Microlodges, and Chartering a New Lodge

About two years ago, during lunch with a brother the topic of “microlodges” came up. A discussion of our travels to other lodges in the area, lodges in other states and countries ensued. We started to swap stories of our favorite experiences when traveling Masonically, highlighting the wide variety of styles, rituals and ideas that are expressed throughout our fraternity.

Being a business owner and entrepreneur, my first thought after this somewhat whimsical lunch was to chart out a budget and business plan, just to see what it would take to start and run a lodge that had a collective of my ideal moments from lodges near and far. I wanted to see if applying traditional business models and concepts related to successful startups could be applied to a lodge. At the time, I had no idea that this thought exercise was a seed that would grow over the coming year into something so fruitful.

The next day, we had lunch again and I showed my brother my set of spreadsheets, business model canvases, concepts and said “What do you think, wouldn’t it be fun if someone built a lodge like this?” After looking it over, he mentioned that the Grand Lodge of California was pushing for more, new, smaller lodges to be chartered, and that they are going to great lengths to help ideas like this come to fruition. We decided to go for it.

Thus began the 18 month journey to start a new Masonic lodge. Like most startups, this was a huge challenge with many setbacks, failures, pitfalls, “spirited discussions”, and mostly a ton of hard work. As previously mentioned, the GL of CA provided a lot of support, even right out of the gate. They even have a handy pamphlet on “How to start a new Masonic Lodge.”

Steps from today to having your dispensation
Starting a new Lodge is easy!

Well, while this document was incredibly helpful as a starting point, there were very few moments that were “easy.” That aside, our first step was in fact the first step outlined in this document:” Express Interest” and “Host an Informal Gathering.” We began asking other brothers in the area if they would be interested in the idea, and if they would be on board with trying to start a new lodge. Soon, we hosted our first informal gathering in late August, 2016. We had some ideas about being a Traditional Observance lodge, printed out the Masonic Restoration Foundation’s Eight Steps to Excellence and Statement of Purposes, bought some wine and snacks and invited some brothers over. The meeting was full of great ideas and discussions, such as “Where should we have the lodge?” and “Will we wear tuxedos?” and “Lets do great ritual!” which were met with a wide variety of answers, including hosting the lodge in a cemetery, a  traveling lodge that was completely contained in a box, or wouldn’t it be cool if we met at a pub.

We hosted three more informal gatherings, but the discussion and topics seemed to repeat themselves, and other than a small handful of people, we had a largely different group of attendees from meeting to meeting. By the end of November, the holidays were upon us, and the movement to charter a new Observant lodge was all but dead. We had a lot of fun Generating Interest, but very little progress beyond that.

So, why a new lodge anyway? Why not infiltrate save a lodge that’s having problems and help the reinvigorate? Many of us have probably tried to “be the change they want to see” at an existing lodge, and have experienced why that can be an incredibly difficult endeavour. Most lodges, even ones that are experiencing a decline in active membership, have decades, if not a century of traditions, concepts, ideas, and ideals that are built into their foundation and subsequent superstructure. Trying to remove one of these bricks, or add something new to the foundation is akin to a Masonic game of Jenga. Those elements are solidly cemented into the lodge and likely have significant meaning to the stalwart superintendents that have seen the lodge through thick and thin, and kept the light alive over the years. Not only are these brothers less than interested in your brilliant new idea to have all the officers start the masonic year with a juice cleanse, or make the mandatory wardrobe for members and officers white neoplatonic robes, but they cherish the history that they have built, and the traditions they’ve worked so hard for. Most lodges experience an ebb and flow as the lodge, and the people surrounding it evolve over the years, and sometimes, they even close. 

The chartering of new lodges, should be considered, in this author’s opinion, a completely separate idea from the improvement of existing lodges. There is little to show a connection between new lodges being chartered, and a decline of membership in existing lodges, and the opposite might actually have more credence. The theory behind starting new, small lodges or “micro-lodges” is that it is easier to create a lodge experience from scratch that appeals to a small group of members, than to take an existing lodge and uproot their history and bend it to what often amounts to a very vocal minority. New lodges can try new ideas and pivot quickly if those ideas fail without fear of a large, complicated and controversial vote. It is hard enough to do something well for twenty people with similar ideas, and it is far harder to manage an organization of hundreds that have a variety of interests. Ideally, new lodges, much like a start up corporation, can be incubators for new, and old ideas. They can test concepts, fail quickly, and find traditions that not only work for their membership, but inspire visiting brethren to borrow for their own lodges. 

