Junior Past Grand Master
Grand Lodge of Washington, IOOF
Sovereign Grand Musician
Independent Order of Odd Fellows
Everything you’ve been reading up to this point has been preparing you
for this moment when I reveal the deepest, most special, most
closely-guarded secret of Odd Fellowship: how to save failing lodges.
This is the Holy Grail—the keystone—the most sought-after answer ever.
The one, true secret to saving failing lodges is…
There is no secret answer.
OK, so I may be a terrible person for building up your anticipation like
that but I did it for a reason: there’s too much of an expectation that
there’s a single answer that will save our failing lodges and there’s
too much time wasted waiting for that single solution to materialize. We
have to get past the expectation that there’s some kind of magic, secret
answer that will solve all the problems in our lodges.
We have a very wide array of lodges across the world. There are urban
lodges who still have big, downtown temples, there are suburban lodges,
there are rural lodges, there are lodges that have sold their old
downtown buildings and replaced them with new buildings on the edge of
town, there are lodges that rent space from other groups, there are
lodges that meet in libraries and restaurants, there are lodges that
meet in members’ homes. Along with the variety of places we meet, we
have a huge variation in members. Some have been Odd Fellows for
seventy years, some have been Odd Fellows for a little over a week. Some
experienced Odd Fellowship at its apex when lodges met weekly and all
ritual work was done by memory. Others took their degrees by watching a
video and repeating a quick obligation. Some attend lodge in a jacket
and tie, others have tattoos covering both arms. With such diversity
it’s nearly impossible to have a single answer for how to save a lodge.
The first principle of successful lodges is that they’re known in their
communities. If your lodge hall is dingy and dirty on its exterior,
you’re telling your community that you’re not important. It might as
well be another derelict building in a part of town that has seen better
days. Our buildings are what most of our community sees on a regular basis. We need to ensure that these are well-kept and welcoming. Each lodge hall is a stand-alone advertisement for Odd Fellowship which shares our message with the world. Don’t let the message your building sends out be that Odd Fellowship is old, out-dated, and irrelevant.
Another part of being known in their communities is the good work Odd
Fellows do. I visited a lodge during my term as Grand Master and asked
about what kind of community service they had done. They gave me an
impressive list of projects that would have any other organization
bursting with pride and ready to spread their message far and wide. This
lodge kept all their efforts a secret. Someone in the community wrote
letters to the editor of the local newspaper critical of the Odd
Fellows. To avoid having any more negative letters the lodge told no
one about its activities. I encouraged them to not worry about the
negative letter writer and start sharing what they do with local media.
Now more than ever, newspapers are looking for stories to publish and
they’re happy to have “good news” stories handed to them.
A second principle of successful lodges is that they’re always aware of
and responsive to the interests and needs of their newest members. How
many times have you heard about or experienced a lodge with five elderly
men who dutifully open and close the lodge the second and fourth
Wednesday of each month and never do anything? They all complain about
how nobody wants to be Odd Fellows anymore. They harken back to the
days when the lodge was bustling with activity from Rebekahs, Juniors
and Theta Rho, Encampment and LEA, Canton and Auxiliary. They recount
fondly how there were several social events at the hall put on by those
various branches of the Order: the dances for the youth, the quilting
parties by the Rebekahs, the annual Encampment Steak Dinner, the poker
nights on the fifth Tuesday of each month. Now, however, except for
those two lodge meetings a month ten months of the year, the hall is
dusty and silent. Should a new member actually join the lodge and make
suggestions about what the lodge could do to bring some life back to it,
the long-time members will dismiss every single suggestion without being
willing to try them.
I’m not saying that a new member should immediately run for Noble
Grand. What should happen is that, when lodges actually get what they
say they want—new members—those lodges should recognize the value of
those new members and be willing to try the new ideas those members
bring. The surest way of dooming a lodge to failure is to meet every
new idea from an enthusiastic member with choruses of “We tried that
already and it failed” or “We don’t want to spend the money on that.”
Yes, lodges need to be frugal, but they also need to recognize that
we’re not in the asset accrual business; we’re in the Odd Fellowship
business. One of the best uses of our assets is to spread the message
of Odd Fellowship and bring new people into our lodges. Our forbearers
didn’t spend their lives building up our lodge coffers for us to isolate
ourselves from the community and hoard money; they did it to make our
lodges sustainable. Lodges that have stopped interacting with their
communities are not sustainable.
Another aspect of being responsive to new members is to get them
involved. Although it’s admirable when a brother has served forty-seven
years as secretary, it also means no one else has had the chance to
learn to do that job for almost a half century. I have been fortunate
as an Odd Fellow to be mentored by several older members who took the
time and effort to teach me about the workings of the Order. Because of
that, I was eventually in a position to be a leader and serve as Grand
Master of my jurisdiction. That only happens when older members share
their knowledge with younger members and then give those younger members
the opportunity to apply it. When someone joins your lodge, give them
an opportunity to do something. Someone who joins a lodge only to be told that there’s no job for them in the lodge and nothing they’re needed for is someone not likely to continue attending lodge. Let the new member fill an appointed office. Teach them about the duties of that office. Take time during your meetings to explain how certain things work. Use “Good Of The Order” to share a story about Odd Fellowship or something historical about the lodge. Pass on your knowledge and then give new members the chance to use that knowledge.
