March 10, 2014 in Grand Lodge
Today’s subject is all about a great and ancient fraternal order.
This fraternity had its beginnings in the USA over 150 years ago with the
formation of a Lodge back East started by a far-sighted man. This
fraternal order is distinguished by three words which embody the principles of
the organization (hint: the first word is “Friendship”). It is
international and non-sectarian. It has a branch primarily dedicated to
women, and it has junior branches for boys and girls. This fraternity
strives to do good works in the community and prides itself on an ancient and
long-standing ritual. The fraternal order is composed of Lodges, brought
under the jurisdiction of Grand Lodges. Members who attain the highest
rank can be uniformed and can carry swords.
If you thought I was talking about Odd Fellowship, you would be wrong.
The references above are to the Order of Knights of Pythias. The
Knights of Pythias, at one time, was the third largest fraternal organization
in the United States, right behind the Masons and the Odd Fellows. The
Knights of Pythias’ watchwords are “Friendship, Charity, Benevolence”.
They were founded in 1864 by Justus Rathbone. Once, California was
dotted with hundreds of Knights of Pythias’ Lodges. In fact, a Knights of
Pythias’ Lodge, years ago, met in my own Davis Odd Fellows Lodge Hall
But today, the Knights of Pythias website shows that there are only 12 Knights
of Pythias Lodges in the entire State of California.
Let me repeat that: There are only 12 Lodge left in California, where
once there were hundreds.
I tell you this tale because, if Odd Fellowship does not change the way it does
business, the future of our own fraternity may soon parallel that of the
Knights of Pythias. Can it happen? Certainly. It is one
future scenario for IOOF in California. Odd Fellowship once also had
hundreds of Lodges throughout the State of California. Virtually every
town and hamlet in this state once had an IOOF Lodge. Some of these
Lodges had memberships in the hundreds. Grand Lodge Sessions drew
thousands, as did Grand Encampment Sessions. Uniformed Patriarchs
Militant marched by the hundreds in colorful parades through California cities
with their bands playing. Yet over the last 70 years, our numbers
have declined dramatically. We now have only 120 Lodges in the entire
State of California. And of those Lodges, most show net membership losses
every year, year after year. Today, over two-thirds of our remaining Odd
Fellows Lodges have less than 30 members on their books. Some 35 of
our Lodges have 15 or fewer members on the books, and 10 of our Lodges have 10
or fewer members on their books. And that’s members “on the
books”. It is likely that, in most Lodges, only about half the
members “on the books” actually participate in Lodge meetings and
gatherings. You don’t need a PhD in statistics to see the trajectory of
Do I believe that Odd Fellowship will die? No, I do not. But do I
believe that – without changing the way we do business – Odd Fellowship could
travel the path of the Knights of Pythias? Yes, I do. At the
current rate, without change, our 120 Lodges may very well become 12 Lodges
within the next generation.
I don’t want to see that happen. And I know that the vast majority of you
don’t want to see that happen either.
Can we reverse the trend of declining membership that we have experienced over
the last three generations? Yes, we can. How? All we
need to do is open our eyes and look at our own Lodges. In spite of the
losses, we do have Lodges in California which – contrary to the trend – have
gained members and have grown. Why? Because they have become
three dimensional Lodges that feature three elements: (1) Respecting the
history and ritual that makes us uniquely Odd Fellows, (2) Reaching out into
their communities to undertake good community and charitable projects, and (3)
Organizing good fellowship activities for the members and the public that bring
the “fun” back into Odd Fellowship. Those
three-dimensional Lodges provide a satisfying fraternal experience for the
members, but also provide an attractive base for the men and women we need to
attract as new members in our Order.
As one long-time member recently said to me, somewhat laconically:
“We have Inside Guardians that keep our members in our Lodges, and Outside
Guardians that keep the public out of our Lodges. And look where that has
gotten us.” The long-time member was not suggesting that we reveal
our secrets. But the member was suggesting that we need to open the doors
and windows of our Lodges to the public when we do good community and charitable
works, and that we need to invite our friends and neighbors into our Lodges
when we plan fun social activities.
And I see that we are changing the way we do business, little by little and
inch by inch. Ultimately, because I am ever the optimist, I do see
the trend of diminishing membership starting to slow down, eventually stop, and
soon reverse. In my opinion, it will happen this year, or next year, or
very soon after that. I predict that the slide will stop, and the Order
in California will start to grow.
F – L – T