by Paul R. Swanson, 32° KCCH
November 18, 2023
I took the job of membership committeeman for this district seriously when I accepted the appointment by RW Richard McGlew, our current DDGM. I wanted to make an impact and to leave my fellow masons better off for my time served. So far, all but one lodge where I have offered my help have responded with “crickets”. Simply put, no one wants to work. I have decided to create a report and offer it to my brothers. I have already written a book on the subject years ago. This is putting some of the insights from my book into action if the membership believes they want to move forward.
In District 7 there is a very real need for changes to our usual way of doing things if we are to grow. I have heard all the excuses over the last 3 years since I have moved into this area. Some of them I heard while I was in Tallahassee and before that Tempa area lodges as well. While some issues are harder to overcome than others, we can not only survive but thrive if we are willing to do the “work”. Very few “walk-ins” that simply call, and join are to be found these days. Here is how we can change that narrative and start growing in a process-driven way.
Business evaluations have evolved over time. One of the most useful for both business and nonprofit volunteer groups like us is the combination of a SWOT, which simply lists the activities both observed and reported from surveys and other sources, and a 7-S analysis. The SWOT list is divided into strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Some items may be listed in more than one place.
The second and by far harder to compile portion of a business analysis is the McKinsey 7-S model. The key elements of structure, strategy, system, shared values, skill, style, and staff are also evaluated and graded. They are further evaluated into soft elements and hard elements. Without this model in conjunction with a SWOT, the SWOT just becomes a list, without texture or human emotion. The effort placed into a proper evaluation of a group, particularly if a proper survey is conducted, produces a very effective process for any cultural change that is needed, particularly for individual lodges looking to rebuild memberships.
You can’t keep going the same way you have been, or you will continue to stay where you are. Progress and change require “work”.
The district is large, with 14 lodges creating an unusual amount of leadership opportunities for interested members. Interested in holding a chair, you’re in luck. If one is not available at your lodge, several others are usually available at a nearby lodge, particularly in our eastern group of lodges. Many members join multiple lodges.
Recently a DeMolay chapter has been established in Lake City and is growing. The one in Perry Lodge has yet to organize but they do have a charter.
There are a few examples of generational masonic involvement, that is grandfather and grandson, father, and son, etc.
I found one example so far of members meeting for esoteric light. Unfortunately, the group was dependent on the leader and no backup was found to carry on when that leader had to shorten his cable tow. The interest is there, but the leadership is intermittent.
There are a few unselfish members who will travel and help other lodges in their degree work and the associated lectures. This personal touch is significant and avoids videos or other recordings that might not be as impressive for the petitioner.
Often Masons will be involved in several volunteer groups to achieve their personal goals of self-improvement and leadership opportunities, with the Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Toastmasters, and assorted church associations rounding out the usual examples. This interconnectedness brings about personal growth opportunities which I have personally seen as beneficial in Madison, and I hear it is true elsewhere.
Competition for our potential members’ time is our number one issue. We have several other groups who can provide an experience for the same group of men that we can, minus the uniqueness of our fraternity. The Moose, the Elks, the Lions, the Toastmasters, Rotary, Kiwanis, and many other fraternal, civic, and veteran volunteer groups are our competition. Make no mistake, these other volunteer groups are our competition for good men looking to become better men as well!
With kids’ afterschool events, men working longer hours often, and expanded parenting expectations placed on today’s men, we must drive home not only what we have to offer but we must deliver on that promise, that is making good men better as we advertise. Rote memorizing of ritual isn’t fitting that expectation for many members, nor potential members who grew up knowing a mason in many cases. Sometimes that’s all we are offering in their eyes, that is memorization of old stuff. They don’t see the value of their time investment.
We seem like a fraternity to do a poor job of demonstrating to our young men how valuable our fraternity can be to them. This can be seen in how many children refuse to follow in our footsteps when they are eligible.
With such a large district (90 odd driving miles between the extreme East lodges and the extreme West lodge) most members do not wish to visit or travel far. Regionality is the watchword at the expense of unity and camaraderie.
District 7 is divided into sections by the Shriners, the York Rite, and the Scottish Rite jurisdictions, making divided loyalties hard to unite our district for any leverage of advertising, promotions, etc. For instance, Morocco Shrine out of Jacksonville commands most of the district except for Madison, Perry, and Greenville which are under the Marzuq Shrine territory. Madison and Perry have individual Shrine Clubs under Marzuq while the Lake City Shrine Club is under Morocco out of Jacksonville.
Jacksonville Scottish Rite and Tallahassee Scottish Rite don’t divide the area as much as to allow those who choose to drive to each respective temple for their meetings to follow their wishes. I know of several members who live in Madison who belonged to Jacksonville Scottish Rite. Tallahassee Scottish Rite has members from Tampa and as far west as Panama City. Jurisdictions are fluid, meeting member’s needs. This is not true of lodges for the most part.
The York Rite out of Jacksonville is very active in the eastern section of District 7 under Rusty Ludlam. I am unaware of any YR members who travel to Tallahassee from our district, but likely there are a few.
Eastern Star failed at Madison Lodge years ago. A couple of our eastern lodges have active groups, but they are small.
Recent changes to insurance for lodges have seen significantly increased prices when insurance can be obtained. This creates budget stress which is passed on to the membership.
We want to offer members more than just the reading of the minutes, approving the payment of bills, and the sick and distress notifications. I am unaware of any member in my 33 years who joined for these reports or wishes to attend a meeting where that’s all they can usually expect.
Most lodges are seeing costs and cash issues magnifying alarmingly.
