Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Building Freemasonry in the 21st Century, Part 1: The Membership Challenge

Over the last three centuries, Freemasonry has played a major role in improving millions of individual lives; it has even contributed to the development of global democracy. We should not just preserve Freemasonry, but nurture and develop it, as a force for good in the world. However, in the United States today, Freemasonry faces a membership challenge, for several reasons. If Freemasonry is to continue as a force for good, in individual lives and in society, Freemasons must come to grips with this challenge. This will involve activities on the part of Grand Lodges, local lodges ("Particular Lodges"), and individual Masons. In this series, I respectfully offer some suggestions to help Freemasonry to thrive. In the series as a whole, I consider these topics:
  • the membership challenge in Freemasonry today
  • an overall approach to meeting this challenge
  • membership development
  • membership retention

The Membership Challenge in Freemasonry Today

In 2003, there were about 1.7 million Masons nationwide, a membership figure even lower than during the Great Depression year of 1941. As the Masonic Information Center put it, "Freemasonry is at its lowest membership level in at least 80 years" (It's About Time!, p. 3; see image above). We may think about the Blue Lodge's membership problems in terms of two factors: low rates of entry into the Craft, and high exit rates. Each of these is described below.

Low Entry Rates

It is well known that fewer people enter Freemasonry today than entered in earlier years. The situation in any given Grand Lodge can be established by considering the statistics reported in its Grand Communications. One example--neither better nor worse than the typical Grand Lodge, I would guess--is the Grand Lodge of Florida. In Florida, the number of men initiated was flat over each of two recent years (2004 and 2005), at approximately 1,480 per year, even as the population of Florida itself increased each year. (There was a 7.5% increase in the number of initiations during 2006, to 1,591; of course, 2006 was the year of the release of the motion picture, The Da Vinci Code, which mentioned Freemasons and, more especially, the Knights Templar. It is yet to be seen whether this increase will be permanent or not.)

High Exit Rates

Men exit Freemasonry in several ways: through death; through official voluntary exit, or "dimit"; through suspension, and, through expulsion. Suspension can be for a number of reasons, the most common being suspension for non-payment of dues (NPD); thus, we may think of a suspension for NPD as a sort of 'silent dimit.' Thus, official dimits and suspensions for NPD together can be labeled "voluntary attrition." Again, using the Grand Lodge of Florida only as a typical example, for the period 2004 through 2006 (see References below for sources), we note the following:

  • The number of deaths averaged 1,449 annually during this period, while the number raised as Master Masons averaged 1,217 annually. Thus, deaths alone outnumbered the number raised as new Master Masons by over 19%.

  • Voluntary attrition during these years averaged over 1,640 annually. Thus, just by itself, voluntary attrition exceeded the number of those raised as new Master Masons by almost 35%.

  • The number of those who officially dimitted increased from 2004 to 2006 by a startling 31%.

These statistics are no doubt what led the distinguished Brother giving the Welcome at the opening session of the 2007 Florida Grand Communication to state, "We are one generation away from extinction." This Brother might as well have been saying this to just about any Grand Lodge in the United States.

It is a little-known but crucial finding that the amount of time that many Brothers remain in Freemasonry before attrition has sharply declined in recent generations. In one study, the average number of years between initiation and either dimit or suspension NPD has shown a stunning decline, from 17.8 years (for those initiated in the late 1940s) to 6.5 (for those initiated in the early 1980s). Thus, those who join and then ultimately leave have remained for a much shorter period of time, "about 20-30% of the time they [remained in Masonry] half a century ago," as John Belton put it. As noted Masonic author Chris Hodapp has observed:

In jurisdictions across the U.S. and Canada, the losses of members from deaths have been statistically tapering off, while the losses due to Freemasons walking away from the fraternity have been rising. ... [M]en whom we have initiated, passed, and raised are deciding in increasing numbers to say "No thanks" to what their local lodges offer.

