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From the Ground Up

As a fraternity, the Masons of California are still feeling the effects of the pandemic, but in 2023, signs were pointing up.

By Ian A. Stewart

Download the Masons of California 2023 Fraternity Report here, or view individual stories through the links below.

Tony Albright can remember the days when his lodge struggled to hold a single meeting. As secretary of Chula Vista № 626, he’s seen it all up close. A decade ago, he recalls, its leadership ranks had thinned. Degree conferrals were infrequent, and prospects practically nonexistent. At one point, it got so bad that the lodge couldn’t field enough officers to conduct official business and its charter was suspended. “There were a lot of guys in their 80s, just not a lot of participation,” he says. “It was a bad impression of Masonry.”

Those days are long gone. In fact, the biggest challenge the lodge faces now is probably managing its bulging degree calendar. In 2023, the lodge had one of its busiest years on record, including an incredible 20 Entered Apprentice initiations. That often meant holding two degrees a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, in addition to a regular schedule of family dinners, social events, and officers’ practices—which themselves tend to draw a crowd of sideliners and prospects. “We bring in pizzas, things like that. The camaraderie is good here now—in fact it’s great,” Albright says.

That’s a sentiment shared by a growing number of lodges around the state, where activity picked up in 2023. Between an aggressive online campaign to heighten awareness of the fraternity and efforts to welcome new Masons and to support existing members, there was a lot for lodges to balance. But at places like Chula Vista № 626, as well as Old West № 813 and South West № 283, which also posted banner years, more work was a decidedly good thing.

In fact, at Acalanes Fellowship № 480 in Lafayette, it even meant rethinking some old routines. This year, says master Brad Rupert, the lodge incorporated a social hour before each stated meeting dinner so as to provide a better setting for the many prospects who’ve shown up at their doors. Members have also built a 10-minute presentation on Masonry into the regular meal for those seeking an introduction. The result has been a spike in new member activity.

“It’s a lot of little things,” Rupert says, “but just staying engaged with our prospects is a big one. We’re known as the friendly lodge, so our people know how to talk to new guys and follow up with them.”

There should be plenty of chances for them to prove it: As of late 2023, the lodge had four new applicants and eight more inquiries that came in from the web. At Chula Vista № 626, there were 12 new inquiries in the system, plus six candidates and nine applicants—meaning the lodge calendar for 2024 was already filling up.

Focus on Membership

Numbers like that paint a rosy picture for the future of the fraternity. While overall membership is still feeling the protracted effect of the pandemic—during which more than 10 percent of members either were suspended, moved away, or otherwise left the fold—the past two years have seen a welcome jump in applications, the first step in what for most people is a lifelong commitment to Masonry. In fact, in 2023, California lodges received more applications for membership than in any year since 2016.

That wasn’t an accident. Indeed, coming out of the pandemic, increasing membership has been a focus at both the Grand Lodge and local lodge levels. Whereas 2020 and 2021 were about returning to in-person meetings and rebuilding lodges’ officers’ lines, the past two years have featured a flurry of activity surrounding ways to attract and support new members. In 2023, the fraternity saw 1,087 new Entered Apprentices join the fraternity, a slight gain compared to 2022 and a huge jump from 2020 and 2021.

Some of those moves were highly visible: For the second year in a row, the Grand Lodge conducted a membership awareness campaign on social media to connect interested prospects to local lodges. That effort yielded impressive results, with nearly 14,000 click-throughs and more than 3,100 registered prospects entered in iMember (part of the more than 5,000 prospects entered for the year), evidence of pent-up demand for Masonry in California. Those numbers, combined with similar figures reached during the 2022 campaign (3,700 prospect leads), suggest that for many lodges, the prospect pipeline is active for the first time in ages. At the same time, the Grand Lodge increased its Member Services team to include three new staff positions dedicated to guiding prospects.

But, as many a lodge secretary knows, it’s up to local lodges to convert those prospects into members, something that has not always proved to be easy. In 2023, for instance, nearly 45 percent of online prospects were uncontacted by a member of their local lodge, leaving nearly 2,500 interested, would-be applicants waiting in limbo. To that end, 2023 saw the introduction of a new lodge officer position: the prospect manager, charged with leading a lodge-level welcoming committee whose task it is to reach out to and shepherd prospects through the membership process. 

Though new, this effort has already proved effective, with nearly a third of California lodges having identified a prospect manager responsible for handling incoming prospects. At a single online training session, 173 California Masons logged on to better understand the position and the duties associated with lodge welcoming committees. Says Michael Roberts, the senior membership adviser for the Grand Lodge, “Ensuring we have people and systems in place to guide prospects is crucial in rebuilding membership. This is important infrastructure to help set lodges up for success now and in the future.”

A double first degree conferral at Chula Vista № 626 on August 29, 2023

Retention Is Key

While much attention has been paid to bringing in new members, an equally important part of the overall health of the fraternity is retaining existing members. And in 2023, California lodges made important strides on that front, too.

