Assuring the Future of Freemasonry: Making the Craft Relevant to All Generations

An address by W Bro CE Lord OBE PAGDC and W Bro JR Soper PAGDC to the Quarterly Communication of UGLE on 12 September 2012

republished with kind permission from Freemasonry Today

Most Worshipful Pro Grand Master and Brethren,

As the National and the London Chairmen of the Universities Scheme, we were honoured to be asked to give thought to this crucial topic of how we make the Craft relevant to all generations.

Recruitment and retention of members is a key theme that every lodge has high on its agenda and it is important whether a newly made Brother joins us aged eighteen, twenty eight, forty eight or sixty eight!

Inevitably, our own focus has been looking at how we can include younger men in masonry as not only is that the role of the Universities Scheme, but it is also a reasonable proposition that if we can encourage men to join and develop a love of the Craft in their twenties, then we can hope to keep them throughout their lives, providing us with a steady stream of Lodge officers who may, we hope, also become active in their provinces and the metropolitan area.

That said, we believe our findings – based on qualitative research, having consulted a range of Provincial leaders and lodge secretaries – are relevant to the vast majority of lodges, as we are sure that every one of you will be keen to expand their lodge’s membership and encourage participation, as individual circumstances permit.

Therefore in our talk to today we are going to focus on a number of issues, giving some tangible examples of good practice and some suggestions that lodges may wish to try. And the good news is - that recognising that taking notes wearing regalia and gloves isn’t easy – the Grand Secretary has agreed to publish the text of this talk on the UGLE website within the next week, and there will also be an article based on the speech in the next edition of Freemasonry Today.

To set things in context though, we thought you might be interested to know how our membership breaks down by age group at the moment:

  • Of our members across the English Constitution, only nine per cent are aged under 40. And to put that percentage in perspective, it is 3,000 less than the number of members we have aged over 80!
  • Indeed the vast bulk of our members, some 65 per cent, are aged between 50 and 80
  • The average age at initiation is 44 and the average age of those attaining the chair over the last four years was 63

We are not saying there is anything wrong with that in principle, but with 55 per cent of our members in, or reaching retirement, it does set a generational challenge. Also if the average age of reaching the chair is 63, one can assume that most of the decision makers in a Lodge are near to, or in retirement, which leads one to question the degree of representation that younger members have in a Lodge.

So how do we attract younger men to join masonry, and retain them, whilst ensuring that our existing membership still enjoy their participation and don’t feel excluded by change?

In our research we have found that one crucial element is recognising that masonry is in increasing competition with many other calls on the leisure time of prospective members. It is also clear that working patterns have changed significantly and it is less easy for those in employment to leave their workplace early in order to get to a lodge meeting. Nor for that matter do younger brethren (especially those with growing families) want to stay late all the time – something that is equally true of more senior members.

Many successful lodges don’t start their work until 6 or 6.30 in the evening and they still finish in good time to enjoy their after-proceedings and get home at a reasonable hour. They do this by taking a number of simple steps that cut out time consuming yet peripheral activities. Some, for example, don’t process in and out of the lodge. Most circulate rather than read their minutes, and do the same for the Almoner’s and Charity Steward’s reports as well as much of the business normally done under the risings. Ceremonies can be reduced in length too, without taking out any of the essential elements that make our ritual so special. For example at installation there is no necessity to present the working tools or to formally re-invest those officers being re-appointed. At the meal, there are opportunities to shorten proceedings, and we would make a plea that all long speeches should be avoided - with no exceptions(!).

All of the above not only cuts down the time taken by the formal proceedings, but also increases the pace of a meeting, which is important if one wants to keep the attention of a younger member. The “impatience of youth” is something we can all remember, and need to acknowledge!

Of course, there are often significant time commitments beyond the Lodge meetings themselves such as Lodges of Instruction, rehearsals, Lodge social functions etc. The overall time commitment that is being asked of a member needs to be critically reviewed by the Lodge.

However, it is not as simple as saying that the time commitment should be reduced. Regular meetings, often informal, and perhaps involving members’ partners and family can be important in fostering a feeling of membership, and this sense of being a member and of belonging is very important. Indeed a good mentor should greatly assist in helping a new member to feel he belongs, and the formal creation of Lodge Mentor as a Lodge office should help ensure that this happens.

So we have so far discussed three key points:

  • the need to be mindful of the time commitment that we are asking of members,
  • keeping up the pace of a meeting,
  • and the importance of fostering a feeling of membership.

