The natural process of an Odd Fellows lodge includes many dynamics, from who we admit as a member to how we decide to interpret the rituals and our codes. The decisions of an Odd Fellow lodge could be perceived as controversial to members of other lodges.
In my years as a member of this Order and having served in numerous capacities, from a lodge officer in every seat, a district deputy, and trustee and director of two Grand Bodies, a grand instructor three times, a Grand Patriarch and Grand Master, to being a well-read historian of the Order and writer of numerous pieces of legislation, I have never seen a universal way a lodge conducts its affairs. As much as a parent Grand Lodge would like to see all lodges be the same, they are not, nor shall they ever be the same. I write this piece because members must have an understanding of the differences occurring in our Order.
There are many factors which effect the personality of an Odd Fellows lodge, including the geography, the demographics of a community, the beliefs by our members, the education levels, financial availability, and others. We are definitely a diverse group, which sets us apart from other organizations, which is a positive factor in today’s social climate.
For example, on the one hand we may have a lodge belonging to a more liberal city, where the members may be more inclusive of who they admit and how they interpret the rituals and codes. Larger cities, mostly, offer our lodges prospective applicants from all social and ethnic backgrounds, whereas, a small rural town may have only one demographic. Or we may see a lodge in the middle of an agricultural setting – literally – where the workers come straight from the fields to the lodge, which would be almost, if not all, men. This happens. The same goes for geographical regions, where many of the residents are poorer, and another region where residents may be wealthier. These are some of the factors, which give our lodges different make-ups of members. They are not necessarily blended, but still all Odd Fellows.
Some of the differences I have seen over the years: Some members believe this is a Christian organization and its members should be Christian, where others admit all faiths and beliefs. Some members believe a “Creator and Preserver of the Universe” is “God”, but others do not, primarily because of their own backgrounds and upbringing. We have atheist and non-believers and people of varied religious beliefs in this Order. Some members believe this is an Order of non-LBGT members, whereas in larger cities, lodges admit members of the LBGT community. We have lodges with homeless and poor members, and we see lodges with wealthy and well-to-do members. Often, other lodge members will step up and pay another member’s dues.
In older Odd Fellow lodges, there are many lodges that maintain the alter in the center of the floor, as a matter of tradition and to preserve the integrity of the sacred area between the center of the floor and the station of the Noble Grand. Most lodges do not; the meaning of the aforementioned is lost to these lodges, which is their right.
The code instructs Vice Grands and Noble Grands to be able to recite the unwritten work before being allowed to serve in those capacities. This is rarely done, so lodges forgo this requirement. As a past grand instructor on multiple occasions, I saw very few who could recite the unwritten work from memory. Some lodges use the digital video recordings for their degree work and others, if they have the desire and the adequate number of members, may confer the degrees live instead of using the “DVD.” Some members frown on the use of digital degrees, which others praise it as a faster means of bringing in members.
During the opening of a lodge meeting some members read their responsibilities and duties with enthusiasm, some by memory, some not at all; some lodges skip the reading of the duties. Some skip the prayer. Some have a moment of silence during the prayer, out of respect for members of other faiths, who shall not repeat the Lord’s Prayer, as it is viewed strictly as from the New Testament (Bible).
It is a fact, that in many cities, rather than small towns, we find lodges having more members, where they are diverse, where the code and rituals are more likely going to meet challenges and adjustments to be socially acceptable to all their members. In this regard, it becomes a difficult process for an unyielding leader from another lodge or locality to impose a different interpretation of the ritual or code, without the risk of alienation, fracturing, or eliminating an entire group of members.
There are so many different ways our lodges do their business and conduct their meetings, they cannot all be conveyed in this writing. The point of this is to educate those who can read, that our lodges are different whether we like it or not. To become overly concerned or indifferent or even enraged at a lodge where you are not a member, is probably not going to work in the interest of all parties. In fact, a lodge being taken to task because of its practices may ignore outside suggestions to the point of creating a challenge.
Brothers and sisters, we find our common bond in the obligation we all took upon joining this Order, and we all call ourselves “Odd Fellows.” And, we have a rich history.
In Friendship, Love, & Truth,
Peter V. Sellars
Have fun is one of my favorite expressions. I say it all the time. I believe it’s integral to our survival. So much of what we do appears painful or at the very least perfunctory. But the question of how our group attracts new members should be integral to all that we say or do. The simple answer is to make our order as attractive as possible to people looking in. Many of our members and Odd Fellow lodges fall into a comfortable rut. Reciting ritual work or chanting something else from memory. While it may seem impressive to have committed something to memory, it is not attractive to someone looking in – on the contrary, it may seem belittling to someone new.
