Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Can the Eastern Star spam!

I got added to a new email directory as part of my statewide appointment this year. Sure enough, it didn't take but a few weeks for the junk mail to start trickling (not, I will grant, flooding) in. Jokes, "inspirational" poems, bogus health and safety warnings, and general glurge, often with some politically- or ideologically-motivated "moral".

Before I even consented to publish my email in the new directory, I asked our group's leader to impress upon all of our co-appointees that the list was to be used for official and informative messages only, not junk. It isn't a moderated list, just a directory, so once the email addresses are out there, we don't have any enforcement mechanism or anything. And so, over time, voluntary compliance breaks down. Let's just say glurge practitioners aren't known for their thoughtful construction of opt-in (or opt-out) programs, or even any brain engagement whatsoever between themselves and their "Fwd:" buttons and the entire contents of their personal address books.

It's disheartening. It's embarrassing! We're ruining email as a means of communication within our Order, and that isn't good.

As a Chapter Secretary, I now have several members who won't consent to publish their email addresses in our Roster for this exact reason. I'm walking a fine line trying to keep said emails for my personal and official use... it only takes one slip with "Cc:" instead of "Bcc:" to release them into the wild.

How can we solve this problem?

If you have suggestions for aliasing my Chapter's outgoing email in a way that doesn't expose member addresses and can be 100% set up and moderated at my end without my members' involvement, please comment. I haven't figured it out yet.

Most of the groups I receive messages from aren't (and aren't gonna be) operated with the level of technical sophistication necessary to keep my address safe from glurgers, unfortunately.

I'm also working on a "Think Before You Fwd:" program: a delicately worded, intentionally friendly, personal appeal from me to cease and desist. I make it as clear as possible that I want to receive messages the senders have personally composed, but that I am not interested in anything forwarded. This seems to be helping! But only in a Wac-a-Mole sort of way. It usually works if I send it directly to an individual, but is almost never heeded when I broadcast it to a list. I also encourage everyone to get permission from their intended recipients before they open the Fwd:gates. That hasn't worked yet, and I'm not holding my breath.

Since our members do surely love being ordered around by Grand Authority Figures, I'm debating whether I should approach some of our Grand Chapter leadership, but since many of them are offenders themselves, I can't say I'm optimistic.

Is there any way to take back email and make it useful for communication within OES? Or is it a lost cause?

(Lest ye snark, Brethren, about the credulous old ladies, I must point out that my first offender of the year on my latest list was one of you. I would hazard a guess that this is yet another problem we all share.)

If we can get a handle on responsible use of email, maybe that'll help with membership....

Thursday, October 12, 2006

GC of Washington, OES, Google map

I feel pretty confident that this is the first and only Order of the Eastern Star mashup in existence.

I've got a Grand Lodge of Washington version, too, but you Masons are clever and I wouldn't be surprised if someone else beat me to the world's first Masonic mashup.

Maybe this'll help with membership....

Monday, October 09, 2006

A caveat about mergers

If we meet less often, that'll help with membership.

If we shorten Introductions, that'll help with membership.

If we shorten Responses, that'll help with membership.

If we "lighten up" about the quality of our Ritualistic work, that'll help with membership.

If we rededicate ourselves to the quality of our Ritualistic work, that'll help with membership.

If we grant all dues-paying members voting credentials at the Grand Chapter session, that'll help with membership.

If we extend fraternal recognition to the Prince Hall Grand Chapter of Washington and Its Jurisdiction OES, that'll help with membership.

If we simplify the language in our Ritual, that'll help with membership.

If we relax our dress code, that'll help with membership.

If we support our youth groups, that'll help with membership.

If we build a big float and enter it into all of our community parades, that'll help with membership.

If we advertise on radio and with billboards, that'll help with membership.

If we put fraternal decals and license plates and frames on our cars, and wear fraternal pins and T-shirts, that'll help with membership.

If we do more "fun activities", that'll help with membership.

If we raise more funds for charity, that'll help with membership.

If we're visibly active in our local communities, that'll help with membership.

If we reach out to different ethnic and religious groups, that'll help with membership.

