PREVENTING LODGE FORECLOSURES

By

Frederic L. Milliken

 

A FICTIONAL STORY THAT COULD BE TRUE

This is a story that could have happened but in reality is pure fiction. Itís really a sophisticated guess. It seems that there was this Lodge that had a once beautiful building that was falling into disrepair. With a dwindling membership and no other tenants it found it increasingly difficult to maintain and pay for the costs of this grand old piece of architecture. It was an albatross hanging around the Lodgeís neck. Try as they could by raising dues and holding fundraisers they just could not meet the operating costs of the building never mind keep ahead of its deterioration. Part of the problem was the hefty tax bill on the property. The solution that the Lodge came up with did not meet with the approval of the Grand Master. Letís listen in on what might have been said.

GM = Grand Master M = Master of the Lodge

GM:
I have come to meet with you to make it plain in no uncertain terms to you that your course of action in selling this Lodge building which belongs to Grand Lodge is a violation of the by-laws, rules and regulations of Grand Lodge and is cause for expulsion and loss of your Charter.

M:
It is sad that it has come to this. Our building Ė or your building as you call it Ė was in a state of disrepair and we were not generating enough money to take proper care of it or really afford to own it unless we took drastic action to see that funds were available to save and restore it.

GM:
But why did you sell it knowingly in violation of your Grand Lodge? Why did you not to seek to raise money through fundraisers and other legal means?

M:
We never were able to obtain anywhere near the money we needed by raising dues and holding fundraisers. The amount we were able to raise fell far, far short of what was needed to save this grand old building. We put off the inevitable as long as we could but finally the day of reckoning came.

GM:
Then you needed to give up the building and meet somewhere else, perhaps renting reasonable space or paying rent in another Lodge building

M:
That was one course of action that had some following in our discussion and debate on the matter. Where it is a beautiful old building and your building as you say, why would you not provide the funds to save it? Why would you want one of your buildings to be condemned and face the wrecking ball?

GM:
The Grand Lodge is not a bank or a charitable trust and I am not here to offer you money gathered from everybody else for your exclusive use to save your building. I am here to enforce the rules.

M:
Now it is our building is it? It is ours when it comes time to pay for its upkeep, maintenance and operation. Itís yours when we decide to convert it into a moneymaker that will continue Freemasonry in a style that will attract new members and allow our Lodge to grow.

GM:
If you donít like Grand Lodge rules you have an opportunity to vote to change them at every Grand Lodge Session. Your action in selling Grand Lodge property is a direct violation of these rules and I must insist that you negate the sale or suffer the consequences. And if you cannot or refuse to do that then I command you to turn over to me and the Grand Lodge the proceeds of this illegal sale.

M:
Here you are Grand Master. Here is what we got for the building.

GM:
WHAT! YOU SOLD OUR BUILDING FOR ONE DOLLAR?

M:
Well Grand Master you refused to help us. You refused to provide any funds so we could get out from under. You have refused to allow us to rent to paying tenants you do not approve of. You have refused to allow alcohol to be served in the building so that we could use the building when it sits idle as a banquet hall for weddings and functions. You have refused to put all YOUR Masonic Buildings in a tax-exempt status or allow us to do so. You have refused to negotiate group insurance rates for our buildings, contents and property. You have refused to use the power of economies to scale to financially aid your chartered Lodges in a time of declining membership and a depressed economy. You have refused to be of any assistance in our time of need. Lord knows that we have asked for your help many times over and informed you of our dire circumstances. Yet you sat on your hands and did nothing. You fiddled while Rome burned.


Now we have sold for next to nothing the Masonic building to a community charitable organization in which the Lodge and Lodge members have significant control. They have registered the building and all its activities and expenses as a 501©3 tax exempt operation. The new owners have rented out parts of the building to four well-heeled tenants among them a citywide boxing club. The charitable organization has been able to attain the finances needed to repair and maintain this beautiful building while we as a Lodge can continue to meet here and now totally rent free. We gave the building to charity and charity pays for and runs the building and returns our favor by charging us nothing as a tenant.

