"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Friday, May 17, 2019

Nebraska Raises the Bar, and Masons Need to Pay Attention

You know the point during the Stated Meeting when the Secretary casually waves the junk mail at his desk and offhandedly mutters, "We got a post card from the jerks at water company asking us to stop showering so long, a flier from another pest control place... Oh, and the usual Short Talk Bulletin from the Masonic Service Association is on my desk if anyone wants to read it."

Well, read it this month. Worshipful Masters need to snatch it up and read it aloud in lodge. And Grand Masters everywhere need to dig it out of the trash and look very carefully all the way through it.

The May 2019 STB is has a truly shock and awe title: Nebraska's Return To Proficiency

How can that be? These are the 2010s — what bunch of thick-headed clots actually RAISES standards, when everybody knows that "modern men" don't care about such trivial tripe, and making something harder will only keep us all from Saving Freemasonry? Why, what a bunch of stuffy Victorians those Nebraska guys must be.

Well, it seems that way back in the Devonian Epoch of 1989, like so many other U.S. jurisdictions, Nebraska's Masonic brain trust decided that the biggest impediment to "modern men" who stubbornly didn't want to become Freemasons were really put off by that relic from the Stone Age, memorization of basic proficiency. And they allegedly ran screaming from the building after joining when anyone dared to suggest actually memorizing actual ritual parts. "Drop that derned proficiency memorization requirement," the Brethren sagely intoned, "and they'll flock in like hungry mosquitoes at a blood bank.Young men will be so suffused with an incandescent glow over the prospect of just learning grips and words that they'll give us their pants and choke the sidelines and we'll have to add more folding chairs!"

It'll Save Freemasonry, went the conventional wisdom.

Well, no, it didn't. And in fact, as the Grand Lodge of Nebraska concluded after studying trends and attitudes, causes and effects since 1989, it actually gutted Freemasonry. And way too many US jurisdictions dropped it in the 90s, which ultimately had a deleterious effect on the overall strength of the fraternity.

From the STB:
"[B]etween 1992 and 2017, except for coincidental spikes, the number of men raised began a steady and drastic decline. It wasn't unusual for seasoned veterans who learned the full-form proficiency to reminise with candidates about their time spent with a mentor. That relationship, they were often told, created a strong bond between them, as well as with the lodge."
And THAT, my dear Brethren, was ALWAYS the point.  Not rote regurgitation of long passages of little or no meaning from memory that had been learned in the deadly, isolated silence of a room from a printed book, or picking it up over quick sojourns at the bathroom book stack. The whole point from the very beginning of the introduction of the ritual into Freemasonry was ALWAYS about the initial one-on-one relationship between Master and Apprentice, Candidate and Mentor. In countless lodges prior to the 1990s, the model was almost uniformly that two men sponsored your petition, introduced you to the lodge, and then at least one became your Mentor in all things Masonic. No, this is not a Memorization Club. But as you met frequently under the excuse of "learning the work," you built that personal bond with each other that could never be broken. You learned about each other's lives and family in far more detail than some superficial passing acquaintance ever could. You became more to each other than just a guy you saw once a month across the room. And, in turn, you talked about much more than just why you had to take off a shoe or what the hell a hecatomb was - even though he explained that, too, and why it is important and where it came from. Mouth to ear, full-form proficiency was only tangentially about reciting words. 

You didn't just join some club called the Freemasons. You BECAME a Freemason.

And then the wheels fell off. Nebraska was far from the only jurisdiction to dump full-form proficiency. Not by a long shot. Many states did it purely to more easily facilitate one day classes so candidates could dispense with that bothersome proving of their work between degrees in favor of"Blue Lightenings" or "Sidewalk to Shrine in a Day!". Yes, it momentarily plumped up membership tallies so a Grand Master could beam "Just LOOK how many we brought in during My Year!™" But the age-old model that strengthened friendships, built bonds, and made a new member truly a living, breathing part of his lodge was eroded and eventually broken. Today, it is soul-crushing to see the figures on how many men join Freemasonry and depart in less that two years - and frequently less.