If we get rid of the meaningless "traditions" that are holding us back, and embrace change, that'll help with membership.

If we brew beer, or visit casinos, that'll help with membership.

If we lower our standards and make joining easier, that'll help with membership.

If we raise our standards and make joining more meaningful, that'll help with membership.

If we tell everyone we know how much we enjoy Eastern Star, that'll help with membership.

If we merge our diaspora of struggling Chapters into fewer, stronger Chapters, that'll help with membership.

Some of these are good ideas. Some are terrible ideas. All of them have been tried. Including, to varying degrees, mergers.

On the subject of membership, we're still tempted by the quick-fixes and cure-alls. We're plagued by an absence of logic and common sense. (Do any Chapters have prospectives beating down their doors with Petitions in hand if only Introductions could be three minutes shorter?)

On the subject of mergers, "membership" must not be the goal. Mergers and membership are almost oppositional. The reason mergers are still so taboo is that they require an acknowledgement that we cannot and will not increase membership enough or in time to save all our Chapters.

I don't believe anything in the above list has the slightest chance of increasing membership. I don't believe increasing membership is a realistic goal for the forseeable future. I don't believe this is entirely our fault, and I don't believe it is at all within our control. Not only that, but I think most of what we flail around with, in the name of membership, has been harmful to the members and the Chapters we already have. I still get tempted, but I'm learning to resist the siren song of membership.

The goal of mergers is not to grow the Order. It is to save the Order long enough to have any hope of growing some time in the future. It's important to acknowledge this, because it will shape our approach to mergers, and our approach is critical. We must conduct our mergers thoughtfully, because a bad merger can be even more destructive than none at all.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A brief history of mergers

First, some background. Our Worthy Grand Matron this year, a wonderful person who has honored me with a (minor) statewide appointment, is opposed to Chapter mergers and often makes this a theme of her public remarks. This has prompted me to examine my feelings about mergers, both for Chapters and Lodges, and it has sparked some discussion on the subject among my friends and traveling partners.

Since I've posted a few times already about too many buildings, it isn't a surprise that I favor mergers as one means of addressing our membership and participation crisis. But my thoughts on this subject are also evolving, in ways I'll discuss in this and future posts.

I watched one of our own neighbor Chapters struggle for years and suffer two failed merger attempts. Stubborn inactive members showed up to vote "no" and then disappeared. Stubborn active members allowed themselves to be churned through the line again and again instead of walking away. The Chapter continued on life support until last year, when they couldn't regularly get a quorum of seven. Their Charter was suspended mid-year and permanently seized at Grand Chapter. Those who sacrificed themselves all those years were rewarded with Demits. Now they're bitter and disillusioned enough that they're in no hurry to come back to Eastern Star, and although I think their ire is misdirected, it's hardly surprising.

This is my Alamo. I invoke our late, scarcely-lamented Chapter and its self-sacrificing Sisters as evidence of where our collective opposition to mergers gets us.

Our current WGM says it had always been her intent to refuse to grant any mergers during her year in the Grand East. She goes on to report, sadly, that three mergers were already under way when she was installed which she feels she has no choice but to allow, though she doesn't approve of them. Another one of the WGM's appointees this year has expressed a wish that an in-progress merger in my county might fall through. "Wouldn't that be great?"

Count me as one who is extremely grateful that our kindly WGM isn't pigheaded enough to obstruct the mergers she's inherited. Remember the Alamo! I don't know whether she's suppressing new mergers, as it's rumored was done by some of her predecessors, but she's certainly making a point of announcing at every Chapter this year that she "hopes" there won't be any more. And it's bad enough that she's disparaging the difficult and painful choices being made by our own Sisters and Brothers in their decision to merge. It's not as though they take it lightly.

My statewide appointment affords me the opportunity (indeed, the obligation) to visit other Chapters regularly, something I haven't done since I was Associate Matron, several years ago. I have to say I'm shocked by what I find. Chapters that seemed healthy 4-5 years ago are now struggling. Chapters that were struggling now have the pall of death over them.