Many of us who have been in the Odd Fellows for years have a lot of mileage and experience to contend with, perhaps not all of it positive, but of course, negativity does not attract anyone, as the rules of attraction are simple. Remember when you were young, the most popular kids were generally the kids who sent a message of happiness. In my youth, the popular kids had the biggest parties, and tended to be having an exciting time every opportunity I had to interact with them. Of course, therefore they were popular, because they were greatly admired, and in many cases, emulated.
It’s common sense, really. Negativity, prejudice, hatred, despair, all succeed only in driving people away. Happiness is an attraction without qualification. I’ve always been surprised by many who run for office in our order, because they often descend into name-calling, obsessive hatred, pettiness, and yet are shocked when they fail to get elected. People are generally smarter than we give them credit for. Most people want happiness, pleasant interactions, truth, and yes, love. After all, it is the implication our order sends. Those of us who want to lead by fear, or punitive behavior, are only kidding ourselves. Leadership means to lead by example, not by wielding a club, but extending an open hand and heart.
Of course, it’s a trend of those of us who have been in the order for a while to look at the newest among us with suspicion, but this distrust is generally borne out of ignorance. Most people, young or old, want mainly to be known as good human beings; it’s hard to imagine anyone wishing it any other way. The older members are used to tradition, while the younger members seek innovation, and neither direction is bad, so somehow both must be encouraged with the same level of energy.
Finally, my deeply wondrous theory of “have fun” has some basis in fact, since the Odd Fellow lodges that tend to grow are those with the most events and occasions. It’s hard to imagine a lodge with very few active members, no events, no refreshments, and punitive behavior growing. It will not happen. The straightest line is the most direct and easiest path. Both smiles and frowns are infectious, but smiles attract, while frowns repel. If we want growth, a smile is what will bring them in and keep them happy.
In Friendship, Love, and Truth, Rick Boyles
Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
In 1853, the Grand Lodge of California began to record statistics on the number of members in our Order. The number of members in 1853 was 985. Next to that number was the number 780, showing the net gain from the prior year. So, apparently, the starting point for statistic compilation was actually 1852 when the Order counted 205 members in California. The Grand Lodge has continued compiling these statistics for every year from 1853 to the present, showing either a “net gain” or a “net loss” for every year. A “net gain” is the increase in membership year-to-year when the Order has admitted more members than have been lost; a “net loss” is the decrease in membership year-to-year when the Order has lost more members than it has admitted.
The view of these statistics is nothing less than fascinating. And it shows certain cycles.
In the first cycle – which stretched from 1853 until 1893 – a period of some 40 years – the Order grew rapidly, year after year showing a net gain on occasion as high as 10%. In 1893 the membership number statewide was 30,741. In 1894 there was a momentary retrenchment for four years – showing net losses in those years, but then the Order snapped right back to show a steady stream of net gains from 1898 until 1913. In 1913, the membership stood at 46,099. The years of World War I showed an unsurprising shrinkage in membership as young men went to war. The years 1914 to 1918 showed net losses, except for a small net gain in 1917 (presumably as some young men started coming back home). From 1919 to 1928, with the exception of just one year, the Order had net gains every year. In 1928, the membership was 58,820. That number of 58,820, by the way, is the high-water mark of Odd Fellowship in California – a very large number considering the entire population of California at the time was just a shade over 5 million.
And then the Great Depression hit.
Membership dropped in 1929 and then continued to drop until 1942, with steady declines year after year. In some years, the net loss exceeded 10%. In 1942, the number of Odd Fellows in California had fallen to 25,567. From 1943 to 1947 – around the time of World War II – the membership increased with net gains every year. This was the last period of sustained growth in our Order in California. In 1947, the membership had increased to 30,739 as young men came back from war searching to reintegrate into society. Then, in 1948 the Order saw a net loss, and those net losses continued for 67 years (with the exception of 2002 when there was a small net gain) until 2015. This sustained period of net losses brought our membership down to 4,075 dues paying members in 2015. A statewide membership number of 4,075 is anemic in light of the overall population of the state which had skyrocketed to 40 million. There are several high schools in California which have more students than Odd Fellows have members.
The drop is breathtaking. In 1928 we had 58,820 members and in 2015 we had plummeted to 4,075 members – a descent of some 93% in our membership. Statistically, if this trend were to continue, the Order in California would number only in the hundreds in less than 20 years. These net losses are especially troubling in light of the fact that California, from 1850 until the present day, has experienced rather huge net gains in population. In some decades (particularly the 1950’s and 1960’s) California’s net population gains exceeded 5% per year. So, while California’s population was increasing, the population of Odd Fellows was in steady decline.
