I recently had some concerns about Freemasonry expressed from extended family. They are worried for/about me because of my involvement in the fraternity. Among those concerns was the misconception that it is difficult or impossible to leave. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
I’ll mention briefly here that I have no intention of leaving, and have not found cause to recommend to any brothers that they should leave. Quite the contrary — I have found my involvement in the fraternity to be exceptionally fulfilling and rewarding, and a major source of personal and professional growth and development, as well as an opportunity to make wonderful friends with whom I would have remained perpetually at a distance. I write this post simply to allay concerns that have been expressed to me in the hopes that it can be helpful to others. I have only good things to say about the institution and would encourage anyone interested in learning more to connect with his grand lodge to learn more.
When I made the decision to join, I had some trepidation of the unknown but decided to move forward in part based on reassurances from several trusted masons that if I found anything objectionable I could leave at any time. Now that I’ve been involved for a while and have an understanding of how things work I’d like to share the various ways one can leave the fraternity if they wish to, and what it means to do so.
I’ll give the disclaimer that I am still young in my Masonic experience, and still have a lot of reading and learning to do in regards how how Freemasonry is practiced in other countries and throughout history. The information and opinions I’m able to give are based on my experience and understanding from the practice of contemporary mainstream (regular) Freemasonry in the US and from the study I have done so far. I’ll also add that I do not speak for my lodge or any grand lodge and that these are strictly my views and opinions.
Now, to tackle the question, I would ask what it means to leave the fraternity. Does that mean not participating in lodge events, not attending lodge, not associating with the brothers? If that’s the case one is free to take those actions even when they are a member, and some do. This is actually one of the biggest problems the fraternity faces at the moment in many lodges — a lack of participation from its membership or the loss of members who didn’t find what they were looking for, had a bad personal experience, or otherwise decided Freemasonry wasn’t for them. There is a lot to be said on this topic — much more than makes sense to expound on here.
It is not uncommon for a brother to move to another area and maintain membership in their lodge to support it with their dues, while rarely or never attending a meeting and having little interaction. It’s also not uncommon for a brother to enter another stage of life that keeps him busy enough that he doesn’t have the time or ability to participate or be involved in lodge or any of its functions — going back to school, having children, a career change or advancement, health problems, family situations, and other life changes are all good examples. Likewise, it may be the case that a brother decides to keep the lodge at arms length and shy away from participation because of some quarrel or disagreement with lodge — an unfortunate circumstance.
In these cases, the man is still a brother, is welcome back at any time, and may occasionally be encouraged to come out to events, to attend a lodge meeting (especially dinners, election nights, etc.), or even just grab coffee with some brothers now and again to stay in touch.
If one wants to leave, whether keeping the door open to joining again in the future or not, one can request a demit. This is simply a request to leave the fraternity for any reason, and consists of the request from the member, the master of the lodge or the grand master for the jurisdiction signing off on it, and the recording thereof in the lodge and grand lodge records. It is the prerogative of the master of the lodge to grant or withhold the demit (at least in my jurisdiction), but it would be uncommon not to grant it. I have seen several demits issued, usually with little discussion, and issued one myself when serving as Worshipful Master for my lodge.
If it is suspected that the request is due to inability to pay dues, or some other matter of circumstance that may be overcome (particularly with the aid of the lodge) it may be that the brother is encouraged to retain his membership and work through whatever he may have going on rather than demitting. Likewise if it is because of a quarrel or other relationship problem with other members, the master may seek to mediate (or have someone else mediate) and see if another resolution can be found. Regardless of the alternatives the lodge may propose, if the member seeking the demit is committed to that course, it would be rare if not unheard of to deny such a request in most jurisdictions.
A request to demit is the proper, honorable, polite way to leave the fraternity if one wishes to do so, and should usually occur without issue.
