Food For Thought
Declining Membership

In this update of Food for Thought the Masonic Article featured a paper given by Brother A.H. Busfield, and published in Volume 26 No 12 , the June 1886 notice paper and newsletter of the United Masters Lodge No.  167. The title is an attention grabber headline “The Final Forty Years of Freemasonry?”

In it Bro. Busfield provides graphs of the actual statistics that Grand Lodge had provided from their records, and used them to forecast forward. His concerns from these prompted his chilling title for our New Zealand constitution.

Of that “Forty Years” we have now progressed to the 75% mark, so the reader should be able to make their own opinion up as to how accurate Bro. Busfield's vision of his future has been. There are some actual figures that I am able to fill in to establish the veracity of his 1986 predictions.

In the forecast of membership of the Craft, he provided figures  from 1986 to 2001. It just so happens that I have a copy of the Annual Report of the Grand Lodge of New Zealand Freemasons dated 24 November 2001. This was the year that I was initiated into the Alpha Lodge No 81 in Cambridge (aged 56).  Bro, Busfield wrote -

In 1982 the Condition of the Craft Committee (more about their work later) completed various
projections of our membership for the remainder of this century. The results of the last three years
show their severest calculations not to be over pessimistic. Noting the drop of 100?? in the
previous five years, the Committee warned our numbers could fall in-
Membership Trend?
Year Number of Brethren
1986 32,800
1991 29,520
1996 26,568
2001 23,912
The actual figure in 2001 was 15,555. This figure is 65% of the 23,912 that the Condition of the Craft Committee projected 15 years previously. An actual figure that shows a fall so much greater than predicted should indicate that 40 years is going to be too long an estimate.

Another way of looking at the figures is to use the actual 2001 figure of 15,555 and estimate its percentage of the the 1986 figure. 15,555 divided by 32,800 gives a percentage answer of 47.4%. That suggests a fall to 47.4% every 15 years.So is this newer percentage rate of decline relevant to today's actual membership of the Craft.

2016  is 15 years later so a fall to 47.4% of the actual numbers in 2001 would give a current membership of 7,373. I am told unofficially that the number is around 7,500. If that is the case we are continuing in a stable decline and statistically exactly what this method predicts.

I have no official publications at hand of recent times from Grand Lodge to work with on analysis, however, in 2006 Financial Statements graphs 2002/3 to 2005/06, were provided and , to quote -

“the nett loss and gain of members by age profile  … gives us a positive view on membership by showing that our membership numbers under the age of 50 are in fact growing.”
This statement is slightly misleading. The graph actually shows that this was true up to 40 years of age, and the fact they actually grew in each of the 4 years was very encouraging. However, in the 40 to 50 group they did not do that and have a small loss overall. 40 to 45 year olds fell in two years, no change in one, and a rise of about one third the fall. The 45 to 50 age group fell in one year, no change in the third year and a gain in the third and fourth of totaling about half what it fell in the first.  Over 50 the age groups diminished greatly, increasing exponentially to highs in the 70 to 90 years old. This is only to be expected as the “Grand Lodge above” claims its percentage. There should therefore be a steadily increasing proportion in the younger age groups.

The problem was recognised 30 years ago, and analysed with some accuracy, by Bro. Busfield.

A more recent calculation about the membership decline was shown in a graph in the 2008 Annual report of the Grand Lodge of New Zealand Freemasons. The graph was titled “Freemasons NZ Membership and Prediction”.
Using the automated trend analysis line  this predicted “no freemasons in NZ” being reached in 2019. This is obviously incorrect with the figure being around 7,500 at today's count. However, the graph's author's own calculated trend line using the author's estimation puts the 2016 midway between 5,000 and 10,000. Bang on the button at 7,500. This line carried on estimates a membership of 5,000 around the year 2019, and  about 2,000 by 2028.

How do those figures relate to using the 47.4% fall in membership, that we calculated over the time 1986 to 2001, and 2001 to 2016, and extrapolating that into the future.
The 47.4% method shows that  a 2,000 membership would be reached around the year 2040 some 12 years later than the 2008 prediction.

However, analysing the figures is irrelevant without action on two fronts - Membership and overheads.

The fact that membership is declining is due to many reasons -

1. An ageing membership - there will at some stage be less members entering into that dangerous 70 +bracket than are coming in to the craft. Thus the percentage of older members will fall. The imbalance caused by the initiates of the 1940s to 1960s is being steadily eroded. As the average age of the Craft drops so will the actual number gathered by the Great Architect. This will lead to a much more stable membership, or even a reversal of the membership trend downwards.

2. It is of course essential that the Craft looks to retain its members, and reduce the number of resignations etc. A number of initiatives have been forwarded and actioned over recent years, and continue to be promoted. This may mean different kinds of Lodges, and even revert to historic ideals.

3. However, the most important issue is that management of the Craft should look at the overheads of the Craft with great urgency. The statement about "cutting our cloth" is often heard, and it is very true. Overheads are of two kinds - the first is from the Grand Lodge aspect. Grand Lodges as such began in 1717 and the costs became shared by all who joined the business structure. The second is individual Lodge costs - principally Lodges owning buildings of that are for the singular purpose of the Lodge.

For example if we look at the costs over the period above 1986 to 2016, and we use an example of an expenditure having been applied over that period to an overhead of $150,000. No account has been taken that inflation may have tripled that amount in the time line below
Year Number of Brethren
1986 32,800
2001 15,555
2016 7,377
2031 3,498
2046 1,659
It is apparent that even with a freeze on all overheads the costs become exhorbitant on the individual member.

This is doubled up by the overheads of individual Lodges. Much has been written about the cost of Lodge buildings and the expenses of maintenance and insurance. However, Freemasonry prior to 1717 was still widespread and flourishing. Even in 1717 there were few permanent Lodge buildings. Perhaps we should look at how they survived and thrived in those days.

Change must come if the forecast of Bro. Busfield is not to eventuate.
Year No. of Brethren $150,000 $250,000
1986 32,800 $5 $8
2001 15,555 $10 $16
2016 7,377 $20 $34
2031 3,498 $43 $71
2046 1,659 $90 $151
John Barns Graham