And it has also decimated the ranks of 21st century Freemasons who actually know the ritual parts well enough to continue to confer degrees. The population of those able ritualists is aging and shrinking at an alarming speed, as Nebraska discovered to its collective horror. It's happening in your state, too. The deadly one-two punch of reduced proficiency, combined with fully written out ritual books (or the offhanded whisper to a candidate, "Just buy a Lester's and you can learn it on your own") has now delivered us to the point where increasing numbers of lodges can't confer their own degrees, and fewer are encouraged to take it on, or given a pass because it is quite absurdly accepted that "modern men" are just far busier than any other generation for three centuries and don't have any time to spend with another adult human being. There are all kinds of social ramifications wrapped up in this myth, and none of it bodes well as Americans continue to lose their basic interpersonal skills (which has been amply documented by sociologists)

And if for no other reason, Masons who travel outside of their own jurisdiction armed only with bare bones proficiency and a dues card may have an uncomfortable moment at a strange lodge that still adheres to the old, tried and true method of trying a visitor by the catechism that every Mason used to be conversant with. If you never learn it, you may be turned away by a lodge across state lines or around the world, depending on that lodge's preferences.

Here is the scope of Nebraska's problem in black and blue:
"After a survey of [Deputy Grand Custodians] of Nebraska's 130+ lodges in 2017, two-thirds were found unable to confer degrees because members didn't know ritual.Many believed this was because of the then-long-standing shorter proficiency. As experienced ritualists died, there were not enough willing to memorize the parts, creating a major void in the work of lodges."
Was this dramatic shift in Nebraska's rules this year some devious change cooked up by some stern, cranky ritualaterian Grand Master as his last "Get off my lawn" croak of defiance against kids these days? Nope. It was overwhelmingly approved by a full 2/3 of Nebraska's voting members of Grand Lodge. 

Nebraska has also created schools for learning the parts, reinvigorated its statewide Deputy Grand Custodian of the work corps of teachers, offered coins and awards to new and improved ritualists, and more. Additionally, their Grand Lodge publications and other venues advanced this issue after it failed with just 62% of the vote in 2018. That had been tried cold with no real promotion, but by 2019, the state's Masons were overwhelmingly supportive in the wake of now Past Grand Master Patrick Barger's hard work and promotion of the idea.

Jerry Seinfeld was once asked why he wore a suit onstage in this casual era: "It's a signal," he answered. "I'm not loafing up here."

Years ago, one of the biggest uproars I ever received was over a simple photograph I posted of a lineup of Masons in an unidentified lodge, with their faces and identities obscured. They were all dressed like four alarm slobs to be raised as Master Masons - ripped pants, sloppy football jerseys or inappropriate tee shirts, sagging shorts. I had made no commentary save for the headline, "Standards: we used to have them." I received so much hate mail over it and shrieks from Masons horrified that I would make such a passing judgement, combined with the usual twisted false bromides about "the interior of a man is what Masonry regards!" I finally, reluctantly, took it down when the Master of the actual lodge contacted me and told me how badly it had hurt these new Brethren, who had actually been ill-served by the members of their own lodge who failed to uphold standards their lodge had formerly practiced for over a century. It hadn't been a stumble on the part of the candidates, but on the other members who decided that Freemasonry wasn't important enough anymore to ask them to even show up in presentable clothing for this once in a lifetime event, because "that stuff doesn't matter anymore.".

Similarly, when Dwight Smith wrote his booklet Whither Are We Traveling? in the 1960s, he wrote the following:
An old legend which comes to us from the Napoleonic Wars tells of a youth, too young to fight, who was permitted to carry the regimental banner. During one bitter engagement his unit was advancing on the enemy under heavy fire. In his youthful zeal the boy went so far ahead of the regiment that he was almost out of contact. The commanding officer send a runner bearing the message, “Bring the standard back to the line.”
With heroic recklessness the lad sent back the ringing reply, “Bring the line up to the standard.”
So once again, I am saying, Standards: We Used To Have Them. Nebraska has taken this bold step to draw a line in the sand, and say at last, "This is the new standard once again." Be better, not easier, or cheaper, or faster, or with less bother. This has been the standard that helped link us with three centuries of heritage and reputation as the best of the best, and everyone from garbage collectors and pipe fitters to presidents and kings have done this irritating thing you find to be a quaint annoyance. It connects you with every single Freemason in the face of the Earth in a way no dues card or golden ring ever can. It's a shared language we all have in common, even if we have nothing else. It is a tool of our Craft. It's part of the price of admission.

And it proves you're not loafing up here.

Learn it, and become part of this endless chain to pass on to those who haven't even been born yet.