You have left us alone to solve our problems without any help from you or the Grand Lodge. We have come up with the only means we could to save the building and to be able to stay here and meet here as we have done for over a hundred years. At the same time we have seen to it that our involvement as Freemasons with charitable pursuits for the entire community has markedly increased.

Grand Master you could try to come to some kind of compromise with us.


GM:
There is no compromise. Itís all there in black and white. You have violated your Grand Lodge and thereby have violated your obligations.

M:
Grand Master, could we not come to some sort of middle ground here? The new owners are prepared to offer the Grand Lodge the right of first refusal if the building is ever put up for sale again. You would have the right to meet any offer made for this building and buy it back for the Grand Lodge. In the meantime our membership will increase with the building restoration and the increased activity within. This will mean more per capita money the Lodge will be sending into Grand Lodge.

GM:
The Grand Lodge is never going to pay for what it already owns. Reverse the sale or be expelled and lose your charter.

M:
What worth is there in owning a building that no longer can meet building and fire codes and will be abandoned only to be razed? There will be no building your way and you refuse to supply any assistance to repair the problems and restore the building, nor allow us to rent to the tenants we want to. Your rules and regulations are strangling us leaving us no other course of action then the one we have taken.

GM:
And you fail to see that this is not about you but about the sanctity of the institution. First and foremost we must protect Freemasonry in this jurisdiction by enforcing the Grand Lodge by-laws, rules and regulations which have been put there for the survival of the many, not the interests of a few.

I see that you are committed to your course of action. Therefore your charter is now officially pulled and you are all expelled. And we shall see you all in court where maybe a judge will honor the Grand Lodgeís claim to its building.

M:
We shall see you in court, Grand Master. Maybe a judge will see that in reality you have abandoned the building by not supplying the means or allowing the necessary steps to be taken to keep it alive.

And herein lies a problem that will become more and more prevalent as our economy sinks deeper and deeper into depression. Many Lodges across our nation have been struggling in good times to meet the expenses of owning a Masonic building. Now with hard times upon us look for Lodge ďforeclosuresĒ to rapidly increase.

The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts is known to have in excess of $300 million in its coffers. It spends all kinds of money on its pet projects and charitable projects yet it rarely will bail out any of its chartered Lodges in financial trouble. In fact because Grand Lodge donations were down it launched a $10 million Grand Lodge fund raising program in order that it did not have to tap into its $300+ million principle.

The very well respected Masonic blogger
Masonic Traveler wrote a column asking whether American Masonry had become institutionalized. Do we revere and worship the institution rather than the philosophy? For you see if we worship the institution first then all other forms of Masonry are bogus even if they say the exact same thing which is a point that the blog The Middle Chamber has so deftly made.

The result is that we create artificial laws like the Right of Exclusive Territorial Jurisdiction so we can create a Masonic monopoly, then we write rules of recognition, of irregular Masonry and clandestine Masonry. Now we are the one and only true Masonry. We have created an institution that has a life of its own. It is then that the institution and its preservation uncorrupted comes first and the well being of people and the practice of the dogma or philosophy take a back seat. Ask Ed King. He will tell you all about it.

This is the exact position that the Catholic Church has taken and since itís my church I feel I have a right to sound off about it (which I would not do to your house of worship). When the pedophile Priest scandal was first exposed what was the course of action the Catholic Church chose? They elected to cover it up, deny it and hide it, transferring sick Priests to another parish or non-parish duties. They did so because for them the first priority before anything else was the preservation of the Church, that is the institution. People and their suffering unfortunately have to endure in silence, they will tell you, because without the Church all would be lost. And while they are at it the Church will also tell you all about bogus and clandestine Christianity (see heresies and Protestantism).

