Expert in human behaviour
My guest is Brother Kees Elands, from the Grand East of Netherlands, who delivered an outstanding paper during the latest edition of the World Conference of the Regular Grand Lodges, held in Israel in May 2023. The topic of his presentation was “Staying Relevant for Future Generations”.
In my opinion, Freemasonry is declining in its importance and role in society as well as an educational structure.Many thanks, Brother Kees, for your time and for sharing your thoughts and your research with our audience. Thank you.
Thank you, Claudiu.
The English-speaking Grand Lodges are losing membership. Is it the same situation in the Netherlands? What kind of policies do you have for retaining membership?
That’s a good question. First of all, I’m not a representative of the Grand Lodge, so I’m not the specialist to answer this. But, of course, what I can say about it is that it’s actually challenging in general to maintain membership, so not only within Freemasonry, it’s challenging in a lot of areas. It’s a struggle, it is declining, but it also depends a bit on which Lodge. My Lodge, for example, is a very healthy Lodge, we gain a lot of new members, while you have other Lodges that struggle to survive. Again, I am not a representative of the Grand Lodge, but what I do know is that it’s a topic that’s discussed, first of all, openly between Lodges, but also initiated from the Grand Lodge out. It’s even researched, so over time some Brethren have developed research papers about it, which are then supported by the Grand Lodge and sent out to all the Lodges. So it’s an openly discussed topic, everyone could be involved if they wanted to. I think that the Grand Lodge is doing its best to support individual Lodges, with advice and ideas. If you look at our current Grand Master, he had a pretty strong campaign, actually focusing on three main topics. One was about the connection – make sure we have a good connection between the Grand Lodge and individual Lodges, but also between Lodges and between Brethren. Then there was the topic of the deepening of the rituals, of the symbolism and the meaning of those aspects. And the third topic was the internalization of that knowledge. I think those three topics are actually topics that help stop this loss of membership. That’s what I can say regarding the policies from the Grand Lodge from my perspective. But membership is declining. Currently I think it’s actually growing again – but if you take in on a larger time scale, then it’s declining, yes.
How is it possible to connect the essence of Freemasonry with the changing needs of the people in our global society? Quoting you, “how can Freemasonry be relevant for the future generations”?
First of all, I think what’s important to say is that Freemasonry and the essence of Freemasonry are relevant, so it’s not a question of how to be relevant – it actually is. That is what I’ve analysed in my research, to see that the essence of Freemasonry, like brotherhood, or respect, or better society, tolerance, self-development etc. is probably more relevant than ever if you look at our current society. If you look at the essence of Freemasonry, it’s super relevant. However, the form in which this essence is brought to life internally or externally – I think that could be made more attractive or more effective, so that our relevance is better expressed to different groups of people. I’m speaking about the form or the tone of voice we use; we’re not in the 1700’s anymore. The context is changing as well, so you have to be relevant in today’s context. I think that was maybe the main conclusion of the research I did. I analysed the essence of Freemasonry related to the needs of the people, from a socio-cultural perspective, and found out that there are many points of relevance for fitting in today’s society. But one of the main conclusions was that we have a long history, but that history in and of itself is not the most important thing; we have to bring that past to the context of today. We have to explain what’s within the rituals or what’s in the methodology, the moral system, or however you would like to call it – what’s in there that makes it so relevant in today’s society? Looking at future generations, the millennial generation, for example: they’re very me-centric, they’re very much about ‘what’s in it for me?’, so the aspect of self-development is very important. We could emphasise more on that, for example, by saying ‘hey, this is actually a place where you can work on your self-development’, for example. Because now they go to other places to find that. Perhaps they don’t even know that Freemasonry is relevant for that topic.
With even younger generations, so Gen Z, we see that the essence of Freemasonry is also relevant – but for them an inclusive demography is much more important, so more representation, let’s say, of how future society will look like, instead of, for example – I’m generalising now – some older white men (speaking from a European, or a Dutch context). Those are topics that are important for them and we could perhaps bring those essences more clearly to new target groups. Younger generations are really networked, so they are more interested, let’s say, in an international network. They travel all the time, they go everywhere, so to know that you have Brethren in other countries which you can visit easily, with a Masonic passport for example – those are things that are really attractive for younger generations. The main thing is that the essence is 100% relevant, but the form, how we bring that to the outside, is perhaps the thing we should work on.
Just Google „Freemasonry”! That’s the reality. If you Google „Freemasonry”, then you see older men in strange suits – for you and me of course not, we know what it’s about, but that’s how it’s seen. You see a lot of conspiracy theories around it – that’s what people see. Well, that’s not about the deepening or the deep value that we can offer in one’s life. I think we should bring the essence more to the surface and explain why it’s relevant in today’s context.
Kees, do you think that the world today needs Freemasonry like it did in the past? Has Freemasonry somehow eroded? Has Freemasonry become more of a charity organisation?
