Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
Years ago, when I was undergoing basic officer training to serve in the U.S. Army, I had an experience that I am sure others who went through basic training also had. The drill sergeant told us, “Look to your left. Look to your right. Half of you won’t make it through this training.” The drill sergeant was pretty much correct. A lot of the folks in basic officer training did wash out.
I could offer the same analogy to us as Odd Fellows: “Look to your left. Look to your right. Half of the Lodges out there today won’t make it.” And unless we change the trajectory of our Order, I’m afraid that is exactly what will happen. Every year we lose Lodges because the membership falls so low that even the minimal quorum requirement of five cannot be met. Lodges consolidate or simply surrender their charters. Today, we have just 118 Lodges in the Jurisdiction of California. Once, we had over 600 Lodges. Today, we have only a shade over 4,000 Odd Fellows in this Jurisdiction. Once, we had over 58,000. The landscape of America is littered with the corpses of dozens and dozens of fraternal orders that grew, flourished, had hundreds of thousands of members, and then faded away and no longer exist except in some history books.
Of great concern to me is that fully 50 of our 118 Lodges have 20 or fewer members. You know and I know that membership numbers “on the books” does not translate into active members of a Lodge. Perhaps half the members “on the books” are active participants in Lodge life – the other half pay their dues and little else. So, a Lodge with 20 members may have only 10 who come to meetings and are active members. And a Lodge with 10 members may have only 5 (the barest of quorums) who come to meetings. Recently, I visited a Lodge that had around 15 members on the books. Less than a handful of years ago, I saw that this same Lodge had over 25 members on its books. This Lodge has a beautiful and historic Hall right in the heart of downtown. At the entrance to the Lodge is an historic sign displaying the names of seven entities that used to meet at the Lodge Hall, including a Rebekah Lodge, an Encampment, and some other fraternal orders. Today, only the Odd Fellows Lodge exists, the others having faded away into historical footnotes – only the sign remains. Minutes of this Lodge show that at meetings some 7, 8 or 9 members attend. I asked the Noble Grand how many new members had the Lodge brought in over the past five years and he answered “three.” Juxtaposed against these three is the fact that the Lodge has lost many more through because members passed away, or moved away, or simply stopped attending and paying dues. This Lodge now has members in their 70’s and 80’s and has, essentially, skipped two generations of new members. There are no young members. How long can such a Lodge survive before the membership dips below five? Five years? Ten years?
I visited another Lodge with a very similar scenario. This Lodge had dropped to less than 15 members. Just five years ago, the Lodge had over 25 members. I asked the Noble Grand how many new members the Lodge had brought in over the past five years and he said “two”. I also chatted with a 35-year member of that Lodge and asked him how many new members he, personally, had brought in. He said “my wife and my son”. I responded and said, “that’s nice, but how many members have your brought in who aren’t your relatives?” He thought for a moment, and said, “none.” Amazing. And, sad to say, all rather selfish. These Lodge members are focused on the status quo because it’s known and comfortable to them. They have ignored the needs of the Lodge and the Order. This Lodge will almost certainly not survive because the members have allowed it to lose more members than they have brought in. Simple math: The Lodge will – in due time – drop below the minimum quorum of five members, and the community and our fraternity will have lost an asset that has been around since the 1800’s.
I recently visited another Lodge that had a terrific museum. In that museum I saw a photograph of a number of Chevaliers from a local Canton, in full uniform. These Chevaliers looked good, but they were all in their late 50’s, starting to gray under their military-style caps. Today, I see these same Chevaliers in their uniforms, but they are all in their late 70’s, fully gray. There are virtually no young men and women in the Patriarchs Militant. This reality is prevalent in all our Branches: Rebekahs, LEA, Patriarchs Militant, and LAPM. We see the same folks, only older, and we see precious few new members, and even fewer young members in their 20’s and 30’s.
And it’s a strange phenomenon. When I review historical records of our Order, I see that the historical leadership of our Lodges were in their 20’s and 30’s. Often the Noble Grand was as young as 25, and the “old man” of the Lodge was the Treasurer or Financial Secretary at the ripe old age of 32. Today, however, we see many Lodges where the membership and the leadership is in its 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. What happened?
Well, it’s all a matter of simple arithmetic and the aging process. People only live 100 years, if we are in good health and have good genes. Fraternal Orders can live for centuries, if they bring in new members in sufficient numbers to replace departing members. We, as an Order have failed to fulfill our primary responsibility to our fraternity. We have failed to bring in the new members. Many of our Lodges have skipped an entire generation of new members. Some of our Lodges have even skipped two entire generations – they have become a Lodge of grandfathers and grandmothers. It will be very hard to salvage such a Lodge. How do you bring in folks in their 20’s and 30’s to a Lodge composed of folks in their 70’s and 80’s?
But we have got to try. We owe that responsibility to the future of our Order. The great principals of our Order become somewhat meaningless if the Order dissipates and fades away. In particular, a Lodge with 20 or fewer members must realize that the number one goal of that Lodge is to bring in new members (even if it’s only two) each year for the foreseeable future. There is no greater responsibility that the members have to their Order and their Lodge.
F – L – T
Jurisdiction of California