Masonic Burn-Out: An Unspoken Problem

Unless we are respectful in what we ask of our Brethren, we are having an undue effect on their mental health, and the health of our Lodges

Hello again everyone, I meant to get this post out MUCH earlier, but you know life, it has that crazy little habit of getting in the way, right? Between work, the family, vacations and what not I’ve barely had enough time to come up for air. But I’ve committed to this little thing called writing so I want to make sure I’m on top of it. I’ve been thinking about this particular topic for a while now, and I think its in line with recent shows by the Masonic Roundtable, as well as Whence Came You. Recently a post on From Darkness to Light motivated me to get writing this though, because I think this is something that needs to be talked about. While we talk a lot about the Brethren who get Initiated, Passed and Raised and walk away almost immediately from the Craft and the reasons for it (of which there are many), I do feel there is an underlying reason that doesn’t get talked about, Masonic burn-out. In many cases, this is a bi-product of the decline in membership, and overall state of some Lodges, but its still something we need to combat none the less. Sure, recycling a Past Master through the Progressive Line gives a Lodge experience and stability, its less than ideal however. Unfortunately, in many Lodges this recycling is a way of life; in fact, it is a scenario my Lodge is finally on the tail end of getting out of. None the less, I feel this is an important issue that Lodges need to focus on, avoid, and/or recover from if they are looking for sustained success as a Masonic Lodge.

I believe I’ve mentioned in a previous article, but I was Raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason in August 2007, and I immediately was thrust into a leadership position in my Lodge. Additionally, I quickly joined my first two Appendant Bodies, Royal Arch and the Knights Templar. This is an extremely common situation among Masonic Brethren in the United States, the biggest reason being that many Lodges simply don’t have the interest, or number of actively participating Brethren, so who better than a barely wet behind the ears Master Mason, excited and motivated to do something for their Lodge. I want to make it clear; I was not in any way pressured to accept the position of Junior Deacon of the Lodge, or join the Royal Arch and Knights Templar. I was your typical just Raised Master Mason, excited, and ready to do something. Looking back on it though, I definitely would have done things differently; don’t get me wrong, I have thoroughly enjoyed my journey as a Mason both as an Officer of my Lodge and within the various Appendant Bodies of which I am a member. However, had I to do it all over again, I would wait a year or two before joining an Appendant Body, and its advice I try to give all those Petitioning my Lodge as well as newer members asking about them. The main reason is you’ve just gone through so much to become a Master Mason, that it can take some time to wrap your head around what all you’ve just gone through, the meaning, the symbolism and the importance of it all. After twelve years as a Mason, there’s STILL new things I see in our Ritual and Degrees, imagine yourself as a newly made Master Mason and how all that is swimming through your brain! If anything, I consider it the Masonic equivalent of “stopping to smell the roses”.

Photo by Sasha Miller on Unsplash

When it comes to being Officer of my Lodge, I’m confident in saying I would accept the invitation to serve as Junior Deacon so shortly after being Raised; which led to me serving in the East of my Lodge several years thereafter. There are other things I would have done differently though, you see, I served in the East two consecutive years, while attending grad school and my first year in the East commenced shortly after the birth of my son. This was the Masonic equivalent of that scene in the Great Outdoors, where John Candy eats that monster steak. I put WAY too much on my plate, and it affected every aspect of my life. After two years of leading a Lodge, and attending grad school I was physically, mentally and emotionally drained, and I probably should have taken some time away. But then I became Secretary of my Lodge; but that’s a different story, for a different day. Running a Masonic Lodge is not a trivial matter, and agree or not with the idea of the “progressive line”, when you’re asked to be a Junior Deacon, there is an expectation that comes with it. I knew this, I was young, full of energy and thought I could do it all and it bit me in the ass. Please don’t repeat my mistake of taking on too much, it will end in a similar fashion. If anything, I should have not pursued my masters degree at the time and deferred until after I served in the East, as it was a completely elective thing for me and I already had committed to the Lodge. But I get another chance at it next year, with less going on in my life, a stable line of Officers, and a healthy and active Lodge so I expect this to be a wildly different experience for this go around.

