Breaking Barriers To Change

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Allen E. Roberts

[Let me scan this paper as we go along because, as Yogi Bera might have said: “If I’m gonna be misquoted, I wanna be misquoted accurately.”]

My first contact with this Northeast Conference was in 1959. In 1961, 30 years ago! I was asked to take my first active part. In the oldest Masonic Hall in the United States we staged an historical play, “Lafayette Visits the Masons of Richmond.” (Doug Smith wanted to prove to you Yankees and Northerners that John Marshall was a Virginia Freemason!) Many times since then I’ve participated in this Conference actively or passively. This, I strongly suspect, will be the last time I’ll be with you.

Over the years I’ve continually claimed: There is nothing more expensive than ignorance. To this I’ve added: There can be no dedication without education.

And another truism I’ve been including has gone over like Saddam’s scuds intercepted by an American Patriot: Freemasonry spends millions to keep our ritual pure; it spends pennies for Masonic education. We ignore a fact successful business leaders have known for years: Education must begin the day a man is accepted. And I’m not referring to teaching an Entered Apprentice to parrot Masonic ritual.

Since its inception, this Conference, patterned somewhat after the Midwest Conference, has, in varying ways, tried to amplify the need to dispel ignorance by stressing Masonic education. To this has been added the need for Masonic libraries. How well its teachings have succeeded is for you to judge.

Today you’ve chosen to take much the same path based on earlier years, but in a slightly different direction. You’ve chosen to discuss “Applied Freemasonry,” which means, among other things, “to serve the human race.” In some circles this is may be called “change.”

And it would be a change — but it shouldn’t be. Even our ritualists of yesteryear (not the most philosophical of men) recognized Freemasonry’s purpose. Didn’t they have us memorize:

“Every human being has a claim upon your kind offices”?

Over the centuries, and especially in recent years, Grand Masters have felt they needed a theme. Among the dozens selected we find one repeated constantly: “Back to Basics.” Exactly what this means is rarely explained. It can probably be classed with “Applied Freemasonry.”

Certain branches of our Craft are disturbed because we aren’t attracting thousands of new members as we did during some periods of our long existence. The officials of those branches decided to “put their money where their mouths are.” After spending large sums they received glamorously produced reports. These reports told us what we should have known without spending a dollar.

Among other things these professional reports tell us:

  1. The general public knows little or nothing about us;
  2. The general public couldn’t care less about us;
  3. A large group of men consider joining something;
  4. Our membership is composed of old men;
  5. Secret societies are disturbing to many people;
  6. Freemasonry must have public relations;
  7. There must be more programs to attract men;
  8. There must be intelligent leadership;
  9. Freemasonry must change.

(There are at least two important ingredients missing in this list — INTERNAL RELATIONS, and — MASONIC EDUCATION.)

Let me hasten to add, also, that we do Freemasonry, and the general public, an injustice when we don’t stress the obvious in all of our brochures and public relations blurbs: Freemasonry IS NOT A SECRET SOCIETY. To this is would be wise to add: Freemasonry IS NOT A RELIGION, and FREEMASONRY IS NON-SECTARIAN. Then make certain we don’t vocally call for the blessings of a particular religious personality.

About the balance of this list: Honestly, is there anything here we haven’t known for years? Is there anything here that hasn’t been discussed in this Northeast Conference during the past three decades? What about that other excellent Conference — the Midwest?

Makes one wonder, doesn’t it, why we continue to meet year after year to listen to some of the best proposals that can be found among Freemasonry’s brain trust. Makes one wonder why we continue to spin our wheels? And speaking of the wheel, doesn’t it make you wonder why we continue to reinvent it rather than to improve on this invention of the middle ages?

This item will appear in my “Windows” column in The Philalethes in June:

Unbelievable. In the California Freemason the Deputy Grand Master rightly acclaims a new plan for improving communication among his members. Its called “Wardens Management Retreats.” The first was held in 1990 and was a rousing success. So what’s “unbelievable”? It’s termed a “new Approach.” Virginia had them in the ’60s (others probably did earlier). In 1970 I recommended Wardens’ Workshops for the Grand Lodge of Georgia and they were held with a great deal of success for several years. Again I plead for the Grand Lodges to get together and finance a Masonic Leadership Clearing House (or call it what you will). Almost everything we consider “new” has been tried or strongly suggested years ago. Millions of dollars are being wasted every year because the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. We continue to reinvent the wheel when all it needs is continuous improvement. When will the leadership in Freemasonry stop being short- sighted?

I’ll come back to this shortly.