Rome, which has billions in its coffers, takes the same attitude towards its local churchís financial woes as some Grand Lodges take to their failing local Lodges.

Once in awhile I contemplate which came first the chicken or the egg. I havenít answered that query satisfactorily yet but I can answer which came first local Lodges or Grand Lodges? We all know the answer to that question. The problem is that while Grand Lodges used to sit at the will and pleasure of local Lodges, today local Lodges sit at the will and pleasure of Grand Lodges. And more and more Grand Lodges are cracking the whip. As they do so they purge themselves of any recalcitrants who would seek to deinstitutionalize Masonry and make it a more open society. They must keep the Institution pure, they will tell you, thatís the only way it will survive. What they are really doing is causing more fissures, splits and breakaways.

Meanwhile local Lodges like the one in our fictional story are begging for a bailout. Maybe these Lodges, these foreclosures, should turn to President Obama. After all the federal government is bailing out anybody and everybody!

Are we ready as we go deeper and deeper into economic collapse in the United States, as everybody pulls back and spends little and suspends all luxuries, to watch Masonic building after Masonic building across the USA be abandoned, foreclosed or sold? Are we ready to sit back following the same failed policies and hang tied by rules and regulations we fail to modify? Or are we going to think outside the box, get creative and meet this economic depression head on in order to survive in buildings in many cases that have thousands and thousands of dollars or irreplaceable artwork, wood work and specialized building construction? Are we going to just walk away from these hand crafted works of art to go meet at someoneís house or a church or the back room of a tavern?

Are we men enough and secure enough in our ability to keep our private affairs private to hire professionals to help us manage our finances and our assets? Can we run our Lodges like a business and make a profit? Are we willing to procure the most advantageous tax structure for our Lodges? Are we willing to modify overly strict rules and regulations to enable us to maximize the use of our buildings? Can we make our Lodge property pay for itself? Are we as a Lodge willing to put ourselves into the hands of an outside professional business manager who can run the financial/business side of our Lodges so that we can stay afloat? Or are we going to continue to muddle through until we are left with no choice but to walk away from it all?

Are not many Lodges now spending every penny they can raise on just keeping their building open? Doesnít that severely limit what a Lodge can do in the way of providing good Masonic programs? And isnít the lack of good Masonic programs hurting our ability to attract new members? Arenít most Lodge mergers the result of one Lodgeís economic collapse?

Isnít this really a vicious cycle? We are so crippled by the expense of our buildings that we have no money for anything else. We canít go anywhere as a Lodge, have grand dinners, put on a family BBQ or a Ladies night of dinner and dancing or pay for an outside featured speaker for our Lodge because we have no money. Every cent we raise goes into keeping our buildings open. Doesnít then what we can do as a Lodge become very limited? Doesnít that limitation severely hamper our ability to attract new members? Because we get no new members doesnít that limit the amount of money coming into our bank account? No money means no programs which means no new members which means less and less money. We are going around and around in a vicious circle.

What would you do about it? Was the fictional Lodge in this story justified in its actions?

Letís talk specifically first and then we can get to general comments. In this fictional Lodgeís case the Old Guard or retired Past Masters ruled the Lodge. They pretty much let the Lodge run down hill constrained by the mindset of doing things as they had always done them. New younger leadership came in gradually to the point where the Old Guard lost their iron grip on the Lodge. I would maintain that this is a scenario often times repeated over and over again in Lodges across the USA. This newer younger leadership wasnít used to doing things a certain way.

At first they tried to stay in the system and work within the rules. They petitioned the Grand Master for financial help, which was denied. They asked for an end to Masonic Prohibition (alcohol in the Masonic building) so they could attract paying functions. Request denied. They asked the Grand Master to allow them to rent their facilities to a Boxing Club who would put a gym in the building. The Grand Master said he didnít think that a Boxing Club matched the image he wanted the Lodges in his jurisdiction to portray. Request denied. The new leadership of the Lodge was trying to find paying tenants who could use the building when it was idle to boost revenue and allow them to pay the operational costs and repair and restore what had been neglected.