Non-payment of Dues
If a member stops paying dues, whether actively involved or not, in a year or two (or more, and it varies by jurisdictional rules and lodge custom or the master’s preference) he will be dropped “NPD” (non-payment of dues). Each grand lodge has a different protocol for reinstatement of standing in this case, but if the member has been dropped for this reason, he can usually be reinstated with a request and by paying current and some amount of back dues. If a member is dropped for non-payment of dues, he loses Masonic privileges (cannot come to lodge meetings or interact “masonically” with other masons), and is not considered a member any more. If a member wanted out, he could simply stop paying dues and the process would take its course, concluding with his loss of membership and the lodge not bothering him.
During the time when back dues are unpaid but membership has not yet been revoked, it would be expected that the lodge would be in communication to determine the nature of the delinquency. If the person wants out, they will probably be offered other means of leaving on better terms. It should be noted that it would not be uncommon for brothers to step up and assist another brother with his dues in cases of legitimate (particularly temporary) financial hardship. In fact, it could be considered unmasonic to not offer that assistance if they are able.
A brother dropped for non-payment of dues usually has some sort of process available to be reinstated. This process will vary by jurisdiction and/or lodge, but it would usually involve catching up on dues or paying dues for the last couple (or however many) years.
Lastly, while this is a dishonorable path, if for some reason the brothers kept paying your dues even though you weren’t showing up, refused to issue a demit after it was requested and your resolve confirmed, and kept pestering a member who doesn’t want to be contacted (all extremely unlikely), he could always commit a Masonic offense. I am not advocating this in any way, as it is unethical, unreasonable, and dishonorable, however in the context of the concern over being wholly unable to leave the fraternity, it is a valid point of discussion.
The details of what is considered a Masonic offense vary by jurisdiction, but some examples of fairly universal ones include conviction of a crime, attending a meeting of or communicating “masonically” with clandestine (spurious) masons or their lodges, publicly divulging “secrets” of Freemasonry, and others.
In most (all?) jurisdictions the penalty for most masonic offenses is either suspension or expulsion. While it isn’t a guarantee that Masonic charges will be raised and the penalty of expulsion carried out, it’s likely if one is vocal about it. Keep in mind that Freemasonry is intended to be a place for good, honorable, trustworthy men to work together to improve themselves and society. Generally speaking, if a brother commits a masonic offense, the fraternity will seek to distance itself from him as much for practical reasons as for public relations.
Consequences of Leaving
The potential problem one could face when leaving, if not done on good terms, would be the negative social or professional impact, which will vary for each individual. If a brother has business dealings with other brothers, he may not wish to create ill will with them. If a brother has many close friends in lodge (most do who have participated for long, and many join lodge through a friend), there may be concern about how those relationships could be affected. While those could be concerns for some situations, both will generally be found to be the exception rather than the rule. Generally speaking, the sentiment I’ve seen when one leaves on any terms is that of sadness and loss rather than any sort of animosity. When a brother leaves the organization, it may not be the loss of a friend, but is the loss of a commonality that has undoubtedly strengthened and enriched the friendship.
I can see a case for the consequences being harsher at other points in history. In the 1800s populations were smaller and membership in lodges higher. If a member left a lodge and left the other brothers with bad feelings, it could have made his social and professional lives difficult to navigate. This is only speculation on my part. Even if this was the case, I think it can be easily argued that this is less of an issue now given changes in social dynamics, the ease of making non-masonic contacts, and the increasing scale of our economy. In 1850 you might have trouble getting groceries from the town grocer if he had some animosity towards you (though he’s not acting according to the principles of masonry if that’s the case), but that would hardly be an issue now in the vast majority of locales, and wouldn’t have been appreciably different from leaving one’s church, or any other community, civic, social, or religious organization or community. And again, its unlikely that there will be many hard feelings from the brothers in lodge. The most I’ve seen in this regard has been a mild awkwardness, if that.
Lastly, as Freemasons we are told that our obligations (the promises made between a man and the other brothers of the fraternity) cannot be laid aside. There is certainly an ethical, if not spiritual component to breaking one’s obligation to his brothers or to leaving the fraternity, but if one is leaving over a personal moral, philosophical, or religious objection, this should be of little concern as we are taught to put our own religious devotion and practice, our welfare and that of our family/household, and our professional and patriotic duties above our participation in the fraternity.