Toby Hanson PGM, PGP WA
At its peak a century ago, Odd Fellowship was the largest fraternal order in the world. Since that time we have experienced a steady decline in membership. Those of us who have only been members in the 21st Century have seen the decline first-hand: declining membership, lodges closing, fewer media outlets and services for Odd Fellows, etc. Whereas once we were the largest and most respected fraternal order under one unified leadership, now we are small and irrelevant. The idea that we are moribund and living on borrowed time is pervasive and seems to inspire much of our contemporary management. Many leaders in the Order are content to sit back and accept the slow decline of Odd Fellowship until there are only five members left in the last lodge and they will struggle to make quorum. The hand-wringing keeps coming up: young people just aren’t joiners; nobody wants to be an Odd Fellow anymore; we don’t have the members we used to. But is that an accurate picture of Odd Fellowship and does it take into account the huge potential for growth going forward?
Having been host and producer of “The Three Links Odd Cast” now for about two years I’ve had a little bit broader perspective on the operation of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and also what’s happening on the ground in a lot of local areas. The high-level view looks gloomy, as usual: membership is declining, lodges are closing, membership is aging. But looking at what has been happening the past five years in individual jurisdictions, a different picture emerges. Lodges are being chartered, membership is growing, new people are finding Odd Fellowship and realizing that our Order is the place they want to be. We should pay careful attention to the factors contributing to those pockets of success and try to replicate them where we can.
The first contributing factor for growth right now in Odd Fellowship is that we have had a renaissance of Odd Fellows media. There has been an onslaught of books by, for, and about Odd Fellowship in recent years. Anyone curious about Odd Fellowship no longer has to try staking out a dusty old hall on the edge of a dying downtown core to learn about it. Books covering everything from Odd Fellowship in the Civil War to a worldwide history of the Order to the Primer have created a new ecosystem for authors studying Odd Fellowship and sharing their works. Social media has dozens if not hundreds of Odd Fellows lodges sharing their activities. There are message boards, a Discord server, and discussion forums all filled with content by, from, for, and about Odd Fellows. This blog is another example of how user-generated content can enrich the world of Odd Fellows media. In addition to the more static media like books and blogs, YouTube videos about Odd Fellowship have arisen, along with a handful of excellent podcasts. With so much media generated for Odd Fellows, anyone curious about the Order now has incredibly more new avenues to learn about who we are and what we do.
The increasing isolation of modern life is another major factor in the growth of Odd Fellowship. Where our parents or grandparents could once look to long careers with the same company, school relationships, and communities of faith to provide a sense of connection to the world around them, today’s young professionals are increasingly working in short-term, transitory jobs that offer little stability or sense of community. That lack of connections with others has sent many young people looking for groups in the community to join where they can feel a greater sense of togetherness and be connected to others. Odd Fellowship is the ideal place for those people to find the sense of community they don’t find elsewhere. All of us take a pledge when we join to help our brother or sister in affliction or distress. We look out for and take care of each other. That’s a great thing for people who feel disconnected from others.
A third factor in the growth of Odd Fellowship is that we offer a stark contrast to the effortless, meaningless modernity of contemporary society. Want a Jack and Coke? You can have alcohol delivered to your door. Want fried calamari? Delivered. New batteries for your remote? Delivered. Almost any kind of comfort, convenience, or need can be delivered directly to your home. Almost no effort or involvement is required for daily life. While that kind of ease seems appealing, it can also be disconcerting. More and more people are looking for something meaningful to do in life and again, Odd Fellowship is a great choice for that. Our meetings and events always incorporate ritual, symbolism, and meaning. We do ourselves a disservice when we remove those elements from our meetings because they provide the meaning and purpose that so many of our younger, newer members are craving. It’s not a coincidence that relics from our past—jewels, collars, regalia, robes, symbols—are some of the biggest attractors to Odd Fellowship.
With all this knowledge in hand, what can we do to further nurture the growth in Odd Fellowship? First, our lodges have to be willing to accept change. While that’s easy to say, it’s hard to put into practice reliably. Our lodges are highly individualistic places. Although they may use the same ritual, the personalities vary greatly across the Order. Some lodges will be places where the change that comes from new membership will be welcomed as a reprieve from the years of stagnation. Others will be fearful and resistant because change represents an upset of the stasis that has kept the lodge’s charter hanging on the wall for years after other meaningful activity ceased. Any deviation from past practice brings with it the danger of losing the stability which kept the lodge from closing. That fear presents a huge obstacle for new members to overcome.
Another critical part of furthering the growth of Odd Fellowship is our Grand Secretaries. Although a worldwide directory of lodges is currently under development (www.iooflodgedirectory.org), there’s still nothing better than the local knowledge of a Grand Secretary when it comes to directing potential members to lodges. Our Grand Secretaries need to be reachable by the public for them to be able to refer people to lodges, though. All of the Reddit posts, blogs, podcasts, or Instagram pictures are meaningless unless potential members know how to make contact with a lodge and that usually happens with the help of a Grand Secretary. Jurisdictions should have a website which will allow people to easily contact the Grand Secretary at a minimum. Every Grand Secretary should have regular access to email and a phone. They should be able to respond to membership inquiries within 48 hours at a very minimum. I’ve heard too many stories from people excited about Odd Fellowship only to go away bewildered after waiting months to hear back from someone either at a local lodge or at a Grand Lodge. Having serve as Grand Master I recognize the challenges of being a Grand Officer. Running the day-to-day operations of a Grand Lodge is a demanding job and it’s easy to forget to put out the welcome mat for potential members but it’s essential to the survival of Odd Fellowship. We can never know what we’re losing every time a person who wanted to join gives up on us because of a lack of response to an email or phone call.
Taken all together, these attitudes and ideas comprise a growth mindset. All of us need to shift our thinking from survival to growth. A survival mindset is fearful of change because it can expose our lodges to the risk of going defunct. A growth mindset embraces change because it brings the possibility of growth and advancement. A survival mindset doesn’t “waste” money on a website. A growth mindset invests in sharing the message of Odd Fellowship to attract new members. A survival mindset concentrates effort on existing relationships. A growth mindset is always open to new contacts and people. A survival mindset doesn’t waste effort on fixing up a dingy old building. A growth mindset puts new lights on the sign and repaints the building so the community knows it’s a thriving place open to new members. For the benefit of our future, now is the time to adopt a growth mindset.
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