UPDATE 5/23/2019

Because of the immediate popularity of this particular Short Talk Bulletin in the wake of this discussion, the MSA has made it available in its entirety online as a pdf. See it HERE.


  1. Here in England, the usual method is to participate in Lodges of Instruction where over time a Brother takes every role in Lodge, so that when he's finally installed in the Chair of King Solomon he has opened and closed Lodge in all the degrees and conferred all degrees.

    There are always Brethren who have difficulty in memorising ritual; those who wish to become Master at least must learn how to open and close Lodge. Nearly every Lodge has Brethren who can confer each degree, and they step in when the Master is unfamiliar.

    I have joined several side orders, and it is always a bit grating when the officers do not take the time to learn the work. Reading from the ritual book takes away from the effect of a degree.

    My party piece is the Traditional History, which for us is the second part of the 3rd Degree. I love giving it, and doing it entirely from memory adds to the mystery. And, as I approach 67, the effort of memorising and keeping ritual in memory helps to keep me young at heart.

    I trust that memorising ritual will again become the norm for Freemasons everywhere.

    W.Bro Chris Hansen, Goliath Lodge #5595 UGLE (speaking for myself, and not my Lodge)

  2. The most recent candidates to begin the process in my Lodge have opted to learn the long form ritual and hopefully to eventually take part in conferring degrees. A couple brethren who joined in a one-day festival also want to learn the ritual. Maybe times are changing.

    Right now a lodge of over 400 members has only three brothers who can obligate candidates on the first and second degrees and only one on the third.

    1. It warms my heart to hear that you have some candidates who want to go long form. To many of our Brothers are not, and it only makes it harder on them in the long run. My lodge gives 3rd Proficiency Pins to anyone who goes proficient on the third degree. It had helped motivate Brothers around the state to go that extra step. If you would like information on getting some pins you can email us at proficiencypins@gmail.com Keep up the good work Brother.

  3. It’s refreshing to see a Grand Lodge jurisdiction raise the standards rather than making the lower standards lower. Thank you Nebraska for leading by example and raising the value of our beloved fraternity.

    C. Shawn Oak, PM, KTN

  4. A good memory can be obtained by old fashion training, good or unusual genes, and esoteric techniques which involve harmonizing the mind and body towards levels of peak performance.

    It is true. Not all people will have a "good memory". But a good leader, Masonic or otherwise, will be able to utilize those Brethren, mentioned by W.Bro Hansen, "who can confer each degree". My initial attraction, years ago, to becoming a York Rite College member was the assertion (proudly in my jurisdiction) that it consisted of men who were workers, leaders, guardians, and teachers of the American York Rite and had achieved a certain degree of mastery/understanding in its ritual. The idea is that such men could be entrusted to maintain and deliver high degrees of ritual proficiency throughout the jurisdiction for the benefit of the candidates.

  5. Nice story and a lot of statics,but the fact is no actual proof that eliminating the catechism causes loss of membership.

    1. It clearly demonstrates that, in the long run, the casual disregard for the respect of memory work, combined with the breaking of interpersonal bonds of mentorship, have contributed substantially to the decimation of the ranks of competent ritualists capable of conferring degrees. It's a whole string of causes and effects. It starts with the dwindling numbers and strength of candidate/mentor relationships that used to be standard operating procedure. That led directly to the sharp spike in loss of new member retention, which in most US jurisdictions today has fallen alarmingly under just three years on average overall for all petitioners.

      Think about that for a second. They arrive and are gone in three years, when you look at the overall statistics nationwide. That means a large enough of them are gone in a year or less to offset the men who stay Masons for 20 years. And THAT can be traced straight back to the 1990s when the national trend was to drop proficiency requirements, or to offer more and more written study aids for self-learning. Self-learning was NEVER the point of a Masonic lodge. It was ALWAYS about Brother-To-Brother cooperation and interdependence.

    2. Chris, I find your article interesting in many ways, I am a member of two different lodges, one with increasing membership and a dynamic energy, the other with an aging demographic, and dwindling membership, due to no doubt some of the things you highlight in your essay. While i agree with the point about mentorship, i disagree with your comment in your reply ""Self-learning" was NEVER the point of a masonic Lodge" I believe it absolutely is about self learning in this manner. That we use the bonds of friendship and brotherly love to discover who we are, to build greater strength as loving human beings, to become more empathetic, it is with these brothers that we use the tools of Freemasonry that we raise our own bar to become greater skilled at being that mentor for our brothers and sisters who are not in the fraternity.
      Michael Mott WM Ivanhoe Lodge 142 of the grand Lodge of Alberta Canada.

