DESIGNING THE FUTURE

Building Better

The Masons of California cast their eyes past the lodge doors—and toward 2025 and beyond.

By Ian A. Stewart

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Back in January, when Brandon Lippincott and a diverse group of other California Masons were asked to start thinking about the future of the organization, the challenge was to drill down and figure out what was most essential about the fraternity. Close to a year later, the world answered that question for him. “I miss my brothers,” Lippincott, a member of Conejo Valley No. 807, says. “Being stuck at home all the time, I miss being able to see them and hang out, and have all the conversations we’d normally have.”

If there was ever any doubt, the events of 2020 laid bare what Masons have long understood: Friendship is the heart of Freemasonry. A year’s worth of research, in which the fraternity solicited feedback from members at every level of the organization about the future of California Masonry, crystallized that view. To those like Lippincott who’ve been shut out of their lodges for several months, it echoes what they already feel in their gut.

This fall, the Masons of California phased out the 2020 Fraternity Plan, a five-year road map drawn up in 2015 and designed to bring the fraternity into the new decade. Now the organization is transitioning to a new plan, aimed at 2025 and beyond, developed using feedback gleaned from hundreds of conversations with lodge leaders and committee members, and through surveys of current members, prospects, and the general public. The new plan aims to position the organization for ongoing success by doubling down on what we do best, and by identifying— and improving upon—areas of weakness. In parallel, the fraternity has for the first time ever developed vision and mission statements intended to serve as lode stars guiding it to the year 2050.

At the end of a yearlong process, what we’ve gained is a vision of California Freemasonry that should resonate deeply with all.

40% of non-officers say they'd like increased online leadership training opportunities.

"The World in Harmony"

What will the fraternity’s effect on the world be in 2050? That’s the question lodge leaders were faced with over the past year, when they were asked to imagine a Time magazine cover from the year 2050 dedicated to Freemasonry. What would the headline be? Put another way: What impact will the fraternity have on the world over the next 30 years? What will be lost if Freemasonry ceases to exist?

Answers varied but tended to focus on a few key themes. In particular, those included the importance of relationships among members, across communities, and between people of different backgrounds. From the hundreds of red-bordered magazine covers that were sketched out and then passed forward at leadership retreats and other gatherings—both in person and, following the state’s shutdown orders in March, over Zoom—came the first glimmer of what would become the fraternity’s 2050 vision statement: “The world in harmony.”

“It just makes sense,” Lippincott says of the statement. “It clicks. I feel proud of it. It’s something I can share with anyone; anyone can understand it. We’re declaring to ourselves and to the world what we’re about.”

That vision is intentionally ambitious and aspirational; it describes the future that Freemasonry is always working toward. To support it, a mission statement describes the way the organization intends to bring that vision about: “Building peace and understanding through friendship, service, and self-improvement.”

Neither statement should register as a shift away from the 300-year history of the craft. What’s new, leaders say, is explicitly outlining that vision. “It’s about answering the question, ‘Where are we going?’” says newly installed Grand Master Arthur Weiss. “If you’re only thinking five or 10 years down the road, that’s a limitation. You need to start by saying where you’re going—where you want to be. Then, you can figure out the strategies you need to get there.”

Working backward from that result, the next step was to build out a framework for the 2025 Plan centered on the key themes that emerged from internal and public surveys, as well as committee brainstorming sessions and member feedback.

The Three Pillars

The previous five-year plan focused on strengthening the organizational foundation of the fraternity: centralizing lodges’ administrative tasks, improving back-end membership systems, and freeing up everyone to focus on the aspects of Freemasonry that drew them to the craft in the first place.

The new 2025 Plan builds on that by keying in on ways that lodges can more fully realize their potential. That work is organized along three pillars: true friendships, diversity and harmony, and positive awareness.

Feedback both internal and external consistently shows that friendship (variously described as fellowship, fraternity, and brotherhood) is Masonry’s most cherished attribute. In fact, three-quarters of members surveyed ranked it as the part of Freemasonry they valued most. Over the next five years, initiatives developed by Grand Lodge and in individual lodges should revolve around that concept. That means everyone from prospects to lodge officers should have an excellent membership experience—what research shows is the biggest differentiator between engaged and unengaged members.

About 58 percent of surveyed members indicated that their lodge rated either excellent or good. But 38 percent said their lodge experience was neutral, and 5 percent rated their lodges poorly. Clearly, there is room for improvement.

Improving the membership experience can mean lots of things: Making stated meetings more efficient, more engaging, and easier to attend. Helping prospects find the lodge that suits them best. Placing more emphasis on tradition, or increasing opportunities for fellowship— things like lodge nights at the ballpark, or drinks nights or coffee meetups. The answer won’t be the same for every lodge; what all share is a need to create the kind of atmosphere where members are comfortable and engaged enough to make the deep friendships that keep them in the fraternity for life. That is the first pillar of the plan.

59% of members say improving relations between young and older members should be emphasized.

