Friday, January 4, 2013

This Is Not How It Has Always Been Done

As Masons, when we don't know why we do things the we we do, we often fall back on the old refrain, "that's the way we've always done it". This is frustrating to hear since it is so dissatisying as an answer, and even more disappointing when you have done something poorly for so long yourself, it becomes your excuse as well.

The thing is, I don't believe it's true. This is not the way we've always done it. The way we do it is resulting in a decline of participation in our lodges, whereas, there have been other periods of expansion and growth. Now you can say that the reasons for the decline in Masonry are many and complex. This is correct. However, there are areas of decline even within individual lodges that take place decade to decade, and year to year. I'm not referring to any "shrinking" of membership, which can be a positive thing. I'm talking about a clear negative; brethren who are frustrated, programs having to be eliminated, activities canceled when there is clearly enough dues paying membership to support them. This is a negative decline not necessarily tied to the general decline of Freemasonry.

As a person with a background in organizational science I believe masonry attracts people like me. That is, people who are fascinated by how an organization functions; what makes one efficient and successful, and another crash and burn. The legend of the building of King Solomon's Temple is enough to attract the attention of any modern project manager. 

I believe this must always have been the case. Freemasonry must always have attracted men fascinated by efficiency in organizations. This is, in part, why I believe the craft cannot have "always" functioned the way it sometimes does. Another reason is the evidence of the high accomplishments of the very same Lodge or Lodges at different periods of it’s existence.  It is clear, that at some times, a Lodge simply functions more efficiently, and at others, it declines.

Why is this?  I believe there are times when a Lodge operates according to principles of common sense, good governance, and creative thinking, and there are times when the same Lodges operates according to tradition, custom, and frankly ignorance.  Of course I have to be careful here, because tradition, custom, and even sometimes ignorance are in certain contexts revered as part of the Masonic tool chest.  Custom, for example, holds the weight of institutional legitimacy in freemasonry.  This is a good thing and I do not want the criticism to negate this.

Custom alone, however, is not enough of a tool to aid a Lodge in planning a new program.  Planning new programs is also a good thing.  I am afraid Lodges confuse the need to preserve the customs of etiquette, dress, words, and the finer details of ritualistic work, with institutional administration.  There is a line between these two priorities, and I believe we are often on the wrong side of it.  I believe there should be a bright line between “work night” meetings and “business night” meetings.

Masonry as a science, philosophy, ritualistic practice is highly relevant today.  Masonry as an organization is not relevant.  

I am attempting to avoid the trap of believing that everything that was done in the past was done better, mostly by virtue of the fact that it was done in the past.  This is known as romanticization, and it is a trap.  In fact, the past is not inherently better simply by virtue of it’s existence.  I recognize this.  My appreciation of the past is for something specific.  And I believe it has existed sporadically in the past, not consistently in some sort of slow constant decline.  The specific thing is the willingness and readiness to engage in the best possible method for accomplishing a task at that moment in time.
I have in my possession, Telegrams that were used to communicate Lodge business years ago.  When these began to be employed, I am sure there was an argument in the Lodge about why postal mail wasn’t good enough.  After all, that’s the way we had always done things.  When the telephone became available, I’m sure there was consternation over why the Telegram would no longer be used, since at that time at least, that’s the way it had always been done.  And on and on.  No generation understands that “it” was never done in any particular way.  There is only the way this generation knows it.

Looking back at accomplishments, enthusiasm, participation, and growth, it is clear that periods of Lodge success have been accompanied by doing things the best way that was known or available at the time.  This is a lesson I hope the Craft can learn.  The anathema of “innovation” applies to custom, ritual, ideals.  It does not apply to fundraising, finances, communications, social activities, etc.  All of these areas are begging for innovation to be applied.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I, like many other members, really like the old ways of Masonry.  I like receiving things on paper, and wearing a black suit and white gloves, and long declarations of extensive protocol, and stuff like that.  In fact, I wish we would double down on some things.  Some of us want to see not only paper communications, but thick stock, embossed or raised seals, traditional art or embellishments, and fountain pens.  We want traditional summonses, proclamations, invitations, and portraits.  But in order to make these things happen, we’re going to need to use email, Twitter, databases, conference calls, video conferencing, and online document sharing.

I like the tradition of passing a box around the room for men to contribute money to the sick and distressed.  It is a beautiful practice that should be preserved.  I would just also like to see the use of investment accounts, compound interest, and dividend reinvestment.

I like communicating by having a Secretary read off Edicts and Proclamations and Correspondence to a listening group of well dressed men for their calm, quiet consideration and reflection.  I just would also like to see these documents scanned as PDFs, posted in private online group areas, and emailed to members so they can actually read them and place them into their real world functional lives.  I would like to see the dates that are read off in lodge recorded on an online calendar that members can subscribe to so they can shoehorn them into their busy schedules.  I do not understand why the one cannot exist in harmony with the other.

These are customs and traditions which have nothing to do with Freemasonry.  They are just “traditional”.  There is nothing wrong with these traditions, and as I have said, there is a masonic argument that a tradition carries the weight of institutional legitimacy.  However, we can also make an argument that any good practice will likely be adopted and continued over several years, eventually becoming common practice, and then “the way it’s always been done”.  We should actively introduce new ways of doing things, even while preserving the old.  


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