Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
Odd Fellows believe that truth is the ultimate virtue. And what is true remains true, whether it is good news or bad news. It remains true whether you wish to hear it or wish to ignore it. So, ready or not, here is the unvarnished truth: At it’s current trajectory, Rebekah Lodges will functionally cease to exist in California within 10 years.
I am a Rebekah, myself, and I don’t like saying it. But ignoring the truth is not an option. We need to confront it and deal with it. The historical statistics show the growth and the decline of the Rebekahs. And those statistics don’t lie. The statistics show that, in California, the Rebekah Degree had 137 Lodges and 11,460 members in 1891. Except for a brief period during World War I and the Depression, Rebekahs showed pretty steady growth, at one point in time reaching a high of 392 Lodges and 53,112 members. Starting in 1953, however, Rebekahs began an unbroken string of annual membership losses. That unbroken string of losses has continued to this very day. This is a annual membership loss that has continued, unabated, for 63 years – a breath-taking and staggering loss of Lodges and members. A path of 63 years is a path that covers more than two generations. It is a death spiral. Today, there are only 1,330 dues-paying Rebekahs in California situated in only 51 Lodges. (And we all know that 1,330 members doesn’t translate into 1,330 active members – all Lodges have members on their books who rarely come to meetings and rarely participate.) A significant number of those 51 Lodges have very few members – challenging them to have quorums at any given meeting. And most Lodges’ membership rosters show ages in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s – with very few members in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. The story in California is replicated in Rebekah Lodges throughout North America.
The statistics show a loss of remaining members, every year, exceeding 10% (and sometimes, exceeding 15%). The math is both simple and disturbing. At that rate, one of two things is inevitable within 10 years: (1) Rebekahs will devolve in this jurisdiction to only a handful of Lodges with a total membership hovering around 100; or (2) Rebekahs will cease to exist as a functional branch of this Order.
Now, this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been going on since the 1950’s – some 63 years. And yet, we Rebekahs continue to do business as usual. We have our formal meetings where we move in certain predetermined ways and recite the ritual, we gather at regional confabs, we convene our Rebekah Assembly, we appoint our district deputy presidents, and we make very few changes in the way we conduct ourselves. Most Lodges rarely reach outside of their Lodge Halls and involve themselves in significant ways in their communities. And by continuing to do things just like we have always done them for the past 63 years, do we honestly believe this will change the trajectory of our degree? If so, we are deceiving ourselves. To continue business as usual will simply allow the inertia of our numbers to lead us to the demise of the Rebekah Degree. It is as inevitable as death and taxes. It is simple math: Our Lodges are losing more members than we are bringing in. After 63 years of losses, there is no path to success in our current configuration.
So, what is the solution?
Well, to fund the solution we need to fully understand the problem. Let’s start with the history of the Rebekahs. The Rebekah Degree was accepted by Odd Fellowship in 1851. The degree was written by Schuyler Colfax, an Odd Fellow who later became Vice President of the United States. The degree was originally written for the benefit of brothers to confer on their wives and daughters. It was considered only an “honorary degree”. Later, the degree was expanded so that sisters could confer the degree on sisters, a ritual was adopted, and Rebekah Lodges were instituted. The ritual has changed very little over time. It should be noted that when the Rebekah Degree was first developed in the middle of the 19th Century, it was quite a step forward for women – Odd Fellowship became the first fraternal order to confer degrees on both genders. But, over the next 150 years, the Rebekah Degree was the epitome of “separate but equal” – although men could always join a Rebekah Lodge, women were not permitted to join an Odd Fellows Lodge. In fact, Odd Fellows Lodges were called “the man’s Lodge” and Rebekah Lodges were called “the woman’s Lodge” Some of the older members of our Order use these terms even to this day. It was not until 1999-2000 that women were permitted to become members of an Odd Fellows Lodge. And truthfully, in the 21st Century, separate but equal Lodges for men and women make no sense.
And let’s take a look at the namesake of the Rebekah Degree. Rebekah is a character from the Old Testament of the Bible. There are many inspiring and successful women in history. Yet Schuyler Colfax chose to name the degree after Rebekah, who in the mind-set of an 1851 man, characterized the ideal traits of a “woman”. Who, exactly, is Rebekah and what did she accomplish? Well, according to the biblical accounts, it all started with the patriarch Abraham who decided that he needed to find a wife for his son, Isaac, who at the time was 37 years of age. So, Abraham sent his servant to Abraham’s birthplace to find a suitable bride for his son from amongst his own family. The servant did not come empty handed. Abraham sent along expensive jewelry, clothing and other gifts to the potential bride and her family. The servant offered a prayer to God and devised a “test” in order to find just the right wife for Isaac. He would stand at the town’s well with his men and his camels and he would wait to see if any girl of the town would give water to him and his camels. Here is where Rebekah comes into the picture. Rebekah walked to the well and offered to draw water for the servant as well as water to fill the troughs for the camels. This proved to the servant that this girl – Rebekah – had a kind and generous nature. So, the servant gave Rebekah a nose ring and two golden bracelets, which Rebekah hurried to show her mother and family. To make a long story short, Rebekah agreed to go with the servant to marry Isaac. While the story of Rebekah is quaint, it hardly seems to me to be the kind of thing that will encourage men and women of the 21st Century to join a Rebekah Lodge. In this Century, how relevant is the story of a woman, clearly subservient to men, who agrees to go with a stranger to marry another stranger?
Ultimately, Odd Fellowship will survive if it re-invents itself to be relevant to the new and coming generations of potential members – those born in the 1980’s and the 1990’s. I’m not suggesting that we ignore the rich history and important teachings of our Order – those are things that make us unique as Odd Fellows. But we must cease being viewed as Lodges of grandfathers and grandmothers. Back in the 1920’s the average age of Lodge members was somewhere in the 20’s and 30’s. Today, the average age of Lodge members is in the 60’s and 70’s. We must recapture our youth. And I don’t mean Theta Rho or Junior Odd Fellows. I occasionally hear long-time members say that the Theta Rho girls and the Junior Odd Fellows boys are “the future of our Order”. But that’s just whimsey and nostalgia. The numbers of girls and boys are just not there. A few Theta Rho girls and a few Junior Odd Fellows will not save the Order, even if every single one of them join a Lodge when they turn 16 or become young adults.
The first step to re-inventing the Order is the merger of our branches into one strong tree. LAPM and PM must merge (our nation’s military is fully integrated – why can’t we do the same for our PM and LAPM). LEA and Encampments must merge. And Rebekah Lodges and Odd Fellows Lodges must merge. Eventually, all branches must merge into one Order with nine (or more) degrees. And then we need to re-focus our Order to be much more involved with our communities, and we must certainly re-write our ancient oaths, obligations and rituals. It won’t be easy. But the alternative is unacceptable.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master