What could be the cause for this painful situation?

In Part 2: The root causes for membership problems in the Blue Lodge.


Statistics of annual returns. (2006). In Proceedings of the One Hundred and Seventy-Seventh Annual Communication of the M:.W:. Grand Lodge of F. & A.M. of Florida, Held at Orlando, Florida, May 29, 30 and 31, 2006 (p. 111). n.p.: The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Florida.

Statistics of annual returns. (2007). In Proceedings of the One Hundred and Seventy-Eighth Annual Communication of the M:.W:. Grand Lodge of F. & A.M. of Florida, Held at Orlando, Florida, May 28, 29, and 30, 2007 (pp. 115-116). n.p.: The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Florida.

Statistics of annual returns. (1008, May). In Report of M:.W:. Robert P. Harry, Jr., Grand Master, M:.W:. Richard E. Lynn, Grand Secretary, to the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Florida (p. 65). n.p.: The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Florida.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"The Simpsons" and the Freemasons

That cultural icon, the television show The Simpsons, has long been known for its depiction of a faux Freemasonry. A 1995 episode titled “Homer the Great” featured a fraternity called the Stonecutters. Now, The Simpsons has mentioned Freemasonry explicitly and at some length, in the recent episode “Gone Maggie Gone.”

The episode identifies itself in its opening moments as a spoof on The Da Vinci Code. During the episode, a couple of groups seek the fabled Jewel of St. Teresa of Avila, which is prophesied to lead to an era of peace.

In an encounter at the foot of the Springfield sign atop Springfield Hill (reminiscent of the climax of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest), sleuthy Lisa—accompanied by Principal Skinner and Comic Book Guy as ‘the Brethren of the Quest’—are confronted by Mr. Burns. Burns explains that a group of high-ranking Freemasons have been searching for the Jewel of St. Teresa for years. In fact, he says, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and King George III conducted the American Revolutionary War just to cover up their entirely amicable association, as they searched for the Jewel. Burns goes on to claim: “I joined the Freemasons before it was trendy. That’s my eyeball on the dollar bill. That’s also my pyramid.” (See image above.)

It is unwise to read too much into a Simpsons episode: the writers simply do things because they’re funny. But it is also unwise to just pass over details in The Simpsons as if they were totally unimportant, either: the writers are famous for working cultural references into their episodes, sometimes quite subtly; if nothing else, a Simpsons episode is an expression, intentional or not, of the cultural Zeitgeist. What, if anything, does “Gone Maggie Gone” have to say about the way that Freemasonry is perceived by the general public? How is this different from the depiction of Freemasonry in its guise as ‘the Stonecutters’ in “Homer the Great”?

The Image of Freemasonry in The Simpsons

I found it interesting that, in “Gone Maggie Gone,” the writers saw no need to explain who the Freemasons are: the writers just made the reference, with the assumption that the audience would know who ‘Freemasons’ are, in the same way that they expected the audience to know who Ed Begley, Jr. is (Begley also showing up briefly in the episode). At least for the Simpsons writers, the Masons are sufficiently well-known to need no introduction.

It was nice to hear Burns refer to joining the Freemasons as now being “trendy.” I wish I had more hard data on this issue, but the notion that Freemasonry is becoming popular again certainly fits with my anecdotal experience, as I see a substantial number of men in their twenties and thirties entering the Fraternity through my mother Lodge in Florida over the last couple of years, and the Lodges and affiliated organizations that I have been visiting in New York City over the last few months.

Of course, having Burns as a Mason does lend at least a slightly sinister cast to Masonry. I was happier when Grandpa Simpson casually identified himself as a Mason during “Homer the Great.”