These are all important to ensuring a lodge is welcoming to all generations. What we have also found is the way a lodge looks and feels is absolutely vital too. A lot of this has already come out from the ground-breaking research undertaken for Grand Lodge earlier this year in the ‘Future of Freemasonry’ report. For example the language we use to describe freemasonry is key to it having a broader appeal as is dispelling many of the myths that still surround us as an organisation. Being able to describe in simple laymen’s terms, using modern vocabulary, what freemasonry is about is crucial; emphasising the social side of our activities as well as making a contribution to society both through our charitable activities and by helping each individual Mason to become the best person he can be. But changing our language doesn’t mean changing our principles. In his address to university scheme lodges, the Assistant Grand Master has so rightly said: “the society of today lives in a seemingly increasing moral vacuum, a space which freemasonry, with its Grand Principles … can fill, and to which young intelligent men can look for inspiration, self-improvement and fulfilment.”

Experience has shown that, approached correctly, young men – indeed men of all ages – find considerable appeal in joining an organisation which is secular, multi-faith, cross denominational and which shares their values. Indeed, in explaining Freemasonry to new and potential members, a Lodge should consider emphasizing such features as

  • lifetime friendships
  • location flexibility, should they move
  • personal development possibilities
  • and new experiences

I imagine some of you are thinking that this is all very well, but where exactly do we get these new younger members from? Of course, the basic approach of ‘member-get-member’ remains the best. But some lodges, particularly those that are affiliated to a school or university say, find that discreet advertisements letting people know they exist often attract initial enquiries. And in some cases, the adverts are less discreet. The Province of West Lancashire took the back page of last year’s Freshers’ Handbook, which went out to over 20,000 students in Liverpool. That resulted in a bumper crop of new candidates for the University Lodge of Liverpool. But many enquiries are now coming through the internet. Every day we are receiving hundreds of hits on the Grand Lodge, Provincial and lodge specific sites, which then translate into expressions of interest from prospective members. This is rapidly becoming one of the most important marketing methods for the Craft. So if your lodge doesn’t yet have a website, then it should consider investing in one. But do remember to keep a website up to date as there is nothing worse than finding that all the information is three years old and no longer relevant.

We can also use social media such as Facebook to communicate with our members outside lodge meetings. A number of lodges, including Apollo University Lodge, in Oxford, and the Metropolitan Grand Stewards have established an active presence on Facebook, for example. Not only can this be used to organise social events, but it also helps develop the feeling of membership. And if you don’t know what Facebook is, ask your children or grand-children as it’s a great way of keeping in touch with them too.

These direct benefits of embracing the internet also help in making Freemasonry in general, and a Lodge in particular, more modern, and thus more relevant to younger masons. An important challenge to us all is to respect our traditions, stay faithful to our values, whilst appearing modern and thus relevant to younger generations.

We have now covered the interlinked key points of the importance of appearing up to date, embracing the internet, and using clear modern vocabulary when describing masonry. Such marketing and communication is all very well at attracting initial interest, but we have found that lodges that have successfully spanned the generations have other attributes as well, not least in making new members feel welcome.

An aspect of Freemasonry that can be off-putting to newer and/or younger members is rank, particularly if it is interpreted as “superiority”. We would suggest, for example, that lodges avoid being too hide bound by rank or seniority and that Grand Officers and Provincial Grand Officers should spread themselves around both in the lodge room and at the festive board, actively engaging younger members in conversation. Involving younger members is a common theme that we have heard from successful lodges. Involvement in ceremonies is important – but involve them at a pace that is right for them – let them if they want to, but don’t force them up the ladder if they do not. However also involve them in the organisation of social events, and also in the decision making of the Lodge. Some lodges, in order to do just that, have abolished the Lodge Committee so that decisions are taken by the whole Lodge – this ties in with our early comment about the relatively high average age of decision makers. And if you find you have a Masonic star in waiting, let him move forward quickly and become a young Master as the chances are he could help ensure the future of your lodge as well as being of huge benefit to your Province or the Metropolitan Grand Lodge.

That does lead to a respectful request to Provincial Grand Masters and Provincial Grand Secretaries that when you do invite younger Masons to become members of committees or working groups, please avoid having all meetings in the middle of the working day!

Provinces can also help retain younger members through initiatives like London’s Connaught Club which welcomes all masons in the capital aged under 35, to socialise together and which, by encouraging better connections, also supports inter-visiting. It may also accelerate the feeling of belonging, by causing a young mason to be surrounded by a number of like-minded people, and reinforces the idea that masonry is for all age groups. Another approach is for provinces to help create lodges specifically designed for younger professional people. For example the establishment of the Leeds Lodge last year in the West Riding, which meets four times a year in the centre of the city at a time suitable for people coming straight from the office.

There are many more ideas that came from our research that we believe will help assure the future of freemasonry, and make it relevant for all generations, but time today is against us. We very much hope that this has proved interesting and thought provoking and thank you Most Worshipful Pro Grand Master for inviting us to make this presentation and thank you, brethren for the way you have received it.

Reprinted from Freemasonry Today
UGLE Quarterly Communication Address on 12 September 2012 
Copyright © Grand Lodge Publications Ltd 2011-2013

Freemasonry: a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.