Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Once upon a time in California, there were more than 600 Odd Fellows Lodges. There was also a time in California when Odd Fellows boasted over 58,000 members. Today, in California, we have less than 120 Lodges and only about 4,000 members. There was also a time in this state when Noble Grands and members of Lodges were in their 20’s and 30’s. Today, Noble Grands and members of Lodges tend to be in their 60’s and 70’s.
Well, many people have many theories on that subject, but to me the answer is painfully obvious: Society changed. Odd Fellows didn’t.
The changes to our society over the last Century were profound and in many cases, rapid. The changes include radio, television, movies, automobiles, fast food, airline travel, the Internet, microwaves, freeways, computers, smart phones, social media, and much more. While our society was experiencing evolutionary and revolutionary changes, Odd Fellows Lodges tended to remain static, in a steady state. Now, there is a profound charm in the stability of Odd Fellowship. But that charm wears pretty thin as we watch our Order diminish and fade as Lodges close and membership declines.
Why did this happen?
It happened because of, what I call, the three “C’s”: Comfort, Complacency, and Competence.
Comfort. Unquestionably, there is comfort in the Lodge room “where the world is locked out” and members can focus on the rote and ritual. And, in the abstract, that is a good thing. Yet, too many members of our Order have gotten too comfortable with the status quo. In 1915, being a member of a Lodge with secret signs and passwords, dressed in costume, and reciting unwritten works by memory was certainly all the rage. Fraternal Orders of all kinds – including Odd Fellows – flourished. But in those days, there was little competition for a member’s time and attention. Today, we compete with the Internet, smart phones, Facebook, twitter, movies. video games, and television – among other things. Today, people can be connected with others without leaving their homes. Unless members start thinking with the 21st Century mind, they will not attract and keep the 21st Century applicants.
Complacency. A fraternal order is a dynamic entity. At one end of the spectrum, it is natural that members move away, let their memberships lapse, resign or withdraw, or pass away. Lodges will always lose members. So, at the other end, it is important that Lodges always bring in new members to, at a minimum, balance the slate so that the Lodge does not experience a net loss. However, in our Order, the majority of Lodges experience net losses year after year. It is only a distinct minority of our Lodges that maintain a steady state, and an even smaller percentage that have net gains. There are Lodges in this state that have not substantially added new members for an entire generation, sometimes two generations. This is a recipe for disaster for those Lodges. When the membership of a Lodge is all in it’s 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, having skipped a generation of new members in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s – that Lodge is almost inevitably doomed to failure as the older members pass away. What young man or woman wants to join a Lodge of septuagenarians and octogenarians? Complacency is the true enemy of our Order. Too many of our members believe it is the job of someone else in the Lodge to bring in new members. Wrong. It is the job of each member of the Lodge to bring in new members. And it is a job that must be done on a regular basis – year after year.
Competence. An uncomfortable result of declining membership in our Order is the reduction in our “gene pool” of competence. Once upon a time, when we had tens of thousands of members in our Order, we were a stellar organization. Yes, we had farmers, and carpenters, and house painters, and grocers, and clerks – but we also included Presidents, Governors, Senators, Judges, Mayors, leaders of banks, titans of industry, lawyers, accountants, and the like. Today, in California, we have a majority of our Lodges with 15 or fewer active members – many Lodges where only 6 or 7 members show up for meetings. Officers stay in office year after year, or simply rotate their offices with each other. A small “elite” controls the Lodge. We lack the high level of drive and competence that we once had. Our Lodges always had one or two members who were “rainmakers” for the Lodge – who could introduce new members and bring applicants to the Lodge. Because of our diminishing numbers, those rainmakers are few and far between.
So, what is the way out of this downward spiral?
Like any problem, it starts with recognition that we have a problem. Those who do not recognize that declining membership is our Number One Problem, will be witnesses to the decline of their Lodges and this Order. For those of us who recognize the problem, the solution is to EVOLVE and CHANGE – just like society has evolved and changed. We must open the doors and windows of our Lodges – however big or small – to the outside world. The fountain of youth in our Order is to bring in young members to our Lodges and to help them develop and let them lead. Lodges that flourish in the future will be three-dimensional Lodges that emphasize the following: (1) Recognizing the rich history and ritual of our Order which makes us uniquely Odd Fellows; (2) Having some good social time and fun within the Lodge because as a fraternity; (3) Reaching out into our communities to do good works.
Jurisdiction of California