The Masonic building had other Masonic tenants, an Eastern Star Chapter and York Rite Ė Chapter, Council and Commandery. The rent these other Bodies were paying had not been increased in 50 years. The new leadership of the Lodge raised the rent on these Bodies and rather than pay it they all moved out to another Masonic building whose leadership accepted them at their old cheap rate. The Master of the Lodge asked the Grand Master to prohibit that transfer. The Grand Master declined.

The Lodge asked the Grand Master to allow them to rent space to a Prince Hall Lodge. The Grand Master said no. The Lodge asked the Grand Master to allow them to rent space to the Knights of Columbus. The Grand Master said no.

The Lodge asked the Grand Lodge to allow the Lodge a by-laws change whereby the Lodge would reorganize itself into a charitable corporation and thereby apply for 501©3 tax relief. The Grand Lodge failed to approve the by-law change.

The Lodge approved a by-laws change that would increase their dues from $50 per year to $150; the last dues increase having been 1962. It was rumored that a Past Master with clout called the Grand Master to ask him to refuse to approve that by-law change. The Grand Lodge denied the dues increase. When asked why they said it was too drastic. Amore realistic increase would have been to $75.

Now generally speaking what we have here is the modern concept of Masonic management whereby the seat of power rests solely with Grand Lodge. But it wasnít always that way which is why the chicken and the egg question is pertinent. If you look back at the 1800s you will find a good percentage of power rested with the local Lodge and Grand Lodge was not able to dictate every little thing to its charted Lodges. Grand Lodge then was more of a helper, an enabler. Modern Masonry has seen the rise of total Grand Lodge control where in many jurisdictions Grand Lodges micro manage the Craft. A local Lodge today cannot breathe without the Grand Masterís approval. And what has followed is that Grand Lodges are all about rules and regs. Many of them govern today using the US Army as a role model.

The first comment on the original post was made by the esteemed Robert Davis who reminds us that all Masonry is local. He said this:

 

"But your larger point is that all Masonry should be local. Grand Lodges should rarely enforce rules which threaten the closure of a local lodge; nor should they impede creative ideas which are otherwise legal under civil law and aimed at solving local problems. Every lodge should be sovereign enough to endow its membership and its physical plant, and otherwise employ all legal means to secure its financial future."




If we keep concentrating on an overly strict adherence to rules and regulations then we have a Society that truly reveres its Institution above everything else. But Grand Lodges are pushing people away with their top down authoritative rules orientated government. The forces of necessary change and local creativity are being held back by an Old Guard who would rather see Freemasonry wither and die then do things differently. And by gosh they may just get their death wish.

If you look at Grand Lodges today with glasses on that show what is real not that which is theory, you will see that most Grand Lodges are ruled by a tight knit Oligarchy.

How is all this helping this poor Lodge that is in financial distress? Well the first thing you have to do is get by the premise that Grand Lodge can do no wrong. Gosh, I donít even think the US government can do no wrong. You have to look at a problem and explore all possibilities. You have to lay all the cards on the table and say nothing is impossible.

My problem with the ďTraditionalistĒ point of view s that it comes to the table with preconceived notions of how things must be done. Traditionalists are only willing to discuss solutions to a problem that match their view of how Freemasonry should operate. They come to a problem solving meeting with the ďlawĒ in their hands and foremost in their minds. They view every proposal to see if it fits into how Freemasonry has traditionally operated, thus they get the tag ďTraditionalists.Ē Their approach to Masonic problem solving is always governed by what the by-laws, rules and regulations of their Grand Lodge say, which they carry with them as their Bible. They are the modern version of the Sadducees and Pharisees of Christís time.

