Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Where I Was First Made a Mason

Where I Was First Made a Mason:
A Lodge-based Approach
By D.J., J.S.&P.M.

What We Can Accomplish

This is not a critical review of problems. This is about solutions. This is not about dwelling on the status quo. This is thinking about what we can become. This is not about abolishing our time honored traditions but creating a vision for the future of our lodge.

We know what we came here to do - improve ourselves amongst a family of Brothers. We know we can do more to improve ourselves as Masons and men- together, both within and without the Lodge.

We know that as good men, we are supposed to assist each other to become better in all aspects of our lives and support each other in our pursuits.

Brotherhood, a Family

The lodge itself is supposed to operate as a family. In our effort to be more efficient we may try to run Masonry and our Lodge in a business-like manner, which can be good. But we cannot forget that Masonry is a family that conducts its business for the benefit of its members.

The heart of Masonry is not in the fancy lodge rooms; (for the first 100 years Masons met in bars and taverns.) The heart of masonry is in each individual Brother of our lodge. As such, it is not enough simply to meet but we must meet in a meaningful and productive way. We must attend to needs of members and develop a brotherhood among those who really want to act as family.  

Without doing this it is difficult for the members to become close to each other, to prosper in their individual pursuits or to maintain a productive lodge. Knowing each other means more than simply knowing each other’s name. We must become familiar in the way that is consistent with being a family. We must know who we are, where we are from, what businesses we are in, what are our goals, our needs, our aspirations, our perspectives; what each of us are all about.

We must take the steps to build Masonic bonds that have employed historically and adopt some of the approaches. We will likely find that there are ideas outside of what has been done in the past that will yield results towards our time honored goal of making each other better, more successful men.

Starting with the Basic Tenets and Lessons

We are all aware of the basic tenets and symbols of Masonry. Let them guide us in our search for direction in what we want to accomplish. This is practical symbolism and must be widely interpreted as lessons to instruct us on how to fulfill our duties in our basic Masonic community - our lodge. These lessons must not be relegated mere ceremony. We must incorporate them in our every day lives.

Take for comparison the parishioner who attends services in extravagant dress, always seated prominently in the front row; conspicuously reciting each verse and hymn with meticulous precision. If his service to God begins and ends within the walls of the church; if he carries out his life in extravagance and waste; what has he gained from all of his show? What has he lost?

I know we agree that Masonry is not simply about putting on a ritual show but about acting on the lessons.

Applying the Symbols in Our Daily Lives:

  • The Square and Compass instructs brothers in their dealings with each other to deal squarely and on the level- and urges that we deal with each other in everyday life.
  • The Plumb teaches us to be upright and unbowed and to be sure that our brother is upright and unbowed. We should be actively involved in assisting our brothers in living a respectable life, neither in disregard or distress. We should help each other stand up to the difficulties of life and to get ahead.
  • The Cable Tow says that we are tied together through our Lodge family. It is the symbol of our obligation to always be there for each other, a tie that extends outside of a lodge. The length of a cable tow is said to be to the limit of our abilities.
  • Trowel & Mortar represents the Mason that spreads the mortar of Brotherly love which holds our Lodge together. Brotherly love is not just a flowery phrase. It is the steadfast love and concern one has for a brother that overcomes frustration and disappointment or any negative feelings one may have in passing.
  • The Beehive symbolizes the bees' proper social order we should mimic- bringing together productive, industrious individuals in a cooperative manner. We are taught to be prosperous and cooperative as individuals for our collective well being.
  • Skull and Crossbones, Tomb and the Sprig of Acacia: We are symbolically reborn to a family based on these principles. It also reminds us that we are part of a continuum- and that we should always want more and better for those who come after us and better men than us to occupy our lodge in the future.
  • The Token and Five Points of Fellowship reminds us we should always remember to give a hand and offer a prayer, offer words of advice, encouragement and recommendation, hold a secret in our breast, and to walk any distance necessary to help a brother. It also reminds us of charity in our hearts. Charity is a virtue in our dealings with each other,- and not a business expense or perfunctory act like paying taxes.
  • Rough Ashlar and the Perfect Ashlar refer to working cooperatively to make each one of us better. The Ashlars are also admonitions to the Lodge: we have to refine our membership, through education and selection. Selection is where it all starts. Let us accept people who are interested in our brotherhood and worthy of the same. Let us accept those who will grow with Masonry. We can’t let superfluous words be all we have to offer each other and our prospective members. We must to be able to offer a Lodge with well chosen men willing to do the hard work to make each other better.

Putting Our Challenges in Context

In New York lodges there are only a fraction of the names on the membership rolls than there once were and most no longer associate with the Craft.  

Membership was at its height in the 1920's through the 1950's. It declined through the 1960’s and 70’s with the cultural upheavals of that era, and again with the “me generation” of the 1980’s. Most of today’s lodges are empty and graying even as the U.S. population has doubled from the time that Freemasonry was first at its zenith. Masonry itself has changed.
In former times Lodges were community-based. Lodges were strong enough to be beneficial to their membership and their communities. There were Masonic Supper Clubs, Square and Compass Clubs, and importantly, the Masonic Employment Bureau. Large groups of friends would join together, cementing their bonds in Masonic rituals and structure.

Masonic learning was stressed and it was an honor to be a Mason, especially at a Lodge where men took their Masonic commitment seriously. Masons were the leaders of their communities, the doers and the thinkers, the people involved and the people that communities relied upon. Some lodges had brothers from all backgrounds who did every job under the sun while others were based around school ties, neighborhoods, ethnic communities and work. What mattered was that they were men who were resourceful and committed.  

Becoming a Mason (especially in the best functioning lodges) could be one of the more difficult things to attain in life. Much of this has declined for various reasons. It is time to revitalize these efforts where they benefit our lodges.