In 1968, at the persuasive insistence of the inimitable William Carpenter, I suggested in this Conference ways to make every member a life-long Master Mason. Many items in the present professional list were addressed way back then. That didn’t cost anyone except me a cent. Many of you, as well as many of your predecessors, have addressed these and even more needed items. Much of what I said then was incorporated in my book Key To Freemasonry’s Growth. And that talk became a Short Talk Bulletin of The Masonic Service Association.

It would take hours to give each of the topics in the foregoing professional list the space it deserves. Let me concentrate of one — change.

Human nature, with all of its ramifications, is the greatest barrier to change — and everything else. Billions of dollars have been spent by industry to study this topic. Hundreds of books have been written to explain human nature. Let me cover quickly a little of what I’ve learned while researching this important subject.

Here are some of the barriers we find:

  • Organizational realities;
  • Assumptions;
  • Prejudices;
  • Low Trust;
  • Fear

These were brought out in a film that featured a mutual friend of ours, Conrad Hahn. In this we discussed Communication, and that’s what we, and the professional public relations firm, are concerned with when we talk about change.

Let’s look at these barriers individually.

First: The opponents of change in Freemasonry tell us we can’t do what they don’t want us to do because of our: a. Landmarks; b. Grand Lodge regulations; c. Any other roadblock they can throw in the path.

Actually what are our Landmarks? You’ll be reading what I think they are in my column in The Northern Light shortly. Briefly, and I quote Robert Freke Gould: “Nobody knows what they comprise or omit; they are of no earthly authority, because everything is a landmark when an opponent desires to silence you; but nothing is a landmark that stands in his own way.” True. Let’s throw out that obstacle.

Is there anything in any Grand Lodge regulation that says we can’t develop new ideas? Nope. When we use this excuse we’re using it as a crutch to do nothing. I’ll agree that some Grand Lodges do have some stupid regulations. For instance, a couple of them refuse to admit good men into Freemasonry if they earn a living where the legal substance called “alcoholic beverages” is sold. And there are a few other regulations just as dumb. But what does a good leader do when he meets an obstruction? He goes around it, over the top, or digs a hole and crawls under it.

The solution? Throw away the “crutch” of organizational realities. Don’t break your Grand Lodge laws; find a way to go around them.

The most dangerous words in the world are “I ASSUMED!”

Assumptions will always be with us. They can be good, but too often they are harmful. They can cause us to make many mistakes in our judgment if we assume our words and actions mean the same to everyone. They don’t.

MEANINGS ARE IN PEOPLE — NOT IN WORDS. All of us look at life through restricted windows. We’ve been influenced by our parents, teachers, religion, associates, and a host of other stuff. So, what should we do?

Practice EMPATHY — that’s the art of putting ourselves in the other fellows’ shoes. If we do this, we’ll stop prejudging. We’ll listen. We’ll seek feedback. We’ll become what Freemasons are supposed to be.

Let me emphasize: Listening and feedback are two most important ingredients every leader should practice. Listening will help us learn truths we can find in no other way. Yet it’s one of the most neglected requirements of constructive leadership.

Feedback lets us know what the other fellow is thinking. It’s a necessary factor in helping us to improve our leadership abilities.

Feedback can tell us why far too many Master Masons are demitting — if we’ll ask them — and if we’ll listen to them. This should tell us where changes are needed. But I suspect we already know most of the answers.

If we don’t trust the other fellow we’re certainly not going to take anything he says or does seriously. Where this is prevalent there can be nothing but failure. Again we must put empathy into practice, seek feedback, and do some reevaluating.

Now — let me go from preaching to meddling.

The most disastrous barrier to progress is FEAR. And I’m going to dwell on this devastating of all barriers to growth. Those of you who disagree with me, and even those who may agree, will have your opportunity to take pot shots at me later.

FEAR comes in many packages and takes on numerous disguises. Fear causes many of us to keep our ideas buried. We fear that these ideas might “rock the boat.”

FEAR has kept our country from being even greater than it is. We need look no further than the Congress of the United States to behold how this fear works. No one crosses the Speaker of the House or the Majority Leader of the Senate. No one does, that is, if he wants to be placed on an important committee, one of those with countless perks. And definitely no one does who wants to be the chairman of a committee. These come with perks the common man can’t begin to comprehend. And fear helps these chairmen keep their members, especially those of their party, under control.

Far, far too many politicians forget they should be Americans before democrats or republicans.

We need look no further back than today, and especially the last few months, to view this fear in the political arena at work. And, unfortunately, it has been with us since the First Continental Congress. Unbelievable? Read the papers and speeches of only George Washington.

Who among us doesn’t fear to discuss the unlawful and often unconstitutional acts frequently perpetrated by the tax collecting agencies of our various governments? One of our wiser folks said: the power to tax is the power to control.