This way of thinking automatically rules out any other course of action than narrowly prescribed in the ďBook of CíantsĒ, which is what Grand Lodge by-laws, rules and regulations really are. But what about the can dos? In reality what is being said by the Traditionalists is that we canít think outside the box (they have us boxed in). And if we do Traditionalists will tell us that we are heretical and unmasonic. But I maintain that we canít solve problems this way. If we canít consider all possibilities as possible then we are doomed before we start.

When we come together to try to fix what is broken we often are immersed in Conflict Resolution. If the Grand Master in question here was willing to sit down at the table and
negotiate in good faith then perhaps all might come to some sort solution. But the problem is Grand Masters donít negotiate and thereby lies the problem. There is no give and take, only the ax. Grand Masters refuse to make concessions. We wouldnít allow such behavior in a labor-management dispute. And a ballplayerís contract would never get signed if there was no true negotiation.

So what support are Grand Lodges offering to their chartered Lodges who are in serious trouble? Let me think. Now what Grand Lodge has had the vision in these tough economic times to see the need to plan ahead for a depression, a total economic meltdown? Besides marketing Masonry and trying to make Masons as fast as they can, what have USA Grand Lodges done to prepare for a disaster? Personally, if you were faced with the report of an oncoming hurricane would you not be making some preparations? I canít think of one thing that any American Grand Lodge has publicized as guidelines, helping tools or a disaster preparation plan.

And this is one area where Traditionalists and I see eye to eye on. We are in an economic recession. Personally I see us headed for a depression. I think that the stock market decline is only 50% of what it will end up bottoming out as. I see unemployment doubling and perhaps rising to 10%. I see American auto manufacturers either filing for bankruptcy or reducing their production and workforce by 2/3. I see many Masons not paying their dues or demiting.

Masonic Traveler has provided some interesting insight into Masonic membership during the last depression in 1929. Click here. What he has done is chart Masonic membership decline from 1959 to the present noting that for each decade there was an average of a 20% decline in membership. He also has shown an unusually large decline before this period in the 1929-1939 decade where membership dropped by 24%. I would think that decline might be attributed to Americaís biggest and worse depression ever. So if terrible economic times does have an effect on membership then will we not experience the same today? If you couple a 24% economic depression effect with a 20% regular decline as evidenced in the last four decades, we could be looking at the Obama decade with a 44% loss of Masonic membership. Is not this possibility worth some planning ahead? Or are we just going to sit and wait for the tsunami to hit, because you see this is exactly what this fictional Lodge did. It just did nothing in the face of disaster. And if there is anything Palmetto Bug and I would like to do is to raise awareness of the seriousness of this issue.

So letís get down to what can be done and what could have been done in our fictional Lodgeís case. All of us would really like to see some sort of preparation and planning being made no matter what your point of view is or where you lie on the conservative/liberal Masonic spectrum.

I maintain that the fictional Lodge in question was backed into a corner with a lose/lose choice of action. No matter what they did at this point it was going to be a no win scenario. The Traditionalist view says the Lodge waited too long. And I say that that this is what Grand Lodges and Lodges across the USA are all doing right now. Freemasonry today should be in an emergency preparedness mode. Anybody see that anywhere? Itís human nature to be lazy and very easy to sit around and do nothing. And yes I agree a building is not a Lodge and a house of worship is not a church, but if you have a beautifully crafted building with much historical tradition who would want to practice their Masonry or worship elsewhere? In time a building becomes Holy ground and a historically protect treasure.

There is no reason that Masons across the country have to roll over and play dead. There is time to act and to pull our horns in as many businesses are doing also. There is time to hunker down and watch every penny and cut expenses as many, many families are doing right now. Why should Freemasonry be different? Here are some suggestions.