Most of the lodges in District 7 have rejected all help to rebuild their membership by the current DDGM committee. One lodge is considering its options before embarking on the path of the empowered volunteer. Far more could benefit from the program.
The attitude of not “recruiting” and waiting for a “walk-in” membership request for a petition prevails in the district. No one wants to expend any effort or work, despite the leadership training from GL which clearly says members can initiate a conversation about joining.
Far too many members do not participate in any events, free or otherwise. I have suggested surveying them from a safe source to find trends and paths to help them return, but so far none have been conducted. A survey by a lodge leader or even a past master risks the member not being truthful or helpful in the survey, particularly if that leader is part of the issue of why many are not involved in the first place. Garbage in, garbage out, as the saying goes. Only a proper survey is worth the effort. If this is completed properly, the information gathered is golden, guard it well. Most of the public in our district seem unaware that a Masonic Lodge exists in their location. If they are aware, they have not seen any community involvement in years. Perception is belief, even if it is not technically true. We must change their perceptions so that we can shift the narrative towards progress and away from regression.
The Master Mason’s Association for District 7 is attempting to bridge the gap created by the driving distance by shifting its monthly meetings between lodges and allowing revenue sharing as a reward for hosting the meeting. The jury is still out if this will break down the social barriers and spark a bit more competition for the traveling gavel between lodges.
Several lodges are attempting to do community work. One has a long history of helping a school and sharing scholarships.
Several lodges manage to have a local paper print events and degrees.
Several lodges have a Facebook page, but the number of views for most of them is slight. This limits the opportunities for the GL FB program to advertise reimbursement for membership sales leads.
Currently, no lodge is holding any esoteric Masonic education of any kind. One lodge reportedly was but that group has ceased to continue meeting. This is a huge, missed opportunity. Perhaps streaming some esoteric light regularly would be a potential solution.
Podcasts on Masonry abound and are very innovative as well as interesting and educational. Maybe meet regularly and review one or two of them and then carry the conversation to the lodge membership in a report for further discussion?
One in four members nationally, according to a survey join our fraternity only to discover that we don’t have the self-improvement processes in place to make good men better, as we advertise. They often vote with their feet, that is in response to what they see as false advertising. This can be addressed and reversed, but it would take “work”.
As we improve our community outreach, we should uncover petitioners who have wanted to join and are now motivated to join, as Madison # 11 has recently discovered to their benefit. This is as close to a “walk-in” petitioner as most lodges will ever see, with no real work required beyond the normal checks of mental, moral, and physical requirements.
It has been suggested we do a much better job as a group involving our family members in the public events we are involved in. The family members should know how much we value the fraternity and how much it cares about our families. They need to see value in their lives as they grow up so that it transfers to their lives naturally as an adult. The attitude of, “Shush, it’s a secret” wink, wink, has caused at least one generation of children to totally reject our fraternity.
One in four members wants better-directed Masonic education on a predictable schedule. This is not the current GL masonic digest training that is required for officers. A survey would narrow the topics a bit for an opportunity to improve the stated meetings.
The threats to District 7 are many and varied.
Budget threats, including recent insurance companies leaving Florida, are a huge issue, particularly for small lodges.
The current directive from the GL is to have all officers take the Masonic Digest training. This may make them subject matter experts on the digest, but it comes at a high cost in membership resentment and time spent in my observation. Is there a better way to promote harmony while mastering the digest?
The district is not unified by history, territory, or any distinct masonic camaraderie. It used to be two districts and still operates that way.
The loud membership complaints about driving 90 minutes or more between lodges is frequently voiced, particularly by the elderly at night on rural roads. They vote with their feet by not participating in visitation opportunities.
Fragmented alignments and membership are reflected in many ways. For the 2023 Tristate Degree in Dothan, Alabama this year only one District 7 member attended. All DDGM’s were expected by the GM to attend, but many didn’t. A last-minute York Rite degree was substituted on that date and reportedly well attended, covering most of District 7. An opportunity to enrich the craft was missed, unfortunately. I later had several claims it was the fault of a lack of communication.
Several lodges are seeing shrinking membership and even less regular participation. The remedies require work.
Members are going NPD at a predictable rate, without recovery in most cases.
It took me a while to unearth this issue. There is a history of blackballing a first petition in our district in a few lodges. In my 33 years of masonry, I have never heard of such a poor excuse for abuse of a system, claiming that this tests if the applicant is serious and will complete the degrees.
Recent GL efforts to subject the membership to more formal attire while in the lodge, even suggesting in a GL magazine article that members should leave formal wear in the lodge if a time constraint is keeping a brother from “dressing up” are unrealistic. Is GL listening? Currently, district 7 is made up of mostly tradesmen, loggers, farmers, mechanics, and electricians types from my observations. The suit-wearing public is not remotely the largest group of our current membership. In summary, these SWOT listed items are curable, nor is this a complete listing of all potential issues pro or con. These issues simply require work and an open mind for re-engaging the members who are not participating while cultivating a better public image for the next generation to find our fraternity worthy of their time and energy.
Lodges wanting to rebuild their membership can drill down to the simple things. Get a steering committee ready and set them to work listing the likely objections petitioners might have and the responses they approve for each one. This should be a comprehensive list. Set the empowered volunteer to hand out cards for the preset event that the petitioners are being invited to, with speakers ready to present the offer. Be ready for an influx of new members to process, so ritual lovers need to be ready for the degrees. Nothing is worse than promising new members an experience and then not delivering. Look for quality over quantity.