In the business world the power to grant monetary rewards and titles gives the grantor the power to control.

This same principle is at work in some quarters in Freemasonry. The power to confer so-called high degrees, or keep men out of so-called exclusive Masonic-related organizations, creates a power to control the minds and actions of men.

We’ve seen this fear and power at work in Freemasonry. We’ve seen what happens to those few who dare to be different. They don’t get titles. They don’t get chosen for high offices. They don’t get awards. They get blackballed, if they’re proposed at all, for membership in “exclusive” Masonic bodies. So otherwise good men become excellent candidates for “The Peter Principle.”

This “Peter Principle” is at work in every bureaucracy. And let’s face it, this is what Freemasonry is. As Pete said: Eventually every person is promoted to his level of incompentency. This is especially true of those of us who fear to tread where angels won’t, or should I say – devils?

FEAR breeds dictatorships. These exist even within beneficial organizations such as Freemasonry. And if you don’t think, or know, that we have them, you’ve been living in a dream world.

Examples? — They’re far too numerous for the scope of this paper. But you can find them easily. Look for the “power structure” in almost every Masonic organization — Grand and Subordinate. Often this isn’t glaring until one is elected to an office. Even then it’s often hidden until one reaches the top. Then he finds he can only accomplish what this power structure will permit. Unless he’s an exceptionally strong leader he won’t “rock the boat.” Then he must determine if its worth the hassle to fight for what he considers right.

Grand Lodges are the apex of Freemasonry in their jurisdictions — right? Not necessarily! The leadership of Grand Lodges can be, and may be, controlled by a couple of large appendant bodies, plus numerous small, exclusive bands. These in turn are controlled by a small, dictatorial group. How? Let me add emphasis to what I said earlier.

Through withholding degrees, titles, memberships and honors considered by far too many of us to be the ultimate in Freemasonry. To be considered for these we must conform to their doctrine of mediocrity or be condemned to Masonic purgatory. When we consider there are over 600 bodies attached to the mother, we find we have dozens of tails wagging the dog.

[Note: To be used only if requested: Among these we find the Scottish Rite, Knights of the York Cross of Honor (KYCH), York Rite College, Red Cross of Constantine, Holy Knights Templar Priests — and many others.]

As I see it, FEAR is the main problem we have in Freemasonry. FEAR is keeping Freemasonry from viable change, from growth, from being what we can and should be.

Time won’t permit going into the depth we should about why we fear change. So let’s try to find some solutions that may enhance the image of Freemasonry.

Let’s do away with our fear; let’s do the job we should be doing without looking for empty honors.

Let’s stop seeking titles, degrees, and exclusive memberships; let’s consider first and foremost Ancient Craft Masonry.

Let’s encourage ideas — from young and old; let’s give all ideas a fair hearing.

Let’s follow the Constitutions of Freemasonry by selecting constructive leaders for their worth and merit, not because they are conformists, and / or popular.

Let’s stop surrounding ourselves with “yes men.”

Let’s do away with Masonic dictators; let’s meet upon the level and act by the square.

Let’s do much more brain storming; let’s learn to listen and then act constructively.

Let’s do away with “power structures” — a few controlling the many.

Let’s put administrators into our leadership positions; promote ritualists only if they are constructive leaders who know how to be administrators.

Let’s form and finance a CLEARING HOUSE OF MASONIC KNOWLEDGE — this will keep us from reinventing viable programs proposed years ago, and those that will be considered in the future.

Most of these suggestions need no further comments from me. But, again, briefly, let me elaborate on a couple.

Over the years everything I’ve mentioned here has been discussed in this and other Conferences. For the most part we’ve wasted our time, our money, and that of our Grand Lodges. Ideas and suggestions, many of them excellent, have fallen on barren ground. I’m not going to mention what others have covered, but I will a couple of things I’ve said over the years.

In 1962, at our Maine Conference, I spoke about Masonic writers. I claimed then that our good writers won’t waste their time writing for Freemasonry. (Leaves me in a peculiar position!) Our Editors, writers and authors receive pennies (or nothing) for their hours of work. What I said then fell on deaf ears. The ears are still blocked. In two years Freemasonry lost eight good Masonic writers. No one has come along to replace them.

Many authors, such as Kitty Kelly, have cash registers for brains. This is something Masonic writers can never have.

But we’ve got to stop expecting Freemasons to work for merely “Master’s wages.” We’ve got to open our purse strings. We’re trying to do something about this in The Philalethes Society by offering grants for authors and filmmakers. We’ve had few takers.