But then, in 2016, a remarkable thing happened. Statistics for Calendar Year 2016 showed a small net gain in the membership in California. And then for Calendar Year 2017 the statistics showed a small net gain for the second year in a row. The fact that the net gains for those years was small is of little consequence. The fact that California has finally stopped the tide of year-after-year net losses is of consequence. Because reversing a trend takes two steps: First you have to put the brakes on it, and second you have to move in a different direction on a consistent basis. We have entered phase one of this important process. We have finally put the brakes on decades of net losses. As if in a fraternal stupor, we had seemingly grown accustomed to year after year after year of membership losses. And now – in 2016 and again in 2017 – we are hopefully starting a new paradigm of membership gains. If it continues in 2018, we can truthfully say that we have reversed the trend and are starting a new trend of net gains.
How did this happen?
May I suggest that the creation of Dedicated Members for Change (DMC) at the end of 2010 was a significant factor in reversing the trend of declining membership. For the last eight years, DMC has focused the Order in California on the reality of membership losses, and more importantly, has suggested proven ways that Lodges can reverse the trend. While most Lodges continue to lose members, there are some Lodges that continue to show net gains in membership. So, by analyzing what the membership-gaining Lodges are doing, we can provide suggestions of “what works” to all Lodges. And more and more Lodges are starting to get it. A focus on ritual alone will not grow Lodges. To grow in the 21st Century, a Lodge cannot be so one-dimensional. Instead, growing Lodges expand their focus on good works in the community, and also on fun social activities for the members.
Without question, Odd Fellowship is relevant in the 21st Century and Odd Fellows Lodges can grow and prosper. We have proven it in California.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California
Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
DMC is all about membership development. In that regard, this newsletter offers a “Primer on Membership Development”. To be frank, it’s not for everyone or for every Odd Fellows Lodge. Some of the larger Odd Fellow Lodges do quite well on membership development in their own way and with their own style. And at the other extreme, some of the smallest Lodges are what I call “Zombie Lodges” – they are still on the books, but they have not added members in years and the remaining membership is so small, so inactive, and so on in years that there is really nothing that can be done to resurrect them. It’s just a matter of time before those Lodges surrender their charters or seek to “consolidate” with another Lodge.
This newsletter is targeted to the vast majority of Odd Fellow Lodges in “the middle”. So, for those Lodges here is a “Primer” of effective and proven ways to grow.
1. You must bring in new members. It seems kind of ludicrous to say it, but apparently some Lodges don’t get this basic concept. I have visited Lodges that haven’t brought in new members in years – sometimes over a decade. Because we are all mortal human beings with a lifespan, it is imperative to bring in new members. In fact. the quest for new members has to happen every year, year in and year out. If you skip a year, you imperil the future of the Lodge. College fraternities are a compressed model of this concept. Students typically graduate from college in 4 or 5 years. Accordingly, a member who joined that college fraternity as a freshman is “gone” once that member graduates. The college fraternity is in trouble if it skips a year of membership development, and that trouble is exacerbated if it skips even more years. The same is true in the case of a fraternal order. Eventually, every member will be “gone” when they move away, drift away or pass away.
2. You can’t just bring in members of your own age. We tend to bring in new members to our Lodge from the stable of friends and people we know. And we tend to know people who are generally of our own age. If the Lodge has a membership ranging in age representing every decade (those who are in their 20’s, 30’s, 40. 50’s, 60, 70’s, 80’s, etc.) that’s not a problem. However, if the Lodge membership is all in its 70’s and 80’s, that is a problem. Bringing in members who are of the same age as existing members will come back to bite the Lodge eventually. It is not sustainable. In the course of time, all the members will be in their 80’s, and then all will be in their 90’s, etc. A Lodge must strive to bring in members of all generations.
3. The Lodge must offer something more than sitting in a Lodge room reading the ritual. If you truly believe that folks want to join the Lodge because they can sit in a meeting and recite from the ritual, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I want to sell to you. Virtually no one joins a Lodge because they can’t wait to sit in the Lodge room and read from the ritual, month after month. Of course, people join a Lodge because of the rich history and core values of Odd Fellowship. But, particularly for the new generations that are coming up, a Lodge must offer more. And I’m not talking about a monthly potluck. People in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s want the Lodge to be active. They are interested in Lodge functions that are fun for the members and family, and they are interested in doing good works in the community. The options are endless and boundless – tethered only to the imagination of the membership. Lodges that are active are healthy and growing. Lodges that are not active, are boring. Boring Lodges do not attract new members, and certainly do not retain them.
