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Saturday, September 01, 2007
Dreaded Doomsayers of Dues
Over on MasonicMinute.com, there is a discussion over the dreaded dues question in Masonry. Overall, the MasonicMinute host is on the right track. I strongly suggest having a look at Wbro. Nathan Brindle's paper, "Dues That Don't Anymore." It is an outstanding analysis about the irresponsibility and dangers of keeping Freemasonry cheap. The fraternity has made a horrible miscalculation by freezing Masonic dues at its 1960's level.
In the comments section, Brother Mike said: "And what would raising dues sharply in blue lodge do to membership in the York Rite, Scottish Rite, Shrine, and so on?"
With all due respects to Brother Mike (whom I do not know), that made something go snap in me. Those words have ZERO bearing on a discussion on the merits of Blue Lodge dues levels.
We choose to belong or not belong to appendant bodies, but they are nothing without the Blue Lodge. I spend close to $800 a year on Masonic organization dues to belong to a raft of appendant groups. By comparison, the average Mason in 1900, when the numbers are adjusted for inflation, spent close to $3,000 a year in dues, regalia, conventions, etc.
My Shrine and Scottish Rite dues are over $100 each, and they are both able to draw on a region of literally tens of thousands of Masons for their membership. I choose to belong to them. But my membership in all of those groups should never be at the expense of my blue lodge (or three of them, in my case). My York Rite dues is unconscionably low. And all three of my lodges aren't charging even close to what they should be. A strong argument needs to be made that the blue lodge, because it has a much smaller membership base to draw upon needs to by considerably higher than the appendant bodies.
One of my three lodges was started five years ago, and began with high dues. Inflation has caught up with us, and we need to raise it. My mother lodge has stumbled and struggled up to a responsible level, but it took about 8 years to do it. But my third continues to wallow in the grips of miserliness, at its own peril. It resides in what may be the most beautiful lodge rooms in the state, built and completely paid for and donated by a successful family in the 1920's. But because they failed to plan for the future, they sold the building to an outside group, while retaining a toehold on the top floor. Now, they have burned through their nest egg after using it to pay utility bills, and they want to try to abandon this magnificent facility completely. Simply because they refused to make responsible fiscal judgments over the last 40 years. They are murdering their own posterity, because they refused to expect their members to pay for the value of their irreplaceable facility.
What always offends me is that during discussions of dues, there's always one brother who, like a game of Whack-A-Mole, pops out of his seat to shriek that he's on a "fixed income." But what have we done to our lodges since the 1960's but to put them on a fixed income? Heat, water, air conditioning, gas, insurance – it's all skyrocketed for all of us in our homes and businesses. What makes us believe the same is not true in our lodges?
Worse, in many jurisdictions, including my own, we set aside the dues of 50 year members. Indiana did this just after WWII (hardly "time immemorial"). It is a noble gesture, and an honorable one. But the WWII generation swelled in size, and robbed lodges and grand lodges of crucial income at a time when membership numbers on the whole plummeted. Now we are paying the price. At the very least, if lodges were required to pay Grand Lodge assessments for ALL members, not just dues payers, dues would have to be raised accordingly. But when GLs simply wipe the 50 year men off the dues rolls, the grand Lodges suffer, and the lodges don't have to do anything to take up the slack. If a lodge wants to remit the dues of a 50 year Mason, that's fine. Charity should begin at home, and the lodge should have to pony up for it. But Grand Lodge should not be forced to suffer for it. Those members still use the facilities, receive the magazines and want to have Masonic retirement homes waiting for them. If we still want these things, they need to be paid for by someone.
The flip side of the dues discussion is that if we fight for increases in dues to a higher level, lodges had better be providing an excellent lodge experience for that extra coin. Freemasonry is a whole package - not just fellowship and some bucks tossed in a box for charity. It is a lodge room and building that reflects the heritage of the fraternity, as well as the history and love of the members within these individual neighborhood homes of Freemasonry. It is programming that leaves a brother feeling more enriched when he leaves than when he walked in. It is teaching lessons and understanding symbolism. It is the warmth and welcoming feel of its social areas that make men want to come and stay, instead of meet and flee, or not come out at all. It cannot just be a grey meat sandwich, Sam's Club pop and a card game.
Any organization that is cheap to join and belong to requires little sense of commitment, pride or belonging from its members. Any organization that is easy to join is also easy to walk away from. The act of joining the world's oldest, greatest gentleman's fraternity should be an achievement and require certain ongoing responsibilities. Instead, we tell EA's that their presence at our meetings is not required. We keep dues levels irresponsibly low. The appendant bodies are stumbling all over themselves to come up with cheap come-on deals, instead of examining their ongoing mission and programming. In short, the old advertising model of membership on the cheap needs to be taken out behind the barn and shot. If we honestly think that the appeal of belonging to Freemasonry is that we can get it for you wholesale, we might as well shut down tomorrow.
Conversely, if you joined a country club and paid a $10,000 application fee, and they charged you $175 a month in dues and food fees, whether you ate there or not, you can bet YOU'D BY GOD GET OUT THERE AND PLAY GOLF AND EAT! You'd do it three nights a week, plus the weekend, to get your money's worth and the value of your membership. You'd throw your kids in the pool whether they could swim or not! You'd force all your relatives to come with you to every Sunday buffet and stuff extra food in their trousers and snoods!
No I am not suggesting that Freemasons charge $10,000 to join or $175 a month to belong. But I'm saying we have to believe in the greatness of ourselves and our lodges again, the way our forebears did.