With Shrine In Decline, More Members Wanted
Jul 1, 2006
By GRETCHEN PARKER
TAMPA - If the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine sounds mysterious, it is.
On the outside, it's motorcycles and parades and minicars. And the red, tasseled fezzes that have become as emblematic of jovial Shriners as they are of the holy city of Fez, Morocco. The group is perhaps best-known, though, for the children who owe their miracles to the charity of Shriners.
On the inside, it's a dark labyrinth of shrouded secrets, sphinges, scimitars and five-pointed stars. It's a pageant of chants, codes, passwords, handshakes and gory oaths sworn inside private temples - all orchestrated by masters and potentates. It's like Rotary Club gone Dungeons & Dragons.
And no girls allowed.
It's a complete mystery to the noninitiated.
That's by design, Shriners say. But now, as the Shrine shrinks yearly, the fraternity is trying to change. It's throwing open the doors of temples and making rituals public. It is opening its roster to a wider group of men and even putting diaper-changing stations in temples.
Gone are the days when American men craved secret societies. Shriners can only survive, they acknowledge, by adapting.
"We've created our own problem. We've been complacent," said Gary Dunwoody, who this weekend is finishing his one-year term as imperial potentate, the highest-ranking Shriner. At its annual convention, in Tampa for the first time, the fraternity will elect a new leader.
Like other service clubs, the Shrine has been hemorrhaging members during the past 2 1/2 decades. The fraternity was founded in 1872 and grew steadily for a hundred years.
At its peak in 1979, the Shrine included nearly a million men. Now there are 411,000. Last year alone, the group lost 30,000 members who either died or stopped paying the $90 annual dues.
The heart of the issue is that Shriners are trying to save a fraternity that is rooted in the very ritual and pageantry that now turns off many multitasking, long-commuting, Little League-coaching dads. The mystical, elaborate ceremonies that used to attract men now are repelling them, critics say.
Dunwoody pointed out all that Shriners have going for them - an established fraternity that is the heart of one of the most-respected philanthropies in the world. The group just needs to do a better job of selling itself, he said.
Roots In Freemasonry
The Shrine was founded by two Masons and is rooted in Freemasonry. It is open only to members of that brotherhood, which was a successful formula in the first half of the 20th century when Masonry was booming. In the years after World War II, men returned home looking for the kind of camaraderie they had enjoyed while enlisted.
Lodges and Shrine temples became second homes for them.
Shrine founders saw Masonry as the perfect pool from which to recruit members. They saw themselves as men of strong character who already had bettered themselves by learning the lessons required to move up the Mason ladder - known as the Scottish and York rites.
This is where Masonry goes into territory that is murky for the non-Mason. Generally, members say each level uses allegory to teach men morality and the meaning of life.
To become a Master Mason, a man advances through three levels. Beyond that, he can choose to join one of the rites, and if he reaches the pinnacle, he's considered a 33rd-degree Mason. If he makes it to Scottish Rite, then he also has acquired titles including Inspector Inquisitor, Perfect Master, Secret Master and Knight of the Brazen Serpent.
It's all commonly traced back about 500 years, when masons bonded together as a craft guild that then evolved into a fraternity. Masons believe their group began with the men who built King Solomon's Temple. Stars, sphinges, trowels and scimitars are used as symbols to teach the lessons of the brotherhood.
The Shrine was founded as a fun alternative to Masonry. The founders believed in the serious nature of Masonry but wanted to stress "fun and fellowship" more than the ritual, according to a history published by Shriners. That's why the fez was used - to lend an exotic, party atmosphere and add intrigue.
The group toned down that image after gaining a reputation as hard-charging partiers.
One thing hasn't changed - black Shriners and white Shriners are, for the most part, separated. An African American named Prince Hall started a Masonry group for blacks in the late 1700s, and the races never integrated either as Masons or as Shriners.
Groups 'Are Doomed,' Critic Says
It is the intrigue of the Shrine that is working against it now, said Dudley Davis, an outspoken critic of Mason and Shriner leadership. Davis is a Maryland management consultant who began working in 1989 to persuade the fraternities to make drastic changes so they could save themselves. He's also a 32nd-degree Scottish Rite Mason.
By now, he said, both groups "are doomed."
Two years ago, he said, he was hired by Shriners to find a way to halt their downslide. He presented his suggestions to Shrine leaders at their headquarters in Tampa.
Among his suggestions: Offer scholarships to the children of fathers who join, and make the meetings more upbeat and relevant to men's daily lives.
The trick, he said, is to promote what is worthwhile - the camaraderie and the revered hospitals - and get rid of the special uniforms and traditions that repel today's young and middle-age men.
Also, he said, lose the fez.
Davis argued that the festive hats have become a cartoonish symbol of revelry that doesn't reflect the true Shriner spirit. That proposal quickly was dismissed.
"It's difficult to get them to change in any way because they're comfortable with what was," Davis said.
Davis' viewpoints "didn't match the organization's," said Charlie Cumpstone, an executive vice president of Shriners who has worked for the group for 40 years.
It's not just about Shriners and Masons, Davis said. He used a poll conducted in 1991 that found men just were not interested in joining any organization - not Shriners, not Masons, not Rotary or Elks or Moose. The few who did didn't want secretiveness, difficult initiations, signs and passwords.
Too Strong To Fail
Dunwoody, the Shrine leader, insists the fraternity will never fold because it has a hard-core, dedicated group at its nucleus. Shriners hospitals depend on the fraternity to bolster their volunteer ranks, transport thousands of children and govern their boards.
Even critics of Shriners say the hospitals, with an endowment of $8.4 billion, are too strong to fail. They survive on gifts and bequests, not dues from Shriners, of which only $5 a year goes to the hospitals.
Dunwoody predicts that membership eventually will level off. He said the fraternity is focused more on keeping Shriners than attracting new ones. In the past 15 years, the group has lost more than 300,000 members who quit or were suspended for not keeping up with dues.
"They're not staying with us," Dunwoody said. "They're going out the back door faster than they're coming in the front door."
To attract younger Shriners, the group is encouraging temples to hire babysitters and hold family nights. Members interested in computers and golf now have their own clubs.
To keep current Shriners, the group is using pilot programs at seven temples that involve members more in the hospitals and focus on retaining members who are about to drop out. The group also is creating women's focus groups and involving wives in a "first 100 days" program for new Shriners.
In two years, the Imperial Council will consider rolling the programs out to all 191 temples.