4. You must work to retain your current members. While it is an existential requirement for a Lodge to attract new members on a consistent basis, it is also important to retain existing members. In most Lodges that I have visited, I have found that about half the membership rarely, if ever, comes to meetings or events. So for example, in a Lodge of 20 members, it is typical for the Lodge to attract 10 members to a meeting or event. This is a sad commentary, but it is reality. The pool of energy in a Lodge is the pool of members. So, it’s important for the Noble Grand and other officers and leaders of the Lodge to work with existing non-participating members to get them re-engaged in the work of the Lodge. It is a facade to have a member on the books of the Lodge who does little for the benefit of the Lodge.
5. Bringing in new members is a job for every member. There is no more important responsibility of an Odd Fellow than to sponsor new applications for membership in the Lodge. Let me repeat that: There is no more important responsibility of an Odd Fellow than to sponsor new applications for membership for membership in the Lodge. Some members seem to think that bringing in new members is the job of “the other guy”. Not true. YOU are “the other guy”. Lodges can’t just rely on the Noble Grand or the Membership Chair to bring in new applicants. Nor would you want to. To ensure a diverse membership, all members must participate in the process. Bringing in a new member is not an impossible burden. I have personally sponsored over 100 new members in my Lodge over the past 10 years. Surely, every member of a Lodge can bring in two new members in the course of three or four years. If every member brought in two, the Lodge’s health and survival would be assured. It’s that important.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California
Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
DMC was founded in 2010 with one singular purpose: To focus the Odd Fellows on the most critical issue we face – how to stop the sad and debilitating loss of members (and the happy and energizing obverse of that issue – how to increase our membership). Since that time, we have – with laser-like determination – discussed this issue in all its ramifications, and we have offered a number of real-world, positive suggestions on how Odd Fellow Lodges can increase membership. By now, it would seem that everyone in the Odd Fellows understands the need to direct our attention to the existential task of reversing the trend of declining memberships and diminishing Lodges.
And yet, there is a major impediment to our efforts to save this Order from the decline. What is that impediment? Brace yourselves. It is our own Sovereign Grand Lodge.
As shocking as that may seem, let me give you three examples of how Sovereign Grand Lodge (SGL) has become its own impediment to growth.
(1) The two percent goal. SGL passes out award certificates to Lodges if they achieve a 2% growth of members from one year to the next. On the surface, this sounds like a nice thing. But it is not. It is, in fact, a recipe for disaster for our Order. Let’s think this through. The vast majority of our Lodges have 50 or fewer members. In fact, we have a substantial number of Lodges that have 20 or fewer members. Around North America, Lodges with 100 or more members are the exception, not the rule. And it is apparent to most that the average age of Lodge members is in the 60’s. So, what does a 2% growth rate get us? A Lodge with 50 members growing at 2% per year would gain 1 member in a year. If they do that, they get the 2% award certificate. But this award is a chimera. Over a 10-year period, that Lodge would gain 10 members. But membership is not static. Over that same 10 year period, that Lodge is likely to lose more than 10 members as a result of members moving, withdrawing or passing away. Plus, over that 10-year period, the 50-member Lodge’s average age has now moved into the 70’s. And the situation is even more ludicrous for a 20 member Lodge. Growing at a 2% rate means the Lodge waits more than 2 years to gain 1 member. Now, a 2% growth rate for a Lodge of 200 members means a growth of 4 members in a year – and that’s not bad – a large Lodge like that can afford to have slow years. But to set a 2% across-the-board rate makes little sense. To survive, the largest Lodges can get by with a 2% per year growth rate (at least in the short term), but the mid-size Lodges really need to grow at 5% per year, and the smallest Lodges need a growth rate of 10% per year.
(2) The dues increase. What could SGL do which would create the biggest single impediment to membership growth? That’s simple. SGL could – defying all membership development rationale – impose a 10% dues increase and then another 10% dues increase the following year. Remarkably, that is precisely what SGL did, to be implemented in 2019 and again in 2020. Without specifying why they need it, or what they intend to do with the dues increase money – SGL went ahead and implemented the dues increase. This will affect every dues-paying member in every Lodge in every jurisdiction of SGL. Most members of the Order will grumble and pay it. But some members of the Order – on very fixed incomes – will not. Without question, it will have an impact on existing members (some who barely get by financially will not renew) and on potential new members (some will not join because of the higher dues). It defies all reason to believe that increasing the cost of admission to the game will increase the number of attendees.
