Reflections from Sovereign Grand Lodge -by Toby Hanson

Toby Hanson, PGM, PGP (WA); Past Sovereign Grand Musician

What is the state of Odd Fellowship?  Is it growing?  Dying? Static?  Are we part of a dynamic organization full of new ideas ready to burst forth with activity and growth?  Is the IOOF a decrepit, decaying corpse of a once great fraternity?  I don’t know that there’s an objective answer. I *do* know that one’s impression of the state of the order is dependent on who one asks and where one looks.

Hard tree ferns (Blechnum sp.) sprouting in burnt forest after 2019/20 bushfires devastated the area. Damaged Eucalyptus trees and soft tree ferns in the background. Martins Creek Scenic Reserve, Nurran, Victoria, Australia. February 2020. Non-ex.

I have no statistics at my disposal.  Eventually I could get numbers from Sovereign Grand Lodge and see what the membership numbers for 2021 are. That would give me an idea of the overall trend of where our member numbers are going compared to past years. That’s valuable for assessing our overall place relative to the past but it would not necessarily give me an idea of the future direction of the Order. The numbers are an accurate accounting of how many members we have but it doesn’t give any idea of what trends are emerging or which ways we might want to support those trends for the benefit of Odd Fellowship.

Having just attended Sovereign Grand Lodge in Cincinnati, Ohio, I’ve had the opportunity to get an idea of what some of the future trends are that will be emerging in Odd Fellowship. The first thing I observed is that there are several places in Odd Fellowship where exciting things are happening. People are wanting to be a part of those lodges. Growth is happening. In Maine, Governor Brooks Lodge #142 is building a new lodge hall with donations of materials and member labor.  In Texas, Dallas Lodge #44 is using our Living Legacy program to plant fruit trees in areas that don’t have easy access to fresh food.  In Louisiana, Crescent City Lodge #73 is working on restoring the historic Odd Fellows’ Rest cemetery in New Orleans.

Contrast those engaged, active lodges with what I’ve heard from younger members who have joined predominantly older, inactive lodges. Recently, a younger member from a lodge in a Western jurisdiction expressed his frustration with his lodge because he and his younger friends want to do more of the ritual. They want to practice the Degrees and improve their ability to perform them but the older members are worried that if they do too much ritual in their meetings the long-time members won’t want to attend any more. In another lodge in the South, a younger member is at an impasse with the older members of his lodge because he wants to become more active and engage the community but the long-time members are worried about upsetting the delicate balance which allows the lodge to survive with minimal effort.

The second thing I observed is that the appeal of Odd Fellowship is still very strong. The evidence of this is the number of new lodges that have been chartered in the past two years. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, new lodges have been chartered in Texas, Louisiana, Wyoming, New Jersey, Virginia, and New York. At Sovereign Grand Lodge I also heard of plans to organize new lodges in Utah and Montana. In most cases, these efforts are being led by younger people under forty who are looking for a kind of community organization that will bring people together for a common purpose. Those people are finding Odd Fellowship and realizing that we’re the organization they are looking for. When there are people who come to our organization and are passionate and want to help build Odd Fellowship we should do everything we possibly can to encourage, support, and guide them.

Contrast that with the many stories I’ve heard of non-responsive members in lodges and Grand Lodges. An outsider who hasn’t yet joined Odd Fellowship doesn’t understand our structure and distribution of organizational responsibilities. It’s like going to the grocery store and asking someone for help finding canned peaches only to be repeatedly told that finding canned fruit is not the job of anyone asked. I understand that, for the most part, our leaders are lightly-compensated volunteers who put in a great deal of time and money to serve in those leadership positions. Still, if we want to grow and harness the passion of new potential members, we need to find ways to answer their calls and emails in a timely manner and give them the guidance they need.

Potential members are calling, will you answer?

Even worse was the conversation I overheard from an older member at Sovereign Grand Lodge where he was bragging about preventing the use of technology in his jurisdiction for meetings and other business. Because he had bad cell service and didn’t like computers he worked to prevent groups in his jurisdiction using technology for doing their business. While that certainly suits the particular member and his interests, it also makes it much harder for others in his jurisdiction to do what they need to do to remain functional. Why take the expense and time of driving and meeting in person when we can use technology to do routine business? Because there’s a stubborn old man who wants things his way, that’s why!

