of what our own fraternity represented? Just one small marker I can point to, that symbolically illustrates the change, was the name change of the monthly Scottish Rite magazine from "The New Age Magazine" to the now "Scottish Rite Journal" in 1989. Did we become afraid of our own esoteric shadow marginalizing our own traditions and effectively doing this to ourselves? The one thing that so many outsiders look to Freemasonry to provide, we can barely articulate which is the simple question "what does Freemasonry represent"?

The most effectual answer I can come up with, individually, to the "SO WHAT" question is nothing. We can, at this point in time do nothing to turn this trend around. No matter how many open houses, public lectures, marketing campaigns, sports sponsorships, television commercials, radio spots, billboards, or finite programs promoted by Grand Lodges will stem this hemorrhage. Even if we started giving away memberships, it’s doubtful that we could find enough people who even remembered who the Freemasons are, and even fewer who would want to become one.

The damage is already done, and we are now in for a further declination that will erase what is left of North American Freemasonry. This means the closure of individual state Grand Lodges, this will mean the selling of more Masonic assets, and the selling publicly of our privately funded billion dollar institutions.

This means the end of Freemasonry as we know it today.

Some possible scenarios that come to mind as the numbers descend are the complete separation of the Shrine and The Scottish Rite from their Blue Lodge lineage. The Shrine already divesting itself from the Scottish Rite membership requirement, rumblings have already insinuated that they have looked at a special "class" of member for non "blue" petitioners. And the Rite is very capable of delivering the first three degrees, and start presenting them outside of the blue lodge. What is to keep them loyal to their Masonic affiliation? As membership continues to plummet, at what point will desperation start to take over?

In the next 30 years the landscape of what we call "Regular Freemasonry" will be radically different than what we see today. The sooner we come to recognize that, talk about it, and confront it head on the sooner we can start planning on what we want to do about it. Burying our heads in the sand is not the answer. If we continue to insist on doing this, it will only further hasten our demise. Our generation is the unwilling inheritor of the future of Freemasonry. What we do now will dictate how our sons will come to know this ancient institution. If we ignore this problem, there won't be any institution left.

Don't take my word for it, look at the numbers for your self.

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