We've gone from losing our sideliners, to losing our line officers, to losing our installed appointed officers, to losing our "permanent pro-tems", and now we've reached the point where most Chapters, including mine, can't even be certain they'll have enough temporary pro-tems to fill their chairs for Opening.

Now I'm seeing the spread from stated meetings to even our "special" events. Turnout at Official Visits has dropped off sharply. Turnout at Receptions is half of what it used to be. Our 61 Grand Representatives, whose only duty is visitation, are lucky to see ten of their number in the same room this year. Even our own Grand Officers barely manage appearances at events outside of their local areas.

Here's a photo from our Grand Chapter Installation this year. Look at the sidelines!!!! I had more people at my Chapter Installation than are in this picture!

This is not new. I'm beginning to understand what my Chapter's 50-year members are so upset about.

Based on what I'm seeing, which is a disaster, and what I'm hearing, which is the same old desperate denial, I'm officially making the switch from "supporting mergers" to encouraging downsizing in many forms, including mergers.

I'll continue these thoughts in upcoming posts.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Are they or aren't they?

You know somebody has lost the plot when there are General Grand Chapter resolutions starting with:

"Change Landmark #5 to read...."

It doesn't matter what they're proposing to change it to. The point is, it's a Landmark. Landmarks are meant to be the very definitions of our Order and they are supposed to be unchangeable.

In a practical sense, we've already changed this particular Landmark so many times over the years that protecting it now would definitely be silly. I'm also not convinced that identity- and relationship-based qualifications for membership should ever have been Landmarks (are you listening, UGLE?).

But when we're cavalier with our Landmarks it isn't really a surprise that we don't know who we are, or why, any more.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Competing with consumption

Chris Jordan, local photographer, discusses our consumption-based culture in the Seattle Weekly:
It is always amazing for me to step outside our culture and visit a country like Brazil, where the priority is not money but joy. The people of Brazil are far less wealthy than we are, but they are visibly happier. You can see it in their faces and gestures, and hear it in their music, and see it in the way they spend their time. Coming back here can be depressing. America has lots [sic] its joy; we have become a nation consumed by greed, and our predominant national emotions are fear, hatred, and rage. It didn't used to be this way; even in my own lifetime I remember when people worked less, took more vacations, spent more time with their families, and were satisfied with fewer cars, smaller houses, and less stuff. Just a few years ago, our stoves and countertops didn't matter; now a $30,000 remodeled chef's kitchen with granite countertops is standard in most middle-class homes even if no one in the house cooks. Today's Honda Civic is far more luxurious than the best Mercedes of a couple of decades ago, yet everyone thinks they need more than a Honda Civic. We're driving insane cars, buying insane amounts of stuff, and working insane hours to pay for it all. In the last few decades, the economy and the gaining of material wealth have subverted everything else that we value. We are trying to fill the spiritual void with iPods and plasma TV's and so on, which at bottom is fundamentally empty and unfulfilling, so the cycle continues. [emphases added]
My OES Chapter has a 93-year-old member who scolded me once for complaining about being "too busy" for a statewide OES appointment. She told me that fifty years ago, she served in the same appointment when there were three times as many Chapters and events she was required to attend, while working full-time and raising four young sons. Especially in OES, our younger members jump to conclusions about 1950s stay-at-home wives having had lots more leisure time to spend on our Order. It just ain't so. Their generation was way, way more active and committed than we are today.

And yet we feel more drained by our everyday lives and burdened by the expectations of our Orders. The socioeconomic hamster wheel described above might shed a little light on why this is so, and why our contemporaries say they have "no time" for membership in our organizations (or, indeed, any organizations). Doubly so, considering that our organizations do nothing to feed our greed. No wonder it's so hard to get even our own members to show up to work in service to others. No wonder we seem irrelevant.

Dare I even mention that Freemasonry is expanding rapidly in Brazil?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A "concept" Chapter: Service

I'm beginning to think that the old Chapters (which is to say, all of them in this Jurisdiction) are holding back needed reforms. We have too many of them, due to overexpansion. Traditions and history are a beautiful thing, but clinging to outdated practices isn't. All of our rosters are filled with inactive dues-check-writers, who don't participate or work on behalf of the Chapter, but who outnumber active members when it comes time to vote on lifesaving measures like mergers, dues increases, relocations, etc. Our buildings are boat anchors. Our Charters represent unnecessary separation among what few members we have left. Even our treasuries are a threat... some Chapters spend irresponsibly, others hoard unjustifiably.

