When I first joined the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) in 2004, it didn’t take me long to learn that ours was a shrinking Order, with membership losses exceeding membership gains. Worse, I learned that this had been the status quo ante of our Order for decades. Soon after I joined, it was apparent to me that I had been dropped into the middle of what could easily be the end of the Order. Lodges were giving up their charters or consolidating, membership numbers were dropping across the board, and membership rolls showed an aging fraternity.
I wondered, “Can no one else in the Independent Order of Odd Fellows see this inevitable path to oblivion?” And then, about two or three years into my new membership, it hit me. Of course they can see it. They just choose to ignore it.
Ignoring the Decline in Membership
The declining membership would not be their problem. Not right now, at least. It would be the problem of other Odd Fellows, some other time into the future. At present, in their reality, everything was fine and dandy. They can just keep doing what they have been doing in Odd Fellowship for the previous century. They can recite the same lines to open and close their Lodges. They can gather at the same Grand Lodges to have sessions, and appoint to the same offices, have the same installations, with the same tuxedos and long dresses. It will be the same as it has always been, and it will be comfortable. The known, of course, is far more comfortable than the unknown.
And I remember hearing a refrain, again and again, about the future of the IOOF. When I joined, I heard it said many times by some of the older hands. They would tell me, “The future of the IOOF is with our youth groups.” These members truly believed that the answer to our membership problem (if they even admitted that there was a problem) was to be found in our youth groups: Junior Odd Fellows and Theta Rho. This refrain was sung by some Odd Fellows and Rebekahs who had themselves come up through the youth groups decades earlier. And they sincerely believed that in the 21st Century, the Junior Odd Fellows and Theta Rho would – as they became adults – fill our diminishing ranks.
Decline in Youth Group Membership
Fifteen years ago I knew that this was a chimera. The 2020’s are nothing like the 1950’s. As we entered the 21st Century, the youth groups’ membership, statewide, never exceeded 50. And it would continue to diminish. In 2022, you could count the membership of the youth groups on two hands. The inevitable finally happened a week ago when the Grand Lodge Board of Directors ended the experiment with Junior Odd Fellows. It no longer exists in California as a unit within the Grand Lodge. Theta Rho, I predict, will soon follow.
So, with the-future-of-the-Order-is-with-our-youth-groups theory now discredited, I predict that the new line of defense will be an even stricter adherence to ritual. I predict that there will be some who will argue that the future of Odd Fellowship can be found in the past. If only we could do a better job in our degree work, if only we could sing the Odes a little better, if only we could recite the oaths and obligations with a bit more fervor, if only we could wear the costumes and regalia more often – all would be well. Let’s get back to basics, they will say. Let’s re-emphasize the need to educate the orphan, visit the sick, relieve the distressed, and bury the dead.
But, Brothers and Sisters, the past will not save us. Only evolution and adaptation to the future will save this Order. Let me be blunt: If we aren’t relevant to the men and women who comprise Generation X (men and women between the ages of 40 and 55) and the Millennial Generation (men and women between the ages of 25 and 40) we will become Lodges of the Retired Generation.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California
Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF)
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