(3) Small jurisdictions are rewarded; large jurisdictions are penalized. The structure of SGL is such that every single jurisdiction gets 2 votes at SGL. It doesn’t matter if it is a shrinking jurisdiction of, say, 300 members with 4 Lodges, or a growing jurisdiction of 3,000 members with 100 Lodges. So, essentially, SGL is controlled by jurisdictions with small memberships, to the detriment of jurisdictions with larger memberships. The focus, thus, becomes maintaining the status quo. There is zero incentive provided at SGL to a jurisdiction which grows. The opposite should be true. Without diminishing the 2 representative minimum for the smallest jurisdictions, SGL should permit larger jurisdictions to have more voting representatives – thus rewarding growth and making this organization more representative of the members.
Look, I fully understand that the task of gaining new members is the responsibility of every member and every Lodge in the Order. It is not the responsibility of Sovereign Grand Lodge. But at a minimum, SGL cannot be an impediment. The old saying is true in this regard: If Sovereign Grand Lodge can’t lead or follow then it should simply get out of the way.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
At this moment in time, there are 115 Odd Fellows Lodges in California (and 1 jurisdictional Lodge). How are those 115 Lodges doing in terms of membership development? I don’t have final figures yet for membership development in 2017 because (believe it or not) some Lodges have STILL not turned in their 2017 per capita reports. But from what I have gleaned, in summary, the news is generally good, sometimes bad, and occasionally ugly.
First, the good news.
We see Lodges adding new members. Better yet, we see Lodges adding more new members than they are losing members – that results in a “net gain” of members, and net gains are our goal. Net gains abound – and that is truly good news. Overall, we see (if confirmed) a small net gain in membership state wide, a trend that began toward the end of my year as Grand Master and (thankfully) continues till today. Halting the yearly decline of membership numbers, and starting a yearly ascent in membership is the direct result of the work of DMC and our renewed focus on the need to bring in new members. We see the net gains across the board – in large Lodges, in mid-size Lodges, and in very small Lodges. For example, Odin #393 in San Francisco increased its small membership by 30%, from 10 to 13. That’s a huge shot of adrenalin to a small Lodge.
Now, the bad news.
We have 18 Lodges in California that have 10 or fewer dues-paying members. There is no way that this statistic can be viewed as a positive. The barest quorum for a Lodge is 5 members. We all know that, typically, only about 50% of the members of a Lodge are truly active members, so when a Lodge has 10 or fewer members, it will barely be able to muster a quorum. Oh sure, many of these Lodges continue to exist and function because they have associate members. Associate membership is not necessarily a healthy thing. I’ve seen associate members travel around to various Lodges in their region to fill offices and make a quorum. A Lodge which is propped up by associate members coming over to meetings from other Lodges creates the facade of normalcy – the illusion that all is OK. But associate members only buy the Lodge some time. And during that time, the few regular members of the Lodge are aging. When a Lodge fails to bring in new members (or only brings in members of the same age as existing members) that Lodge is walking a tightrope. The Lodge with fewer than 10 members necessarily can do no more than have a bare-bones meeting or an occasional potluck. It offers very little to potential new members. And so, it’s just a matter of time until that Lodge must surrender its charter or consolidate. (Consolidation, in most cases, is just a genteel and face-saving way for a Lodge to surrender its charter.)
And, the ugly news.
What could be worse than a Lodge having 10 or fewer dues-paying members? How about a Lodge with 6 or fewer dues-paying members. Yes, there are 7 Lodges that fall into that category. If ever there were a red flag raised about Lodge survival, it is certainly raised when a Lodge has only 5 or 6 dues-paying members. That Lodge may have a few more members who are so old that they are exempt from dues, or it may be a Lodge carried by associate members. But any way you slice it or dice it, that is almost certainly a Lodge that has not added new members in years. And the failure to add new members will certainly, inevitably, and inexorably lead to that Lodge’s demise.
What does the future hold?
We like the trend. Up until 3 years ago, our Order in California had been on a steady, 60-plus year, downward slope in terms of membership. Now, we have stopped the slide, and are showing small gains. The good news must be tempered with reality, however. Of the 115 Lodges in California, about 35 are showing net gains while 80 are either standing par or are showing net losses. So, the overall net gain is being driven by just 30 per cent of our Lodges. Further, of the 115 Lodges in California , the membership of the 7 largest Lodges comprise fully one-third of the total membership in the state. And there are 49 Lodges – over 40% of our Lodges – which have less than 20 dues-paying members on their books. So, in terms of membership, we seem to be a mile wide and an inch deep. This is a precarious place to be.
With renewed focus and energy, most of our Lodges can show a net gain in 2018. Even a net gain of 1 or 2 members in a small or mid-sized Lodge can make all the difference in the world for that Lodge, and for our Order in California.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California