Demographic trends have worked against Masonic lodges for decades, leading to an overall loss in members going back more than half a century. However, in recent years, that tide has begun to shift. Instead of dealing with members of the Greatest Generation aging out of the fraternity, the biggest obstacle to growth now is suspensions.

Since 2018, the fraternity has suspended nearly 6,000 members, mostly for nonpayment of dues. However, research indicates that the vast majority of those members aren’t simply demitting; they let their dues lapse either accidentally or because of a simple clerical error, like a change in address. To combat that, the Grand Lodge has introduced several initiatives to streamline dues payments and offer suspended members a lifeline back to lodge.

The first of these was a dues-payment feature accessible through iMember that allows Masons to pay via credit card. Since it launched as a pilot program in 2020, three-quarters of all lodges have opted into this program. Those lodges, in turn, have reported lower rates of suspension for nonpayment of dues.

That’s just the start. In late 2021, California Masons approved legislation allowing lodges to partially remit a member’s dues because of financial hardship, allowing them to pay what they can and removing what for some members had been a stigma against requesting a full remission.

And this year another feature was rolled out: prepayment. Now, in iMember, Masons can elect to prepay their next year’s dues (the amount of which is set at the end of the preceding year). As part of that feature, members can pay in a lump sum or in installments.

Taken together, these back-end changes are helping members more easily afford and pay their dues, remain in good standing, and fortify the fraternity. Thanks to these moves—and the efforts of local lodges to effectively communicate with members—suspensions for nonpayment of dues fell by 20 percent in 2023.

Finally, one of the most powerful tools lodges have to stabilize membership is restoration. Through a Grand Lodge campaign launched in 2019, more than 2,000 members have been restored to good standing by paying a simple flat fee. In 2023, that included 340 members across 167 participating lodges. If every lodge in the state opted into the program, it’s estimated that overall losses would be cut by a third.

New Lodges

Preserving and expanding the footprint of the fraternity in communities around the state is paramount to ensuring its future.

That’s why, since 2016, the Grand Lodge has made the development of new lodges a high priority. Indeed, in that time, 38 new lodges have been successfully instituted, including four in 2023 (Sonora U.D. and Pilares del Rey Salomon № 886, as well as two new research lodges: the Edwin Sherman Research Lodge in Oakland and the California Hispanic and Latin American Research Lodge in Long Beach).

These new lodges help reinvigorate the fraternity by providing a Masonic presence in places that have not previously had one and by offering members more options and Masonic perspectives than ever before.

In many cases, new lodges also cater to new audiences. Among these, GAT Jose Rizal № 882, MW Manuel Luis Quezon № 874, and Andres Bonifacio № 879—all formed since 2019—honor a decidedly Filipino Masonic heritage; two others are dedicated to exploring the tradition of Latin American Masonry. Another new lodge, La France № 885, is carrying the torch as the only Francophone lodge in Southern California and, as a result of new legislation, will use the Scottish Rite ritual that’s commonly practiced in Europe and Latin America.

New lodges, paired with new members and new tools for supporting them, add up to a new day for Masonry in California.

Faces of the Fraternity: Freddie Davis

Member since 2008
Redondo № 328, Beach Cities № 753
Big Bear № 617, Gardena Monteta № 372, Round Table № 329

This year, you were presented the John Heisner Award for Volunteerism for your work with Masons4Mitts. How did you first get involved with that program?

Nine years ago, [Foundation president] Doug Ismail reached out to me about getting involved as a captain for the Dodgers’ region, and I was absolutely all for it. Since then, it’s really became a passion of mine. The Los Angeles region broke its fundraising record twice in a row, this year and last. I like to help raise money for the other Masons4Mitts teams, too. While it’s a great cause to support kids, it’s also an opportunity to build relationships with other lodges.

So this takes you to other lodges in the area?

A few years ago, there were no Masons4Mitts captains in the Inland Empire or San Bernardino area, so my co-captain Gabriel Lopez and I started traveling to places like Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley, Victorville, Barstow, and Big Bear. Now we have regular supporters of the program in those areas. And, being a past master, I’m able to jump in at these lodges’ meetings if someone is unavailable, so that helps them build their lodge culture. I want them to know we’re not just there to solicit donations.

That sounds like a rewarding part of the job.

It really is. When I visit another lodge, I tell them their $200 or $300 donation is just as meaningful as these lodges that can donate thousands. Even when the lodges are 150 miles away and the kids they’re helping out are from L.A., these guys still want to support a great cause. And that’s what has really given me the fire to keep going these past nine years.

I understand you’re also a strong supporter of the Masonic Homes.

The Masonic Homes is very dear to my heart. My lodge raises money for it every year, and we currently have a member living in the new Shared Housing program in Covina. Back in July, Redondo № 328 visited the Masonic Homes there. We have a lot of new Masons joining the lodge, and I want our all brothers to understand that when they’re joining Masonry, they’re also supporting the Masonic Homes.

Is philanthropy an important value in your family?

Definitely. My father and grandfather were both Masons, and I was in DeMolay as a kid. That really set me on course. In DeMolay, we did a lot of charity projects for local causes and telethons, and that’s carried over to my Masonic journey.

Read More From the 2022 Fraternity Report