More lodges equal more Masonry. In business this is called clustering, or cluster economics. Have you ever wondered why fast food chains tend to be right on top of eachother? Or thought, wouldn’t a Burger King caddy corner to a McDonalds cut the other's margin in half? In fact these businesses tend to cluster to one another strategically, because it increases traffic and revenue. The term “Business Cluster” was coined by Michael Porter in The Competitive Advantage of Nations in 1990. Porter claims that clusters have the potential to affect competition in three ways: by increasing the productivity of the companies in the cluster, by driving innovation in the field, and by stimulating new businesses in the field. I believe this can be applied to lodges similarly, that a district full of small, active lodges that cater to specific interests successfully will drive more activity in a Masonic community.

It wasn’t until spring of 2017 that the new lodge concept really gained traction and took off. My brother, and partner in the project received a call from the GL of CA, checking in on our progress. He explained the issues we’d experienced, and how the holidays essentially submarined our progress. That aside, this call inspired both of us to take another run at the idea.

After reflecting on the previous years lack of success, I decided to reach out to brothers of the lodges I enjoyed visiting the most, and also to as many presiding masters who had been through the process of chartering a new lodge, and get advice on how they achieved their success. Some general themes were common across all of the Masters. Be specific. Create an identity. Provide an experience. Inspire and be inspiring. Present a fully formed concept. Don’t expect everyone to be as hands on as you are. Be exclusive, without being exclusionary. Work out the budget before hosting a meeting. Essentially, hammer out a complete concept for a new lodge with a very small group of men, and then start to “Express Interest” and “Hold an Informal Gathering.”

The real work then began. Spreadsheets were honed, slide decks were created, a logo and name were chosen, a general identity was agreed upon. This is when the revisited effort hosted its first informal gathering. We invited all of the participants from previous efforts and meetings, as well as other that were likely to get behind the concept. We started with a cocktail party, that was very informal, far more informal than the first meetings of 2016. There was music that fit the lodge’s identity, a slideshow on repeat with great photography, artwork and images relating to what we hoped to see in a new lodge, some good food and decent wine was shared by all and discussion was allowed to flow freely. This got people excited, they felt part of something, even before it was really a thing. Word got around about the new lodge.

The next meeting we held was designed to be specifically different, and intended to get into the big picture details such as budget, dues, and a review of a document called ‘Our Statement of Principles.” There was still food and drink to be had, because one of our goals for the new lodge was quality food and fellowship, but, instead of a mostly empty room with some small tables, we set up a conference style table with seating. This immediately set the tone for the atmosphere of the meeting. Unlike the previous years efforts, we had a large retention rate, and most of the brethren who had been to the cocktail party returned, with others. This trend continued as we worked together for the rest of 2017.

It was no surprise that this concept was met with resistance once it gained momentum. Although the core group of officers was made primarily of Past Masters and members who were essentially inactive in their home lodge, fear that a new lodge in the area would dilute potential membership was in the air. Eventually, with the support of some local Past Grand Masters, other respected leaders in the Masonic community, and by humbly explaining our agenda when asked, the fears and concerns were mostly assuaged.

Throughout the process, we met with a representative of Grand Lodge on a near weekly basis. The GL Rep helped us with paperwork, process, rules and generally guided us from concept to creation in a few months. In October, we were met with fantastic news, the new lodge was to be scheduled to receive its dispensation to actively work as a Masonic Lodge on January 7th of 2018.

There were more hurdles through the year, we had some members who committed to offices change their mind due to life circumstances, some others couldn’t fill the office they intended due to positions held in their home lodges, but in the end eighteen Master Masons came together, and shortly a new lodge will be born.

We all look forward to 2018 with optimism, and the certainty of a rough and rugged road ahead of us, beset with disagreements, failures, and trial and error. It is the sincere hope of all the members of this new lodge that we try to be an asset to our already vibrant Masonic community, and inspire members to travel and visit more lodges throughout the state, country and elsewhere. Harmony is one of the key elements of satisfaction in any group of people. With any luck, the mission and plan of this new lodge will see more success than failure, and promote fellowship, harmony and education in our Masonic community for years to come.

This article in no way represents the Grand Lodge of California, its opinions, rules or processes, it is the authors viewpoint alone