Now, I’m not trying to say this is the only factor in why Brethren leave the Lodge and never come back shortly after being Raised, its just one that doesn’t get a lot of talk. A good Masonic Lodge is quite like an automatic watch, all the parts have to function in unison, or its not going to tell time properly. Effective and well performed ritual, an educational program that satiates all its members, and an active and engaged membership are just a few of the hallmarks of a well functioning Lodge. If just one of those isn’t functioning, then the Lodge isn’t going to function at its peak. When a Lodge isn’t functioning at its peak, it generally has problems, and it generally has to throw its newest members into some position of leadership or responsibility, and it generally has to do this because when one of the parts isn’t working effectively, then soon after the others stop working properly, and eventually we burn our Brethren out.

Photo by noor Younis on Unsplash

This was something I saw first hand my second year as Worshipful Master of my Lodge. Much of my Officers line were members who had been Raised since I joined, so fresh Master Masons basically. My Junior Deacon came in just like me, excited, motivated and ready to participate in the Lodge, and like me he was Raised very shortly before being asked to serve as Junior Deacon. To say this year was chaotic is an understatement, and it’s the year that we as a Lodge first noticed issues that brought the Lodge to the brink, and that we’re only on the tail end of getting out of now. But that’s another story, for another blog post. Suffice it to say, it was a very difficult year, and it was very difficult on the entire Officer line. As I said, my Junior Deacon came into the year gung-ho, and he killed it, until the gravity of the situation caught up with him. Slowly he stopped responding to emails and performing his duties, eventually he wasn’t coming out to Lodge. Finally, I got the email that he wasn’t interested in continuing on as an Officer at the Lodge, he wasn’t interested in “fixing a broken Lodge” were his words. At the time I was extremely upset at this particular Brother, but time, and the benefit of hindsight have softened that. The Lodge failed this Brother, it failed all of our Brothers. It’s not something that started with me, but I sincerely believe had I had more time its possibly something I would have seen earlier. But I didn’t see it, so its something that I am responsible for and I take ownership for that. We didn’t give this Brother, or the entire Lodge the Masonic experience they deserved. In our case the issues started with the Secretary’s desk, but as I noted earlier once one part of the clock is broken, very shortly thereafter the rest will stop functioning. This is exactly what happened to us. Thankfully, an extremely dedicated combination of Past Masters and newer members of the Lodge have worked tirelessly over the past five or so years to get us where we are now. This to me though is an excellent example of a Brother who suffered from Masonic burn-out, and I’m confident he’s not the only one. Looking back on it, I’m truly sorry for being a part of putting this Brother in that situation, it wasn’t fair to him, it’s not fair to any Brother, but alas it’s a fact of Masonic life these days.

So how do we ensure we’re not burning out the members of our Lodge? The true answer is there is no one answer and its all going to depend on your Lodge’s situation, which will likely be unique from another Lodge’s situation. In my particular case, our Lodge was in a very advantageous position to recover. Although we had a significant non-payment of dues situation to handle, we still had a healthy role of membership to pull from in terms of having the bodies to put in seats. Additionally, and most importantly was the help received from our Past Masters. What started as a call for help to one of our Past Masters resulted in four more coming in to help. We never would have been able to recover in the manner we did without their help, and the Lodge is forever indebted to their response to the bat signal. The other key point in our recovery is our membership, we’re lucky enough as a Lodge to be bucking the trend of average member age; because we are located in a County in Virginia that is growing by leaps and bounds, we are lucky enough that the petitions coming in are on average, submitted by younger men who were able to step in almost immediately upon being Raised in key positions to spur on our recovery. This certainly goes against my recommendations from above, but in our case, we had no other choice, if we wanted to keep our Charter, we needed to seek their assistance almost immediately. As I get ready to head into my third year as a Worshipful Master in the next few months, I’m proud of the fact that our Officers line is stable enough that we likely won’t have to ask the new guys to help immediately, we have an engaged and motivated “backlog” (for lack of better terms) of Brethren able and willing to serve the Lodge.