Diversity and Harmony

Masons pride themselves on welcoming a diverse group of men into their brotherhood. The need to create a welcoming environment for members of all backgrounds emerged as a top priority. Lodge harmony is one of the greatest indicators for members of whether they are or aren’t engaged in their lodge. Feedback shows that the most common causes for lodge disharmony are bickering and politicking among members, the existence of cliques within lodges, and the generational divide between young and old.

Crucially, lodges must ensure that they’re welcoming to people of all backgrounds. For example, the study showed that 83 percent of Latino prospects— who, when surveyed, indicated high levels of enthusiasm for Freemasonry—cite the need for lodges to be more welcoming to people of all ethnicities. Accordingly, expanding member diversity, both at the lodge level and in the fraternity’s leadership, will be a point of emphasis moving forward. Devynn Hicks of Menifee Valley No. 289, another member of the Strategic Planning Group who helped craft the public survey, says it’s an important goal that many lodges haven’t grappled with. “If you don’t experience it, you just can’t know,” he says. “When I joined my lodge, I was the only Black person. Some people were shocked that there could be any kind of prejudice in a lodge. I’m not shocked. It’s everywhere in our communities.”

Whether by improving training or through other kinds of outreach, it’s imperative that lodges live up to the highest Masonic ideals of tolerance and celebrate diversity.

Positive Awareness

The third pillar of the 2025 Plan—perhaps the greatest differentiator from past plans—is improving positive awareness of the fraternity among the general public.

Historically, Freemasons have directed their focus inward. Now, we want to look beyond the lodge door. Masons have long struggled to articulate the benefits of membership to outsiders; many assume they’re barred from discussing the fraternity unless asked about it first. According to survey data, 57 percent of California Masons said they (incorrectly) believed they needed to wait to be asked. Only a third said they actively promote the organization to others.

The irony is that, overwhelmingly, Masons first learn about the fraternity through their family members and friends—in other words, by those close to them talking about it. By encouraging members to speak openly about the fraternity with the people in their lives, we can increase Freemasonry’s profile and reach, attract new prospects, and counter some of the negative stereotypes that endure in popular culture.

“If I’m empowered to discuss Masonry, that’s going to bring more members in,” Hicks says. “Everything flows from that. For people to be aware that the Masons are here in the community, they have to see us.”

It’s not exactly a sea change, but for some lodges it’s a significant departure, since members are known to avoid the limelight. By highlighting lodges’ charitable and philanthropic work, developing powerful public relations materials, and arming Masons with talking points and stressing the fact that they can—and should—talk openly about their membership, the fraternity can correct misperceptions and capitalize on what’s already a strong base of awareness in California. (Statewide, 49 percent of men knew of the Masons, more than the Lions, Elks, or Kiwanis.) “When folks see what we’re trying to do, and how we’re doing it, it’s going to attract the right people,” Lippincott says. “Society is looking for some type of coherent logical guidance that pays attention to the emotional factors of our human existence. And I think these pillars address that.”

82% of unengaged members still say they're proud to be a Mason. Among engaged members, it's 95 percent.

Digging Deep

The depth and breadth of research that Masons drew on to develop the 2025 Plan was unprecedented for the fraternity. By inviting such a wide range of feedback, it challenged outmoded ideas about the organization. “In a way, it’s not so much the specific wording [of the plan] that really matters,” says James Lee of Prometheus No. 851, whose professional work as a corporate consultant involves developing similar kinds of business plans. “It’s the process of going through it that matters. You have to have a realistic idea of where you are in order to see where you’re going to go. Without that, it’s all just wishful thinking.”

Along with forcing the fraternity to take a fresh look at precisely where it stands in the world today, that work helped underscore several advantages Freemasonry already enjoys. For instance, despite certain negative perceptions by the public (conspiracy theories, the illuminati, etc.), eligible nonmembers who were surveyed indicated that they’d be more open to joining the Freemasons than any other service organization. Nearly two-thirds pointed to the fraternity’s long history, tradition, and philosophy as positives, while one-third mentioned its leadership training.

Inside the craft, Masons continue to place enormous value on their membership. Close to 90 percent said they expected to remain Masons for life. For Lee, that boils down to the familiar refrain: true friendship.

“My dad died recently,” he says. “And all week I had lodge brothers reaching out, spending an hour on the phone, asking how I’m doing. That’s just something totally different than what you get from your work colleagues and even some friends. The depth of friendship and the intimacy I’ve experienced, it’s not something I’d ever have associated with a group like this.”

Cover Story

If you could write your own story about the fraternity, what would the headline be?

That’s precisely what lodge leaders were asked to do this year during leadership retreats. The exercise was simple: Design a cover of TIME magazine from the year 2050 dedicated to Freemasonry and its effect on the world. Once individuals had created their own, they gathered into groups to compare and synthesize their ideas into a unified design, which was presented to all.

The cover concepts ran the gamut from simple to elaborate, straightforward to surprisingly clever. From the hundreds that were ultimately completed, most hewed to a few common themes: community leadership, bridge-building, and diversity. Those concepts were then used to guide the creation of the 2025 Fraternity Plan, our roadmap for the next five years of Freemasonry in California. —IAS

IMAGE CREDIT:
Chen Design Associates

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