It is interesting to see how the two Simpsons episodes reflect two different caricatures of Freemasonry. The Stonecutters of “Homer the Great” are heirs to a noble tradition that they have sold out for drunken entertainment. As their Chapter leader, Number One (voiced by Patrick Stewart) tells Homer immediately after his humiliating initiation: “You have joined the sacred order of the Stonecutters, who since ancient times have split the rocks of ignorance that obscured the light of knowledge and truth. Now let’s all get drunk and play ping-pong!” When the Chapter brothers discover that Homer’s birthmark identifies himself as the prophesied ‘Chosen One’ of the Stonecutters, they elevate him to a high rank of leadership—but when Homer tries to lead them into a variety of service projects, the entire membership of the Fraternity defects to form another self-centered fraternal group: the No Homers Club.

In “Gone Maggie Gone,” the Freemasons are shown in the light of the currently popular stereotype, as devoted to the pursuit of secrets and mysteries. Masonry, in this view, is the possession of men like Burns, who hold power, but not a decent character. (At one point, Burns is talked into giving Lisa and others a ride on the skids of his helicopter. During the flight, Burns’ lackey Smithers asks Burns if it feels good to help people. Burns’ response: “No. It feels … weird.”)

What Masons Can Learn From The Simpsons

Of course it is the case that the image of Freemasonry in these episodes is shot through with inaccuracies. (Hey, lighten up, fellas: it’s a cartoon, not a documentary on Discovery Channel or The History Channel.) However, rather than catalog these inaccuracies, it might be worthwhile to consider what these episodes have to say that might have some relevance. What might Freemasons have to learn from these caricatures? Several things come to mind.

First, Freemasonry would do well to look to its noble traditions, and emphasize the unselfish service to others that is a core value of the Fraternity. I have been fortunate to see several lodges and affiliated Masonic organizations of my acquaintance engaged in such service, often in secrecy. I think that this is closer to the norm than The Simpsons would lead one to believe—but one cannot emphasize enough the need for us to remember that our fraternity is supposed to be about something, and service to others is a central part of that something.

Second, we would do well to remember that, in point of fact, part of the mission of Freemasonry indeed is, as Number One put it, to “split the rocks of ignorance that obscured the light of knowledge and truth.” Real Freemasonry uses different language and symbols, but the mission of the Masonic Fraternity is actually rather well expressed in the language of the cartoon episode.

Masons would do well to remember two things about our fraternity: (a) Masonry is supposed to change the individual Mason, to help him on a journey to knowledge and truth that will require serious inner growth; and, (b) Masonry is supposed to help the individual Mason to affect society for the better, dispelling ignorance with knowledge and truth. Not for nothing did the Masons of an earlier era establish public education in different nations. Not for nothing did Grand Lodge Masonry emerge during an era that is now known as the Enlightenment. No, Masons do not possess the secrets of the Pharoahs—but they are supposed to possess a degree of personal enlightenment that is more valuable than any external secret. What are we doing, as individual Masons, as particular Lodges, and as Grand Lodges and affiliated organizations, to further that goal?

Third, we do need to correct the notion that Freemasonry is about gaining unfair personal privilege and power. I have already mentioned the implication of having Mr. Burns as the example of Freemasonry in “Gone Maggie Gone.” In “Homer the Great,” the power trip is even worse, with Homer Simpson (after his initiation as a Stonecutter) obtaining preferential treatment in everything from getting his plumbing fixed to receiving a massage chair at work. In my experience, lodges do emphasize that a desire for preferential treatment is an unworthy motive for entering the Fraternity; we need to emphasize this even more, and counter this image in the mind of the public, as well.

The Buddhists say that ‘one can learn from a stone.’ I hope that we as Freemasons can learn from a cartoon show.