“Yes men” I’ve said on many occasions will let the leadership get in trouble, within and without Freemasonry. We must encourage diversity. We must invite ideas. We must promote open brainstorming.

In 1970 I was talked into producing motion pictures by the late Conrad Hahn and Charles K.A. McGaughey. What I knew about this subject would fit on the back of a flea. Since then I’ve received 12 international awards — from gold to bronze. These films were in competition with hundreds of films produced with unlimited budgets. For this I’ve been highly praised in some quarters. But I’ve said on many occasions, the praise really didn’t belong to me. Although I wrote the scripts, produced and directed those films, the credit belonged to others.

The first thing I did was seek out technicians who knew their craft. I found them. They were not “yes men.” Actually I didn’t want anyone who knew less than, or only as much as, me. I wanted craftsmen who would make me look better than I really am. I found them. So can you. We discussed ideas; we did a lot of brainstorming, before, during the filming, and in the editing room. You can do the same thing no matter with what you’re working.

I’ve written 26 books. I will take credit for them. But let me hasten to say that most of them were edited by men with a greater knowledge of grammar and the subject matter than I had. For years two of them were Walter Callaway of Georgia, and our own Conrad Hahn. I’ll gladly listen to anyone who can improve my ignorance.

For more years than you and I have been Freemasons, ritualists have controlled our Grand Lodges. A few of them have been good leaders; most have been horrendous. We’ve seen the Peter Principle at work over and over again. Because a man is good in one field doesn’t mean he’s going to be an asset when he’s promoted. We must select our leaders by merit, not popularity.

Now let me bring this to a close by proposing what I consider the most important thing we can do for present and future generations of Freemasons.

We must invest money to save money, time and Freemasonry!

We must have a CLEARING HOUSE OF MASONIC KNOWLEDGE. Here all papers presented in such Conferences as this should be placed and cataloged. All Masonic books, periodicals, bulletins, films and what have you referring to Masonic education and improvement must be cataloged. These should be indexed and cross indexed on computers.

Knowledgeable people must be employed, and not with the typical Masonic miserly wages. The records should be made available to all Freemasons. They can then build on what others have done in the past. The “wheel” will be continually improved, not reinvented.

I’ll leave the mechanics for wiser heads then mine to work out the financing and management for this Clearing House of Masonic Knowledge — IF (and I accentuate the IF) our Grand Lodges have enough wisdom to establish it.

Let me also suggest our leadership go after men who have been dropped for nonpayment of dues. To these should be added those who have demitted. Offer them inducements to return to the fold. These can include continuity toward their 50 year awards — or what-have-you. Offer them something; they’re valuable!!

Prepare a Question and Answer booklet to enable any Master Mason to answer the most frequently asked questions by prospects. A copy should be beside every phone in the Grand Lodge office — and other places where phone calls may be received from those seeking information about Freemasonry. This should tell the prospect:

  1. What’s in Freemasonry for them;
  2. Why they should become Freemasons now.
  3. Let’s be positive and forget the usual negatives such as “You won’t be helped in politics: You won’t be helped in business”; and on and on.

Now we take great pride in stressing Masonic membership won’t help a man in business. And we sure do mean it! But should we rethink our position?

Some in our leadership take great pride in talking about the success of the so-called civic clubs. If you think for a moment these, and the Knights of Columbus, don’t help their members in business ventures, you’re even deeper into that dream world I mentioned earlier than you think.

Do we need to change Freemasonry? Yes and No! No, changes should never deviate from the excellent concept — the principles — of Freemasonry. Nothing I’ve suggested here will change the excellent concept adopted by our founding fathers. We will continue to follow the Constitutions of Freemasonry.

Yes, Freemasons must change and put Freemasonry into practice. Yes, we do need to bring our leadership into the 20th Century. Yes, they must start utilizing those inventions of today that will enhance Freemasonry.

Do I think the Renewal Task Force will work? I hope so, but fear it won’t — not with Grand Masters selecting the members of this force. Most of them don’t know who the real workers are.

Before you give somebody a piece of your mind, make sure you can get by with what you have left!

TIPS

Surround yourself with the best people possible, then get out of the way and let them do their jobs. Don’t establish idiotic restrictions.

Emphasize this fact: Every Master Mason is an important representative of Freemasonry; his actions affect the public’s perception of the Craft.

Set objectives that make sense; under promise, then over- deliver; don’t waste time and money by spending too little to get the job done.

Plan — for today, tomorrow, and several years down the road; without plans — you’re doomed.

Question: Should we be seeking quantity or quality in our prospective members? Is the approach being taken by the Masonic Renewal Committee for increasing our numbers the approach we should be taking?

The Northeast Conference – May 23–25, 1991 – Somerset, NJ.

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