So what about a fresh start? Could we get critical mass for a new Chapter? The Brethren of our Grand Lodge seem to be making small steps in this direction, with a handful of new "concept" or "affinity" Lodges chartered in the last decade or so. A DeMolay Lodge, a Spanish-speaking Lodge, and a Filipino Lodge are just the beginning. Could OES do the same?

There are lots of different directions we could take with concept Chapters, and there's no reason our Jurisdiction couldn't pursue several at once. Here's my latest idea:

A Service Chapter, dedicated exclusively to charity and community service. What would that mean?

In order to be effective, the Chapter should pick a single charity and focus all of its fundraising efforts on that one goal throughout the year and year after year. It doesn't matter so much what the charity is, as long as it's basically a worthy one, but it's probably a good idea to identify the basic nature of the charity in the Charter. The Chapter must politely decline requests to participate in any unrelated fundraising, including (especially) Grand Chapter projects, and should make this clear to the Grand Chapter from the outset.

The Chapter needs to be able to dedicate all of its fundraising efforts to charity, which means member dues must be set high enough to clear its non-discretionary expenses (rent, basic supplies, and the Grand Chapter assessment).

The Chapter must not spend its funds nor sanction its members spending their own funds on anything other than necessities and charity. From the outset, it should be accepted by all members that the Chapter will not give gifts or door prizes, pay for refreshments or meals, pay for decorations, programs, ode cards or rosters, and that its officers and members generally won't either. Chapter dress must be "dress of choice" every year. Meals should be potluck, and refreshments should be modest. If the Chapter desires to honor a distinguished visitor or a member's appointment, it should do so by making donations or through some other no-cost "gift" such as a special skit or entertainment. This needs to be consistent. Worthy Matrons who want to spend their own money still need to spend it on charity, not fluff.

The Chapter should have short meetings twice a month and avoid special meetings. It should invite the WGM to see its true work by attending a regular stated meeting (perhaps with a guest speaker explaining its charitable project) and it should never pair with another Chapter for OV. This should be agreed-upon with the Grand Chapter in advance and perhaps included in the Charter.

The Chapter might choose to set up investments with the idea of increasing its return for the benefit of its charity (or using interest income for operating costs), but otherwise it shouldn't hoard money in savings. It should never run a deficit, obviously.

Yes, there should be fellowship, because all work and no play makes a lot of tired Brothers and Sisters who barely know each other and can too easily forget what the point is.

I think it would be really radical and interesting to have a mandatory minimum level of participation and active community service by every member every year. Members who fail to meet the minimum could be, by Charter, automatically granted a "no-fault" demit. Those who wish to re-commit to the service requirement could simply petition for re-affiliation and be balloted upon.

With or without the participation requirement, this Chapter won't ever be "big" and shouldn't aspire to be. It needs to be profoundly selective about its membership and must not hesitate to blackball someone "nice" if they would threaten to dilute the Chapter's mandates.

This is the sort of thing where, if we could find just enough people to get behind the idea, we could create a powerhouse little Chapter and be a model for reform of OES. But if we can't find enough people to get off the ground at all, or if the workload turns out to be more than we can bear, or the whole idea gets co-opted by compromisers, all of which are entirely possible, then it wouldn't work at all.

I do not by any means suggest that all Chapters in a Grand Jurisdiction should be this way. I think they shouldn't be. A balance of formal traditional Chapters, Chapters for ritualists, Chapters primarily for fellowship, Chapters of Research, etc., are necessary for balance and to give prospective members meaningful alternatives. Maybe this new Chapter wouldn't have longtime members at all, but would have a shifting roster of workers who go in and out without any stigma attached to doing so.

We work absurdly hard just keeping our legacy Chapters above water. What if we directed our effort toward something that actually matters?