Recently, an Odd Fellow wrote to me and asked me what would happen if the Order continued to shrink in membership.
That’s not a very pleasant question or subject, and I don’t know that I am any more qualified than any other member of the Order to opine on that. It also flies contrary to all the work that we have been doing in DMC over the past 7-8 years. DMC’s purpose to is focus the Order on the dilemma of declining membership and to offer tried and tested methods by which Lodges can stop the decline and can actually grow membership. I am convinced that Odd Fellowship remains very relevant in the 21st Century and can draw members from the younger generations who were born after 1980. I have seen our DMC suggestions work in my own Lodge, and also in other Lodges that have utilized them. My jurisdiction in California has also begun to buck the downward slope, and is showing small but important gains in net membership.
Yet the question – while distasteful and unpleasant – is relevant and legitimate. Very recently, a Past Sovereign Grand Master who chaired the SGL Membership Committee, announced in an open letter that unless this Order dramatically changes its trajectory and the way it does business, we had best start planning for our orderly demise. I, for one, don’t quite share that extremely pessimistic outlook. The fact that there are Lodges that are bucking the trend of net losses gives me hope, and shows me that this Order is still relevant to people in the 21st Century. SGL has done little to help reverse the trend – for example, SGL recently raised dues (unquestionably, raising dues will depress membership, not increase it), and the five-year plan that SGL adopted years ago (you remember, that plan to start merging the branches), never was implemented. And it remains a mystery to me why the SGL Membership Committee has never taken the time to visit those those Lodges showing consistent growth to determine why they are robust in the face of general membership declines; find out why those Lodges are growing and spread the news to all Lodges.
So, here is the reality: There are Lodges that are losing members (and have been losing members steadily for years – decades actually) and there are jurisdictions that are shrinking throughout North America. We cannot put on blinders to this fact. We have Lodges with less than 10 members, and we have entire jurisdictions with less than 300 members, some with less than 200. And we must realize that those numbers reflect members “on the books” including members who may pay dues, but don’t really attend meetings and events. Yet we have Lodges going through the motions of life even though only five or six members show up for meetings, the Lodge is supported by associate members, and members simply rotate through the chairs. We have Lodges where the youngest member may be in the late 60’s and the Lodge has not added a new member for years. We have jurisdictions with less than 300 members (on the books), which contain only 2 or 3 Lodges, and where less than 50 attend the Grand Lodge Sessions. Yet the jurisdictions continue to go through the motions as if they were living in 1918, when the jurisdiction had thousands of members.
So, yes, the question is legitimate. What would happen if the Order continued to shrink in membership?
So here is my analysis and answer. The past is the best prelude to the future. If one looks at the past, one finds an analogy in the situation of the Knights of Pythias – which in many ways may presage the future of Odd Fellowship if we continue on the downward spiral of membership. Who are the Knights of Pythias? In fact, the Knights are a fraternal order much like the Odd Fellows. They have been around since 1864 when founded by Justus Rathbone who was inspired to form a fraternity after watching a play called “Damon and Pythias.” Much like Odd Fellows are grounded in FLT (“Friendship Love and Truth”) the KofP profess the watchwords of FCB (“Friendship Charity and Benevolence”). The Knights have subordinate Lodges (once called Castles), Grand Lodges and a Supreme Lodge. They have degrees and secrets.
There was a time when the Knights were the third largest fraternal organization in North America, right behind the Masons and the Odd Fellows. They had hundreds of Lodges everywhere. And then, the KofP experienced a steady decline of members, year after year after year. Today, the KofP have only 9 Lodges in the jurisdiction of California. So, that is the likely scenario – in my opinion – if the Odd Fellows continued to lose members. It is not likely that the Odd Fellows would disappear as a fraternal organization (like hundreds of other fraternal organizations actually did in North America). It is more likely that continued member losses will result in weak Lodges slowly losing their charters as membership shrinks below minimal levels; it is likely that we will see more and more consolidations. At the same time, there are strong Lodges that will continue to exist and grow. In California that may be as many as 30, but it could be as few as 15. In other jurisdictions, that could mean as few as 2 or 3 Lodges. Individual Lodges will become more and more autonomous as Grand Lodges and even Sovereign Grand Lodge become weaker. Obviously, the shrinkage is a process that would take many years – perhaps as much as two decades. But it is coming and it is inevitable, unless Odd Fellowship changes its path and modernizes.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California