LODGES

1) Get together at your business meeting with this topic as your primary focus. Publicize the urgency and the necessity of having everybody on board in your Lodge Bulletin, Newsletter or Summons.
2) Pare down the budget. Eliminate luxurious expenditures immediately, especially Lodge supported social functions. Ask your membership for some special contributions now while they still have some money.
3) Consider a temporary District plan whereby only one Lodge in the District is used and all others are closed with heat/AC and all utilities shut off.
4) Cut out all charitable and community action programs immediately
5) Ask your Grand Lodge to forgive any Grand Lodge fees and payments until normalcy returns.
6) If you must stay open look for tenants who could pay you rent.
7) If your building is mortgage free consider taking out a loan via a short term mortgage. If you have a mortgage talk to the Bank or mortgage company about renegotiating your terms of payment.
8) Ask your city or town to relax any standards of outside upkeep so you can stop landscaping and snow removal services.
9) Renegotiate the insurance policy on your building, especially if it is temporarily closed.
10) If your Lodge is not on a tax exempt basis do what is necessary to institute that ASAP.

GRAND LODGES

1) Stop restricting local Lodges on who they can rent their building to. There is no harm in renting space to womenís Masonry, Co-Masonry, Prince Hall, GOUSA, Knights of Columbus, Sons of Italy, Franco-Americans, Knights of Pythias, churches, Temples, mosques, or most commercial enterprises.
2) Allow alcohol in the Masonic building to be a decision of each local Lodge as it sees fit. This Masonic Prohibition is really a corruption of Masonry whereby menís personal religious belief has been codified by Masonry. The rest of the Masonic world has no problem with cocktails at the festive board.
3) Arrange for your whole jurisdiction to operate as a tax exempt organization
4) Negotiate a jurisdiction wide group insurance rate for all chartered Lodges.
5) Consider direct financial aid to those in most serious trouble and/or long term loans with Grand Lodge as the banker.
6) Instruct and send out your District Deputies with information and aid packets to all Districts. Call for District meetings to meet the problem head on.
7) Stop all Grand Lodge charities immediately. From now on your biggest charity is your chartered Lodges.
8) Limit Grand Lodge travel.

 

 

You see the ever declining economy is going to adversely affect American Freemasonry.  Now is the time to take steps to meet the challenges that we all will face in the coming months.

The fictional Lodge was only a means to an end. What they did or did not do is not the issue. What the choices available are and what could be done was what the lesson was. For in that it will be what others CAN do. To answer a question on the by-laws change to a tax exempt organization is that the by-laws change is referred to the Grand Lodge by-laws committee who rules on the matter. The recommendations of the committee are voted on by the Grand Lodge which is in most cases a formality since very few know the particulars.

It is true that this fictional Lodge let things go too long without calling the Lodge and any Masonic family tenants together to hold a congregational meeting on the problems. But that was the old guard. Thatís the way they operated. The new guard came in and forced the issue. Now I wrote it this way because that is what is happening to many Lodges. We are going from 75 year olds in control to 25 and 30 year olds in control across our nation. We skipped a whole generation of Masons.

The plot was designed to see what the reaction would be to the clash between the old and the new both in the Lodge and between the Lodge and Grand Lodge where the 75 year olds are also entrenched. The Oldsters are entrenched in their ways and are very inflexible. The new Young Turks are hot headed and rash and know it alls. This is a scenario lived out in many other areas of organization in many different times.

The questions that need to be faced are can Grand Lodges across our nation in a time of crisis respond by allowing some departures from the norm? Can they meet the Young Turks halfway? Will they negotiate? Will they get out of the way and let local Masonry manage its own affairs? Do they have to enforce the letter of the law?

And will the Young Turks listen and respect the age old advice of their elders who have had much more experience than they have? Can they try to stay inside the rules and come up with Masonic solutions? Are they willing to work for solutions in combination with others instead of trying to go it alone? Will they avoid confrontation and seek accommodation?

I donít have a lot of answers, just a bunch of questions. Itís up to you the reader to decide and hopefully carry the message and discussion into your Grand Lodge.

 

 

         

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