    3. The 1990s also saw the advent of the Internet, the end of the Cold War, and a multitude of other significant changes in American society. Correlation doesn't imply causation.

    4. I'm fully aware of the enormous cultural and social shifts that kicked in at that time. In Heritage Endures, I explore the external forces we couldn't or can't change; the things that are changing around us which we are powerless to affect; numerous attempts by grand lodges to stave off the future by altering or discarding laws and traditions and longstanding standards; and the after effects that we can look back at and determine their actual results. Plus the timing of living in the 21st century.

      I'm more than aware of the difference between causation, coincidence, and just the accidental placement of the stars in the heavens.

  6. Exactly, Chris! What happened here in Nebraska is that new members were more likely to rely on the older members who knew the ritual to perform it. They didn't have the confidence to learn it themselves, which they would have gained had they learned long-form. When the older brothers became incapable of performing our work or they passed on, no one was there to pick up the slack. The result was no degrees. Today, two-thirds of our lodges can't confer a degree. What we see now are brothers traveling from lodge-to-lodge to perform the work. While that's an amazing commitment to the fraternity, what will happen to the lodges when they pass? On the other hand, I'm working with a young man, like many others, who want to only become proficient in the long form. Along the way, he (age 23-24) and I (67) are building a wonderful relationship that I know will keep him in the fraternity. Now, that won't happen with every candidate, but that's the purpose of the long-form proficiency, isn't it? Returning to long-form proficiency isn't the panacea for our membership challenges, but I believe it makes more-committed members.

  7. Here in NH we never dropped the requirement to "learn your lessons." I always look forward to opening the Lodge building for lesson night and working with those not just with their noses in a lesson book, but those that are also interested in learning the various degree parts, or delving into the esoteric side of things.

    Those are some of the closest bonds I have, those that are interested in learning, and show up to share the experience.

  8. " It was overwhelmingly approved by a full 2/3 of Nebraska's voting members of Grand Lodge. " <- False! It passed by two votes.

    1. How, since Nebraska requires a 2/3 majority to pass legislation? So, 2/3 =2? That's pretty overwhelming.

  9. I have to say this confuses me, but then again I have not traveled to lodges beyond New Mexico and I am still new to Freemasonry. We have cypher books, but we only use those for weekly coaching sessions and memorization at home, and we do not use them or any other books in Lodge. Everything in Lodge has to be memorized, but we help each other when we stumble. Is that not how it is done elsewhere?

    1. In Virginia nothing is written. We do a long form q and a catechism that takes about 15 minutes. You learn it mouth to ear from your mentor, as he did his. This has a few side effects

      You spend a lot of time with your mentor. You are learning a 15 minute speech with no written reference. There are lots of meetings and other fellowships inevitably happen.

      You talk about the catechism. What this means, why we do that, etc.

      It means more. Things mean more to people who work for them. Repeating something the hundreds of times you do as you study and learn this make it really sink in.

    2. I know you still do all of this. In fact, it was because my first travel experience to a lodge outside of my home state was to Pennsylvania and Virginia that I immediately determined to learn the proper traditions and requirements, and not just what some of my irresponsible brethren back home assured me was "all you gotta use them.

      My only gripe is, why in the name of all that's sacred does Virginia demand that the Secretary read the minutes of the previous meeting and approve them, and THEN read the minutes of the current meeting too, for the lodge's approval, too?

      Therein lies the path to perdition.

  10. Great story. I too went went through memorizing each step. You feel better inside yourself knowing you did.

  11. Brother, thanks for this. My teacher asked me the first question for my proficiencies and then I had to ask and answer all of the questions in all three sections of the EA as well as the FC and MM. I have tried to teach this way with my students. I have an unbreakable bond with my teacher, even though he has gone on to eternal refreshment. I have a bond with those I teach as well. Tim Fleischer, Salado Lodge #296, Grand Lodge of Texas.

  12. Robert V Walker-SmithWed May 29, 08:57:00 PM 2019

    Drat. Nine years after my raising, on my second chair, and had my entire lodge fooled. But Brother Hodapp could not be deceived, and has outed me as no better than a cowan or an eavesdropper. Curse the evil day I succumbed to the lure of the cypher and neglected to avail myself of a mentor.