Unfortunately, not all Lodges are as lucky, and positioned as we were to recover. So, what are they to do? Let’s deal with the hardest situation to cope with out of the gate, Lodge merger or surrendering of Charter. As Masons we love to look back on the glory days of membership after World War II and talk all sorts of nonsense on how we’re going to reach those membership numbers again. I’m going to be completely honest here, it’s not…going…to happen. Freemasonry in the United States will NEVER attain those membership numbers again, instead we must adapt to the reality of having to deal with being realistic and working within our membership means. This means asking difficult questions about Lodges that are struggling to stay afloat. I was extremely surprised to hear our very own Grand Master this past year at a Division Leadership Conference make the dreaded “Lodge merger” statement. It can certainly be upsetting for Brethren, especially those Brethren in Lodges that would be in danger of having to merge with another or surrender their Charter. But the reality is, our Grand Lodge is finally setting a realistic expectation of Freemasonry with its Brethren, and I commend that honesty; because too many Grand Lodges still cling to the unrealistic membership drives of attaining those past membership numbers. Again, and I can’t repeat this enough, its just not going to happen. We need to stop offering our Lodges and Brethren these false promises of “how great the olden days were” and instead focus on helping them build and develop the key skills they need on being a successful Lodge in the 21st century. It’s not an easy thing to hear, but it’s the truth, and we’re doing ourselves a massive disservice by stringing Brethren and Lodges along that if they just hold strong, and stick to the Grand Lodge membership plan that the Titanic is going to correct its list. It’s NOT…GOING…TO HAPPEN. From a Grand Lodge perspective, they need to be much more in tune with how their constituent Lodges are doing, and healthy they are. I know a lot of us say we want more freedom and independence from our Grand Lodges, but in this case our pride in our Lodge’s is more often than not going to cloud our decision making when it comes to surrendering a Charter, or merging with another Lodge; so we need some independent body to be able to facilitate that process. Frankly, a Grand Lodge is a perfect avenue for just that, but as it stands I doubt Grand Lodges have any idea on how healthy, or unhealthy their constituent Lodges are. One of the lasting legacies of the membership heights of the post-war period is an unsustainable number of Lodges, I hate to term it like this but its long since past time that we need to start trimming the fat.

The other option is seeking help from the other Lodges in your District, in fact I’d recommend every Lodge in this particular situation before proceeding to the recommendations in the above paragraph. When I first joined, my District was going through this very issue, helping one of our sister Lodge’s out in their time of need. That Lodge is now arguably the strongest in our District, and provided a great deal of assistance to our Lodge over the years as we’ve worked through our recovery. Never forget as a Lodge you’re not in this alone, and our sister Lodge’s within our Districts are a great resource to lean on when we need it. Asking for help can be a difficult thing, don’t be afraid to ask.

In closing, I fully realize that asking our Lodges to not use our Candidate pipelines as a pipeline into the Officers line isn’t fully possible. Like my Lodge, there are many Lodge’s out there that its an unfortunate way of Masonic life. But it should give us pause, it should make us ask hard questions of why we’re in such a situation, and motivate us on a journey to fix it, or possibly make more difficult choices as a Lodge. Masonic burnout is a real thing, and as Lodge’s we should do all we can to avoid burning out our members. We as Masons cannot do our job of making good men better if they only stick around for a couple of months. A healthy Lodge, a healthy Officers line will lead to healthier members and a lower chance of burning them out. If we expect to stem the outflow of members, and the constant drop in membership numbers and at the least maintain numbers, we need to focus on our health. We do it for ourselves, we need to do it for our Lodges.

Photo by Fernando Brasil on Unsplash

This article in no way represents any official Grand Lodge position or opinion. The writings here are mine, and mine only.

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