Nobody wants to join a group only to be told there’s no place for them once they get in.
With the ideas in mind that successful lodges will be both interactive
in their communities and responsive to new members, what’s to be done
about failing lodges? Lodges fail in multiple ways but, just like with
successful lodges, there are some commonalities of failing lodges.
Failing lodges do nothing in their communities. They have rambling,
unbearable meetings. They are oblivious to the world around them. There
is a lot of arguing and disagreement amongst members.
Failing lodges are not doomed to their fates. A jurisdiction very close
to me has had a program for many years with a very good success rate
when it comes to helping failing lodges and making them successful.
Their Grand Lodge has a team of members who are prepared and able to
visit lodges throughout the jurisdiction, assess the situation and needs
of the lodge, and then help them make the necessary adjustments to get
back on the path to success. They have resources from the Grand Lodge,
like a trailer full of degree robes and props, so that they can take an
active part in helping lodges be successful.
The first thing the committee does when they visit a failing lodge is
attend a meeting. They take notice of how the meeting goes: is it
efficient? Cordial? Combative? Are older members constantly
dismissive of younger members? Is the Noble Grand effective at keeping
order or does he/she let the meeting wander off-topic? Are there
personality conflicts between certain members? After assessing the
meeting, the committee will meet with various individuals in the lodge
to find out what strengths and resources the lodge has. Are any of its
members good organizers? Do any of the members belong to other groups
in town? How much money does the lodge have? Are those assets liquid
or frozen? What condition is the building in if they own their own
building? Are their rituals up-to-date? Do they have a current Code
book? Do they have degree paraphernalia? Do they have enough regalia?
Once the committee has an idea about the situation the lodge is in they
can devise a plan. In one small-town lodge, the mayor was a member of
the lodge and he kept bringing town business up in lodge trying to use
the lodge members to put pressure on the town council to pass his
agenda. The committee kindly reminded the mayor that lodge is a
non-political, non-sectarian place. The town’s business remains outside
the lodge unless it impacts the lodge in some way. That internal
conflict was pulling the lodge apart and making meetings unpleasant to
attend. In another lodge, the building was falling apart and the tiny,
elderly membership was overwhelmed and couldn’t handle dealing with it.
The committee arranged financing from the Grand Lodge to pay for
building repairs and then held a membership drive in the community to
get some new members into the lodge. They also provided some training
for the new members so they would understand how the lodge operates and
be prepared to take over management of lodge business as the older
members stepped back. In yet another lodge, the hall was in the middle
of a small town and it was quite run down and dirty on the outside. The
committee organized a work party to clean and paint the exterior of the
hall so that it would be a good advertisement for Odd Fellowship in town.
There’s almost no limit to the great things lodges can do to improve
their situation and start to grow. Lodges who have their own building
can find other groups that need space like theater groups or dance
classes and offer discounted rentals in exchange for memberships in the
lodge. They can host all kinds of gaming parties, from inviting the
local Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts to play pool at the lodge hall once a
week to poker nights, cribbage tournaments, bingo games, or even
tabletop gaming. That’s a great way to get new people into the lodge.
Host dinners. Have an inter-fraternal dinner where you invite members
of other fraternal or community groups to eat and learn about Odd
Fellowship. Host a community chili cook-off or other food competition.
Lodges can send out letters to other groups in town that need meeting
space and offer their lodge hall. Is there a hobby club or group that
needs meeting space? Many times churches or other community groups like
neighborhood associations and Chambers of Commerce will need meeting
space. That’s a great way to let people know about your lodge. How
about painting a mural on the side of your hall? Fixing up your lodge sign? Are there festivals or events in your neighborhood to participate in? Does your city hold an art walk? Do you have a town carnival? Get involved in those. Sponsor youth sports, parks concerts, community theater productions. Get your name on programs or in advertisements. Send regular press releases to your local media outlets like newspapers,
radio stations, TV stations, and community blogs. Let your community
know that your lodge is an active, vital part of what’s going on. Make
t-shirts for your lodge. Make jackets or hats for members to wear.
Volunteer for clean-up duty after your town’s parade. If your community
has a historical society make contact with them and get on their
historical tour. Lodges don’t have to die. They only die when the
community becomes oblivious to the lodge.
For any of these approaches to saving lodges to work certain things have
to happen. The local lodge has to be willing to accept the help and be
comfortable with the changes. The Grand Lodge has to commit both time
and money to rebuilding the lodges. The members of any assistance
committee have to be willing to serve and assist lodges. If all of this
happens, the outcomes can be wonderful. We can save the lodges we have
and turn our attention to building Odd Fellowship for the future. After
all, this Order was built from the ground up by a carriage spring maker
who believed that people should get together and help each other out.
If Thomas Wildey could do that two hundred years ago and be successful,
there’s no reason why we can’t do it now.
Junior Past Grand Master
Grand Lodge of Washington, IOOF
Sovereign Grand Musician
Independent Order of Odd Fellows
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