The United Grand Lodge of England has undertaken a massive study of current attitudes and criticisms of English Masonry, in an effort to improve the experience of their potential and existing members, slow down or turnaround the losses of last three decades, and encourage new leaders to come forward.
The article, "Society of Choice," appears in the Spring 2016 issue of Freemasonry Today, and describes the work of the Membership Focus Group (MFG). The MFG assembled the results of more than 18,000 member surveys.
"The MFG surveys canvassed the opinions of present members and it is clear that while many lodges offer what good men seek, there is often a gap between expectation and reality. We need to communicate clearly and confidently what Freemasonry is and try harder to ensure that we select the right men, as well as offering a rewarding and enjoyable experience to the new member and his family."The MFG identified five areas of concern, and is developing programs to address them:
As an initial step, UGLE designed a new logo for all official publications and other applications for Masonry in their jurisdiction. It has met with very mixed responses so far, good and bad.
(Masons around the UGLE often expressed concern as to the quality of their Masonic centers, and the value they provide.)
"These should offer a positive impression, value for money and be an asset rather than a financial millstone to members."
2. Attracting and selecting
"Provinces are appointing Provincial Membership Officers as a prelude to improving the way in which we identify and select those who would add value to a lodge and appreciate our approach to life."(Too many lodges bring new members in with the philosophy, "Did his check cash?" and "Does he have a pulse?" We don't have to take in every man who knocks on our doors. in the U.S., many grand lodges are requiring criminal background checks as a part of the investigation progress. In some European grand lodges, a photo and biography is often required of a petitioner which is posted in the building for a month or more, so that anyone may comment on his character, if they know him.)
3. Improving retention
(Like virtually every U.S. grand lodge, UGLE is also suffering from NPD losses.)
"We lose too many members, some through poor selection, others because we have not met their needs and expectations. This is very much to do with lodge culture and balancing the needs of the lodge with those of its members."
"Many survey respondents made suggestions about the need to get back to the core of why we are masons. The sentiment was that Freemasonry was beginning to feel more like a charitable organisation than one that promotes the idea of learning and personal moral development, which in turn leads us to be charitable.
"Of the members surveyed, 75 per cent indicated that the aspects of Freemasonry that give the greatest help or value are: to feel part of a movement with history and traditional values; to make friends outside their normal social circle; to be part of something that supports those in need; and to achieve a sense of personal progress."(Interestingly, their results echo what many U.S. Freemasons have been saying for almost two decades or more.)
4. Understanding and knowledge
"The MFG sought views on the importance of masonic knowledge, with 67 per cent citing it as very important to understand the symbolism and moral/philosophical issues underpinning Freemasonry.
"More than 50 per cent reported only average or poor understanding. This is a core issue. In consultation with Provincial Grand Masters, a project has been established to consider how we might help, encourage and promote the development of educational activity and provide resources to underpin the three degrees of the Craft and the Royal Arch. "(This may be the most important finding of the study - namely the thirst of Masons for education about their history, symbolism, and philosophy. In short, they didn't join a memorization club. They actually want to understand the words they recite.)
5. Supporting those that lead at all levels
"The future of Freemasonry depends on identifying those with the potential to lead at lodge, Provincial and Grand Lodge levels. It is also recognised that opportunities for development and the degree of support could be far better. We intend to consider how better to prepare and support those that volunteer for lead roles within our lodges so that they receive the assistance they require."(Leadership can't just simply come from a slavish devotion to the advancing officers' line, and rewarding those who simply put in their time. Talented leaders must be identified, educated, and encouraged to pursue their goals.)
"There are no quick fixes. The process of change and development will take 10 or more years to bring Freemasonry up to date and reverse the membership trends of the past 30 years. The priority for UGLE is quality, not quantity. If the experience is one of quality and genuine care and concern for one another, then the prospects for retention and growth are good. Equally, the traditional ceremonies and standards are of great importance and need to be retained rather than diluted.
"UGLE recognises that one size does not fit all. Lodges vary in their style, approach and interests. We encourage them to be open to the guidance that is offered but to also adapt it in a way that best suits their requirements. By doing this, we can create a successful future together that embraces Freemasonry’s rich values and variety."
Whether the findings of the MFG actually accomplish anything won't be known for several years - they give themselves a decade to see the results. Like virtually every grand lodge, they want to help local lodges achieve their greatest potential by providing guidance. Just as a personal observation, I unfortunately have come across very few successful top-down programs that attempt to improve the lodge experience with a well-intentioned grand strategy. The reasons are varied.
Every lodge has unique problems, be they financial (dues that's too low, or no source of outside income), infrastructure shortcomings (an old building with increasing maintenance costs and no modern facilities like elevators and air conditioning), personality problems (one family or clique dominates the officer positions, or an entrenched cadre of Past Masters resist new programs), or no education (lack of presentations on topics of interest to the active members, no outside speakers, no requirement of current members or new Masons to write papers on their Masonic experiences). There can be huge cultural differences between regions of a country or state, and especially between urban and rural lodges. Great leaders don't grow on trees. Some lodges are unable to confer their own degrees. The list goes on.
I hope the MFG's programs bear fruit. I also hope they encourage local lodges to be innovative on their own and to run with ideas of interest to their active members and officers. They say it themselves in their last paragraph: "One size does not fit all." Every grand lodge has hundreds (or in UGLE's case, thousands) of individual laboratories for change and development of fresh approaches. Let's make use of them.