Freemasonry is at a crossroads. In one direction is the well trodden path that leads to a spiral of decline. The other direction, less used, leads to broad, sunlit uplands.
That is the view of Jon Whitaker, Provincial Grand Master (PGM) for the Province of Hampshire & Isle of Wight. It is one of the largest of UGLE’s Provinces with 250 Lodges containing 8,000 members who meet in 38 centres across six geographical areas.
Jon felt there was only one way to take on the challenge of a declining membership and that was to literally get out onto a Membership Pathway himself, and lead the initiative from the front. With such a large Province the usual strategy would be for the PGM to cascade his message through his six Assistant Provincial Grand Masters, each of whom heads an area. But on this occasion Jon decided it was so important he went to meet and chat to the brethren directly. He took his ‘Membership Roadshow' to all six areas where he addressed more than 750 members – about a tenth of the Province’s Freemasons.
‘As the Provincial Grand Master I made the decision to lead on this initiative because it’s my job to ensure that Freemasonry in this Province thrives, and not just survives,’
‘The roadshows were introduced by the Assistant Provincial Grand Masters and those attending were key Lodge members as well as Visiting Officers. We appoint a Visiting Officer to every Lodge; they attend meetings, act as a liaison with Province and offer advice and practical assistance – and it is an office that will be vital in this challenge. In effect these Visiting Officers are my representatives and need to be on board.
My roadshow message was clear – continue to attract quality candidates, retain existing members, embrace change, make Freemasonry enjoyable and look after the brethren. Those are things that only Lodges can do – so the initiative must be from the bottom up, as well as from the top down.
One simple thing for Lodges to consider is improved planning, which will lead to more efficient ceremonies and a saving of time. Brethren always appreciate this. Enjoyment is key and that means fun Festive Boards with reasonably priced food and no long, rambling speeches. As a Province we are looking at ways of improving the quality of the centres, which will make a big difference.
Lodges might consider changing the day or time they meet, or involving their families in social events in order to help foster a new spirit. A struggling Lodge can buddy-up with a stronger Lodge to learn from and to lean on. And in retaining members, Lodges have to avoid the RAF syndrome – raised and forgotten.’
Without arresting the decline in numbers, many Lodges, and the centres in which they meet, face a bleak future. And the numbers are stark, as Jon revealed on his roadshows with his customary transparency.
‘In the past 15 years, the Province has lost 3,000 members and is down to 8,000. Its 38 centres were adopted when there was a membership of 20,000. If nothing is done over the next 30 years, membership could drop by a further 6,000 – not a good legacy to leave to the next generation.
‘We rely on volunteers,’
‘but we wouldn’t have anywhere near enough with such a reduced membership. The Province couldn’t be run. In my roadshows I explained exactly what the problem is and just how big it is.
‘A Lodge might be delighted to have initiated two candidates in a year, but if they have lost four it is a declining Lodge. At each roadshow, there were brethren with lots of questions; and they were often challenging, but I found that refreshing. There is no lack of enthusiasm and emotion.
‘Feedback has been extremely positive with brethren genuinely pleased that the Provincial Grand Master held these meetings face-to-face. Some have told me about declining Lodges which have turned the corner and are now growing. One Lodge in my Province that I visited recently was down to a critically low 14, but they had a meeting and decided to carry on and take a last shot and follow the Membership Pathway. They created a Lodge profile to enable them to show who they were, and what they were and did. They then set about actively recruiting in the local community both through word-of-mouth and using social media, in effect they made a plan for the first time… and the Lodge is now on the up.
‘That feeling of turning a Lodge around is wonderful and you can often get a sense of the excitement that Lodge’s founders felt when it was consecrated. It’s a type of reset and rebirth. As I say to the brethren, it’s your Lodge, your future.
‘I have been a Freemason for 35 years and by nature am quite traditional, but we have to do things differently to successfully recruit and retain. There is an apt quote from Churchill who said: “Winning the affection and trust of young men... is a very different proposition to persuading old men that the way they have done things is obsolete.”
‘We have to carefully balance the broad range of our members and potential members. Every Lodge, area and the Province needs to engage and identify its future leaders. Succession planning is key.’
Jon is determined to make a difference in his tenure, to ensure Freemasonry thrives in his Province.