The third thing I have observed is that our history, traditions, symbolism, and ritual are of endless fascination, especially to younger, newer members. One of the big attractions for members is that we have a rich, varied history of ritual and symbolism. There is a renewed hunger amongst members and non-members alike to find out more about our past. The past ten years have seen a resurgence of interest in our history as many great books have been written about the history, traditions, and symbolism of Odd Fellowship. Countless hours have been dedicated by multiple scholars to writing books exploring our history, our rituals, our philosophy, and other aspects of Odd Fellowship. The sales successes of these books demonstrate the hunger that exists both within the order and outside of the order for information about Odd Fellowship.

The new members who join almost universally want a traditional fraternal experience. They like our degree structure and want to progress in their knowledge of Odd Fellowship by taking the degrees and eventually joining our Encampments and Cantons. They want to wear the beautiful old collars instead of the expedient chain regalia. They want to do full versions of degrees and other ceremonies. They appreciate all the esoteric aspects of Odd Fellowship and want to know and practice the minutiae, do the full rituals, and wear the full regalia. Odd Fellowship is their escape from a world of meaningless expediency.

Michael Greenzeiger, GM 2021-22 (CA) with his officers. Fusing Odd Fellow traditions with a modern approach

Contrast that with the attitudes that many of those young members have encountered in their lodges from the older members who treat our traditions and rituals as more of a burden than an opportunity for enrichment. It’s our ritual, regalia, and tradition that makes us special and unique. It’s what makes Odd Fellowship compelling as a philosophy and an organization. Making Odd Fellowship overly expedient removes some of the main reasons for the recent increase in interest amongst potential younger members.

Besides the books recently produced, there has been a great expansion in media outlets for spreading the message of Odd Fellowship. The Internet has democratized communication and Odd Fellowship has benefitted. There have been several efforts to harness the power of the Internet for our order. Past Sovereign Grand Master Jimmy Humphrey was a trailblazer in creating YouTube videos to communicate directly with members and share our message with others. Many other creators have also contributed videos to YouTube, Vimeo, and other video-sharing platforms about Odd Fellowship. This blog, the Heart In Hand, has been a great way of sharing ideas and information about Odd Fellowship from various contributors, both long-time members and brand-new. Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and other social media platforms have become effective places for lodges to share their activities and engage with new people. Brother Michael Greenzeiger, Grand Master of California,started a Discord server for Odd Fellows covering a wide variety of discussion topics from fundraisers to Patriarchal Odd Fellowship. Starting last year, podcasting has been opened to the world of Odd Fellowship through the efforts of the Odd Fellows Odd Cast, the Three Links Odd Cast, and Modern Goat Rider. All of these new outlets for information have resulted in an increase in information about Odd Fellowship and some concurrent growth in membership.

Wise advice from Brother Winston Churchill

With all of this information and observation, what’s the state of Odd Fellowship? I don’t know that any conclusions I could draw would be definitive, but I do feel that they would be a fairly accurate impression of where we’re at and what we can do to foster future growth. We are still predominantly an organization with older, retired members but it was very encouraging to see an increase in the number of younger members in the Sovereign Grand Lodge. That indicates that more younger people are working their way up through their Grand Lodges and Grand Encampments. I’m confident that our new Sovereign Grand Master has assembled a very capable team of leaders for his term who reflect those shifts in Sovereign Grand Lodge membership.

With the increasing number of younger members in leadership positions I believe we will become increasingly responsive to embracing the flow of information in our order. I also believe we will increasingly embrace the things like our heritage and traditions which are attracting many of our new members. We also have a great potential for growth. It will take promoting Odd Fellowship in our communities and especially ensuring our jurisdictional leaders are responsive to inquiries about membership to harness that potential for growth. The desire for membership in something meaningful is growing in the general population, especially as a result of the pandemic. We have an excellent organization with over two centuries of meaning and tradition. While I can’t accurately gauge the state of the order, I can say that I have a huge amount of optimism for our ability to grow and spread the message of Odd Fellowship. If we handle the situation properly this could be the beginning of our greatest period of stability and growth in half a century.

Want to more about the Odd Fellows? Ask Me I May Know!

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