Applying the Tools

Now we have more tools and technology. Nevertheless we are doing less to build our bonds with the group. Worse, we have thrown the doors open to men who interested in the trappings but not our community and our work. When new members arrive, it is doubtful that things will be explained and opportunities provided to become involved. Further, we have closed the doors to many qualified, capable, informed men because of petty politics, and had others leave because they felt they were not getting what was advertised (a chance to join a family, improve themselves and to assist in the betterment of each member of their new family.)

Many lodges have suffered as a result. This is a self reinforcing cycle. Left unchecked, the behaviors described above make Masonry increasingly less desirable to prospective members and it is increasingly difficult to maintain the current membership or for the lodge to fulfill its obligations to its members.

Practical Masonic Solutions

In order for our lodge to survive, we must refocus our attention towards putting our Masonic tools to work and refining our membership. This begins with getting our members involved in projects to improve the lodge. It may turn out that some members may not return to the Lodge. Others may find that all of the hard work does not suit them.

As we bring in a new generation, our new members will be more energetic, more ambitious and more willing to learn from experienced Masons. We should increase our efforts to bring in students and young professionals, solid men who have something to offer others and are willing to offer it. We want candidates who have relationships with someone in our lodge. We should feel confident a candidate will grow with Masonry and make the lodge better. In short we want worthy, well qualified Masons.

As we begin to cultivate membership, new members will be naturally attracted by what we have to offer; not by superfluous words but by a demonstrated willingness to do the hard work to make each other better. 

Specifically, the following must be implemented in some form to ensure the future of our lodge: 
  • We have to offer real Brotherhood in the Lodge and real opportunities to become better and to aid each other in times of need.
  • Re-institute regular socializing, i.e. meet-ups for dinner and drinks.
  • Utilize technology- Masonic web forums, electronic job boards and a resume bank, and listings of businesses and services, bios, email and contact information, quarterly or annual updates on what is happening with our members. That way we do not limit things just to those who can make the social dinners or drinks, and we can even stay in touch with people have geographically left the lodge and might otherwise consider demitting.
  • Fund-raisers that can help offset the need for rising dues while prompting people to become involved.
  • Informal trips to fish, play golf or whatever people are interested in so that we can get to know each other better on a personal basis, as befitting friends and brothers.
  • Meet new prospects in “Brother Bring a friend” nights and reach out to recommended and qualified new men.
  • Hold stringent “Proficiencies” between degrees to ensure a commitment to the learning of Masonic values.
  • Offer Brothers the option of remitting their Lodge dues in-lodge electronically to decrease non-payment among active Brethren.
These are just a few of the steps that we could take. I know many of us are willing to work to implement these changes and we look forward to your leadership. To be a brotherhood we must make an effort to know each other and we absolutely must have a vision for the future of our lodges.
54,000 in New York, down from a high of around 345,000 in 1930. There were around 310,000 in 1960 before beginning a long slide. The average age of a Freemason in 2004 was 64.02. Well over half of Masons in America are no longer active in lodge Freemasonry.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Masonry Builds Capital for its Members


A great many Masons have been leaders and contributors to their community in ways large and small. While it is true that there are far more Masons whose names would rouse no recognition except among their close family and friends, the list of famous Masons reads as a list of the most influential and productive (as well as famous and successful) people of the past three centuries.

The misunderstanding is that Masons have operated as some sinister, plotting society. The list of well known Masons that accomplished good is far longer than that of infamous Masons. This point does not requires proof here nor is relevant to this article. The point is why have Masons been this successful. There are many answers, but one may be rooted in sociological understanding of "soft capital".

Masons have been successful in develop the habits and perspectives that expose them to opportunity. It is a dynamic which Masons themselves seldom appreciate.

Masons by their participation in the Craft, increase their external social networks. In the practice of the Craft they learn to deal with each other in a cooperative and acceptable way that increases amity among each other. They also value and earn symbolic prestige (or symbolic capital) that is a gateway to real resources. All of these things are necessary for success and they are often termed by sociologist as "soft capital".

Sociologist often explain the concept of soft capital accumulation as such:

1. First, accept the kinship of their inner circle. Just as in families that requires privacy, trust, commonality and mutual high-prioritization placed upon the well being of a group over the long term. That comes from both introduction based upon commonality and a process of culturalization and purchase. It also comes from understanding and embracing a way of life. Optimally this way of life should encompass the ideology of mutual benefit, and of a particular social order.

2. Secondly they increase their cultural capital. Cultural capital (like all capital) is exclusionary by definition. It means discovering information, habits and approaches that are most effective and acceptable by their peers. The lack of cultural capital is a barrier, and this barrier prevents people from rising in the class and economic structure and thus gaining greater opportunity.

3. Then there are the relationships of social networks, known as social capital. That is the process of building relationships. There is limited trust and a high level of competition wherever social capital is most profitable. (Externalizing class lines allows each Mason to build social capital in a way that a competitive economic and social structure seldom permits.)

4. Sociologist have more recently expanded the notion of soft capital to include symbolic capital. When someone rises in any structure to offer leadership and service it connotes merit. And that is why of course, altruistic and/or ambitious people try to get into the best [insert institution or group] and then become officers and leaders. It opens the doors inclusion for some while excluding others who have a different set of connections and experiences. (Masonry instead encourages both the honorable status of all its members and has a number of positions to be fulfilled to maintain the function of the organization.)

Being productive by having more people work on together benefits everyone. And Masons develop the confidence and mindset of institution joining and building as a matter of course. And institution building is a matter of soft capital more than hard capital (i.e. currency.) And soft capital is often a prerequisite for acquiring tangible forms of capital as well.