    May I cite you as a reference in my demit?

    1. That zoom you heard was the sound of the point of this story making a low pass right over your head. Sheesh. Why are so many Masons taking this so personally?

      So, you wanna compare who had the better or worse experiences and what it taught us both? I was a victim of a one day class for my FC and MM degrees. After my EA, it took my dying lodge five months to throw in the towel and send me to the class to finish. My so-called 'mentor' never met worth me personally, answered a couple of questions over the phone, then told me "Honestly, go buy a Lester's."

      No one else in that dying lodge at the time had the time to teach me my catechism, nor explain anything from the lectures, or much of anything else I had experienced. Just "Go and memorize those words, and we'll pass ya' no matter how you screw up." My friend of more than two decades at that time, Nathan, had joined with me, and we finally figured it out and performed our Q&A with each other in open lodge.

      Did we get screwed? You betcha. Wish we hadn't. Did we rise above it? You betcha. Glad we did. Our lodge was in such dire circumstances that they made me Master after just two years, and Nathan after just three. And then we helped write a book that argued for the opposite of what we experienced that is STILL influential today. And then we helped found a new lodge a year later. And then I wrote a Dummies book. And then we helped start the Masonic Society. And a couple of other things along the way.

      That old dying lodge of ours is one of the strongest in the state today, and I'd compare it favorably with any lodge in the country BECAUSE of what guys like Nathan and I learned by being left to our own devices until we found a REAL mentor who helped us.

      And that first lousy mentor of mine? I only saw him in lodge another four times after I became a MM.

      I never, ever disparage anyone who becomes a Freemason in a one day class, or who learns well on their own. Ever. But guys like you and me and Nathan and the rest who are able to excel without the bonds and guidance of a mentor are NOT the usual case. A mentor creates a unique personal bond that has little to do with memorizing words, and everything to do with learning about true Masonic Brotherhood. And the easier this fraternity makes it to enter, to be ignored, and to not show up next month because "Who would care?", the easier it has become to simply walk away before the first year is over. The proof of THAT can be seen in every single grand lodge jurisdiction in the US today.

      So don't demit yet.

  13. When I raised my son to the sublime degree of Master Mason he was the first candidate to give his catechism in lodge in over a decade and similarly I was the first Master in over a decade that could confer the degrees. During my year I also attempted to add a dress code to our Bylaws which was met with riddicule and scorn.
    As this article states, if we are to survive as a fraternity we cannot continue to shirk our duties to the Brotherhood by allowing the downward shifting baseline of acceptable minimums to continue.
    WB KW

  14. I took the full catechism before open lodge in Golden Colorado about ten years ago. I had a mentor to assist me in memorizing them and he asked the questions in the lodge meeting. Not only do I have a great bond with this mentor, but feel great about myself for the experience! I agree with everything in your article! I am now the Marshall of my lodge in Scottsdale Arizona, I am going to suggest to the Master of my lodge that we have a coin developed for those EAs that choose to go the catechism route as a reward for their commitment to Masonry.
    Bob Beer

  15. I think there is something missing in the conversation here. Each jurisdiction has a different catechism. Oh sure, same basic points, but each is different. I took my work in Ohio, was WM in Missouri, and now live in Maryland. Worked or have visited lodges from coast to coast in the US and a couple of Canadian provinces for good measure.

    Ohio had a full, but fairly short, catechism. Missouri's was significantly longer. Maryland's is absurdly long and complex. After 35, if given the questions, I could hold my own with the Ohio catechism. Maryland's? Forget it. Not only is it it long, there are enough differences in the ritual that I mangle being Junior Deacon from time to time when my brain reverts to Ohio or Missouri or Illinois or North Dakota :).

    No need to toss the baby out with the bathwater. There is a need for proficiency. However, is it necessary for the candidate to parrot back nearly every word spoken (Maryland), or be able to relate the key points of each phase of the degree (Ohio)?

  16. I know I am super late to the conversation, but I am IN Nebraska and learning the long form in hopes of completing the EA degree when things get back to normal. It has been very beneficial for me to learn the long form with my mentor, not only because it gives me a sense of accomplishment, but helps me also understand what being a Freemason is all about!


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