If I were to ask anyone anywhere in Odd Fellowship what the main challenge facing the Order is, I can guarantee the answer would be membership. In every lodge, in every jurisdiction, everywhere in the world, there isn’t a lodge that wouldn’t admit that they need more members. A couple of new, dedicated, passionate members can be the difference between a lodge keeping its charter and continuing to do the work of Odd Fellowship or giving up its charter and joining the nearly endless list of defunct lodges.
All of us would agree that we say we want members, but when those members do actually join, what kind of experience are we giving them? Are we treating them in a way that shows them that we appreciate them? We do a pretty good job of selling the ideal of Odd Fellowship: a universal brotherhood where we meet together regularly in active, interesting lodges with meaningful rituals and tasteful regalia. We’ve seen the brochures and the websites and social media posts with smiling people in bright rooms wearing nice clothing and eating delicious food. That’s the impression that we give to the world at large, and that’s the impression we *WANT* to give the world at large. We want them to know that Odd Fellowship is enjoyable and meaningful. However, we need to be honest with ourselves about whether that’s actually the experience we’re offering potential members when they make the commitment to be Odd Fellows.
Odd Fellowship is the original franchise model: local lodges are the local restaurant franchises, Districts are the local management area, Grand Lodges are the state-level coordinators, and Sovereign Grand Lodge is the parent corporation. For the most part, franchising works well for restaurants and other businesses. The corporation handles supplies, marketing, and logistics. State-level organizations help maintain uniformity across the brand. Districts handle management issues and help ensure functionality of the local franchises. That model worked wonderfully for Odd Fellowship for over a century as district associations got together for mutual instruction and assistance, Grand Lodges oversaw activities at the state level to ensure uniformity and compliance, and the Sovereign Grand Lodge provided supplies and overall direction.
As our Order atrophied in the latter half of the 20th Century, the management model started to break down and there were fewer people at each level. District associations stopped functioning. Grand Lodges became less active at encouraging uniformity among their subordinate lodges. Sovereign Grand Lodge did less outward messaging and concentrated more on internal affairs and activities. As a result, lodges diverged from orthodoxy and more diverse—and relaxed—practices started to emerge. I am not intending to assign any kind of negative quality to the ways in which our Order has adapted to our reduced numbers, but rather take an honest look at how the changes have affected us. I’m not disparaging any of those who have done the work and made the effort to survive amidst the decline of fraternalism. They are heroes who have preserved Odd Fellowship and put it in its present position where it can grow going forward.
Imagine your lodge is one of those survivors. You have six active members, all in their 70s and older. After every meeting you sit around the table in your lodge’s dining hall and lament the lack of new members. You repeat all the same reasons that young people aren’t joining: there’s too much else to do with free time, families are too complex and take up too much time, nobody knows about the Odd Fellows anymore, people have their noses in their phones all day, people just aren’t joiners, etc. One day, a young professional, age 28, calls the lodge phone number at a time when someone happens to be in the hall to answer it. He’s heard about the Odd Fellows somewhere and is interested in joining. You tell him that the lodge would be happy to have him as a member and he can come in and meet everyone next Tuesday at noon before the next meeting. Since that falls on his lunch break he commits to visiting the lodge to meet everyone.
Next Tuesday comes and the potential member makes his way to the dingy, run down hall on the edge of a dying downtown area. He manages to find the poorly-marked back stairway and climb up to the second floor. He walks in the door and finds a musty, dusty room full of clutter and vinyl-clad benches with tacky wood paneling and pea soup-green carpet. After calling out a few times to find the people there to meet, he finally hears a response from someone in an adjacent room. He walks in to find six elderly men sitting in an orderly fashion around a fatigued wooden table. One offers the new person a seat and he sits down. Questions flow from the new person about what the lodge does, how it acts on its ideals, in what ways Odd Fellowship is personally enriching. Many wonderful stories about what the lodge used to do and how it used to be back in the old days follow. Earl tells about how the Encampment used to take the members of the LEA out for dinner at the finest restaurant in town before installations. Carl talks about how he used to attend dances at the hall when he was a Junior Odd Fellow in the 60s. Leonard recounts the time the lodge chartered a bus and went to the Degree Rally in the big city. When the potential member asks what the lodge does now, everyone looks around at each other hoping that someone else will share something important about the current state of the lodge. Finally, Ernie says, “We gave $50 to the local high school for their scholarship fund.”
Despite the underwhelming impression, the new person asks for an application and fills it out. After he leaves, the lodge meeting convenes and an investigation committee is appointed. They contact the applicant and he comes back again for a formal interview. They ask a few cursory questions and then send the applicant on his way. The lodge votes and they accept the new member. They contact him again and give him the time, date, and location of the soonest Degree Day in another city in their state. Three weeks later, he’s herded into a room with a few other strangers where he sits in a dark room and watches a series of videos punctuated with a few moments of instruction from a person telling the strangers to remember this word or that hand gesture. At the end, he’s told that he is now an Odd Fellow and he can return to his lodge as a member. Then everyone sits down and eats cake.
Even though the process of joining the lodge was uninspiring and didn’t feel the least bit meaningful, the new member is still interested by what he’s heard about how great Odd Fellowship can be. He faithfully shows up for his first meeting. Instead of wearing the beautiful regalia he’s seen in books or on social media, he’s handed a cold chain and told to sit over there. He’s given a red book and told to follow along. At some point he tries to ask a question and is told he’s out of order and needs to wait. Under “New Business” he bravely speaks up again and suggests that the lodge should do something to promote itself in the town like maybe painting the building, buying t-shirts, holding a craft bazaar, sponsoring a youth sports team, buying an ad in the local stadium, hosting a spaghetti dinner for the local fire hall, or just about anything that would make the lodge more visible in the community. Discussion ensues and he is immediately scolded for suggesting the lodge should spend their precious dollars that generations of Odd Fellows have painstakingly amassed. “That’s not our money to spend! Walter Smith worked night and day to ensure we would have all that money in the bank! We have to save every last penny of it!” He is told, “We don’t have the kind of membership to put on a dinner,” or “We can’t handle that,” or “We don’t do those kinds of things,” or “Nobody wants to do that anymore.” No matter the suggestion or idea, the members are ready with their litany of rehearsed reasons why the lodge can never succeed. After the lodge meeting closes, the new member never returns.
If this whole narrative sounds even remotely familiar then you’ve experienced many of the reasons that Odd Fellowship has had challenges with membership. Although we would all agree that we need members, at the many opportunities to show inclusion or appreciation for new members, we too often show them contempt or disagreement. Every new suggestion is met with resistance and disdain. Every expression of enthusiasm is quashed. “Hey, can we try to host a pancake breakfast?” “No. We tried that in 1986 and it failed.” New membership and the new energy it brings to Odd Fellowship is threatening. It changes the ways lodges work. It disrupts the ways lodges have adapted to decline. New ideas mean taking chances and that means the possibility of loss and failure. I understand why lodges, especially small lodges that have found a way to survive with very few people, are terrified of anything changing. Yes, new members may be nice, but new members want to be active and activity threatens the survival mode of those lodges’ near hibernation. After all, why risk losing the charter when we can keep it by meeting with the six of us on the second and fourth Tuesday at 1pm. Yeah, we’ll probably never grow that way, but at least we’re not dead—yet.
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