“Homer the Great” episode: episode code 2F09; season 6, episode 12, first broadcast January 8, 1995. Written by John Schwarzwelder. Available online at http://wtso.net/movie/402-612%20Homer%20the%20Great.html

“Gone Maggie Gone” episode: episode code LABF04; season 20, episode 13, first broadcast March 15, 2009. Written by Billy Kimball and Ian Maxtone-Graham. Available online at http://wtso.net/movie/448-2013_Gone_Maggie_Gone.html

Welcome to "Freemasonry: Reality, Myth, and Legend": An Introduction

Welcome to “Freemasonry: Reality, Myth, and Legend.” In this post, I explain the topics I plan to address, how this blog is diffferent from other blogs about Freemasonry, how I am qualified to write about this, and some details of my personal background. Note: As of March 30, I adopted a policy of posting entries of a maximum 800 words (not including references and so forth); posts earlier than that date are rather longer, but from that point on, posts are just a bit longer than an Op-Ed piece in a typical newspaper.

Topics Addressed in This Blog

I shall address general topics related to Freemasonry including: Events and news in the Masonic world. Masonic philosophy. Masonic education and ethics. Images of Freemasonry in popular entertainment and the media. Myths about Masonry (that is, rumors and untruths, including anti-Masonry). Myth within Masonry (that is, the legends of the Craft). Issues of debate regarding Masonic philosophy and practice. My experience being a Mason. Items appearing in the Masonic blogosphere and cyberspace. Masonic symbolism and ritual (within the boundaries of my obligations). I plan to send posts to this blog once or twice a week (excluding vacations and conference trips.)

How This Blog Is Different

There are a lot of blogs about Freemasonry. More power to them! What is distinguishing about this one is that I introduce material from my background in psychology, ancient religion, religious studies, and various esoteric traditions. I also am frank about giving advice about things that Masons can do to make the Fraternity stronger, more true to its ideals, and more effective in its task of improving the inner man and the greater society.

How I Am Qualified to Write About Freemasonry

First and foremost, of course, I am a Freemason myself (details below). Beyond that, I have a background in the study of various spiritual, religious, and esoteric traditions. My writings have appeared in various Masonic publications: The Scottish Rite Journal; Heredom: The Proceedings of the Scottish Rite Research Society; the Philalethes.

My Personal Background

I understand that readers may be curious about what sorts of perspectives inform my opinions. Here are some items about my background:
  • Name: Mark Edward Koltko-Rivera.

  • Demographic characteristics: 52 years old; married, with four grown children from a former marriage.

  • Home town: The Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City.

  • Where I’ve lived: New York City (Manhattan, including the Lower East Side / Greenwich Village, and the Upper East Side; Astoria, Queens; the Bronx). Florida (Winter Park, just north of Orlando). New Jersey (Newark). Pennsylvania (Haverford and Bryn Mawr). Connecticut (New Milford and West Hartford). Japan (Hiroshima, Okayama, Matsue, Matsuyama, Tokushima).

  • Ethnicity: Polish and Puerto Rican.

  • Education: Graduated from St. Stanislaus, B.M. School (now defunct), New York City, 1970. Graduated from Regis High School, New York City, 1974. Graduated from Haverford College with a BA degree, majoring in psychology, 1981 (affiliated with Class of 1978). Graduated from Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education with an MS in Ed degree, majoring in counseling, 1984. Graduated from New York University with a PhD degree, in counseling psychology, 2000.

  • Politics: Rational.

  • Other Blogs: I write "On the Mark: Social Commentary From a Reflective Perspective," where I address social issues in general, my life and its lessons, and spirituality. I also write "For Latter-Day Saints: Topics in Mormonism," where I address issues of interest to Latter-day Saints. I shall address issues involving the interface between society in general and Freemasonry in "On the Mark"; I reserve issues of primary interest to Freemasons for this blog, "Freemasonry: Reality, Myth, and Legend." Anyone is welcome to read or comment on any of these blogs (subject to the rules, below).

Although directed at members of the Masonic Fraternity, anyone is welcome to read and comment upon these posts.

The rules for those who leave comments: No personal attacks. No profanity. You are welcome to disagree with me, and quite vigorously at that, but infringements of the rules means I shall delete you and bar you from future commenting.

Beyond that: Welcome.