I’m no historian, but, of course, as I said before, the context changes over time. We are now not in the time of Enlightenment, but that’s the context, that’s how you have to look at it, I think. In some aspects it’s perhaps the same, but the time of Enlightenment was the time of reasoning. Reason relies on facts, but now we live in a time where reason is actually discussed. We have fake news, we live in extremely complex times. There’s a decline in trust in the traditional institutions much more than in the past. This whole context is actually changing, and that’s also why I said that I think the essence of Freemasonry is still relevant. I don’t think the essence has to change, but it could maybe have a better fit in today’s context. In that sense, maybe it’s the way it’s applied that’s eroded. Regarding charity – speaking from a Dutch perspective, charity is not a Dutch thing, so to say. I don’t know much about other countries, but I saw a documentary about the UK, on Netflix, and Freemasonry there seems to be much more about charity. That’s not the case in the Netherlands.
I think it’s the better approach.
I also have my own opinion about it. We have voices that said “oh, we need to increase this”, but also voices – like my own – that say it’s much more of an individual choice to act as a Mason in the West. For me, this indirectly means that I try to live as a good person, and that includes charity – but it’s my own choice. In the Netherlands it’s not, per se, a charity organization.
This is why I applied for membership in a Lodge in the Netherlands. It’s quite different from the British Freemasonry or other European countries. From my international Masonic experience I have noticed differences between Eastern and Western European Freemasonry, between South and North America. What kind of Freemasonry do you think is closer to what Freemasonry should be?
That’s a good question. I’m not an expert in Freemasonry, I’m an expert in understanding human behaviour and advise multinationals on how to apply this, so most likely you have much more international experience. So maybe you could explain what the “flavours” are, what you see as differences between European and North American or South American Freemasonry.
In North America it’s charity, in South America I can say it’s a social movement. In Cuba, for example, they have thousand of Brethren who are very socially involved. In Italy they are also involved in the life of the society, they have a strong voice regarding the political movements, regarding the political decisions. In Europe it’s more philosophical, in the UK it’s formal, in my opinion, and charity-oriented. In the Netherlands it’s not so charity-oriented. It’s very interesting. Anyway, Concord Lodge in Rotterdam is a very, very international Lodge. I met there Brethren from all over the world. It’s very interesting, with their social backgrounds, with their cultural backgrounds. The atmosphere in the Lodge is very fraternal, I can say. I don’t find this in any other Grand Lodges.
I can’t judge about that. Recently, in Jerusalem, I’ve met 40-50 Grand Masters from all over the world so I know a little bit about the differences, as you stated, as well, but I can’t give an opinion about what it should be. I think it’s not up to me to answer that question. If it works for the Brethren there, then it works for them. The cultural aspects are also very important in this, and I’m from a different culture. I can only answer this as a Brother, and how I perceive it myself and what works for me. For me it has nothing to do with business, it has nothing to do with charity. It has to do with the method of getting to know myself, with the help of my Brethren and the help of symbols and rituals. For me, that’s where the focus is about – how can I, or how can we, apply what we learn? How can we apply in our life what we learn from our moral system and our rituals? As I explained, for me personally it means I try to act with this moral system in my private life and my business life as well. For me that’s what it’s about. The other things, like business etc., have nothing to do with Freemasonry, in the way I perceive it. Working with these rituals and applying the knowledge of this moral system is super hard work already. You have to stay curious all the time, sincere all the time, and that’s hard work. We’re all human beings, and to continually do this, to be listening to others – not to answer, but really listen to someone – that is difficult enough! I don’t have time left for charity and business. That’s my personal view on it: work with the symbolism, work with the rituals and apply them as good as you can.
What is the most difficult problem facing Freemasonry today?
Unfortunately we live in times of high complexity, which means that there no single problems anymore. Most problems are intertwined with other problems. But to generalize a bit I think, from an external perspective, you have fake news, conspiracy theories, many people have the feeling of polarization, which is of course amplified by algorithms. Those, I think, are problems against Freemasonry. You see also a lot of conspiracy theories about Freemasonry which are complete nonsense. So that’s from an external perspective. I think also that the individualized society has raised generations of human beings that really focus on “IWWIWWIWI”, meaning “I want what I want when I want it”. People want things fast, they want it now, they want it when they want it. If you become a Mason, you need to have an open mind, you need time to grow, to reflect – it’s the opposite of fast, fast, fast. It’s actually something that has to grow. Those are external factors that, I think, could create a problem for Freemasonry.
Internally, I think perhaps our egos could create a problem for Freemasonry. Maybe we take on Masonic responsibilities or roles based on a perceived status, for example, instead of saying “I want to become a Grand Master to serve the people or to make sure that others grow intellectually as well”. I think there is always a danger in there, also because we have – at least speaking for Europe or the Netherlands – an older demographic. We know from research, with all the generations, that the older you become, the less flexible you become, it’s easier to lose curiosity, for example. So, yes, that could sometimes be a threat as well: that we forget that we always are an Entered Apprentice, and that we should remain an Entered Apprentice as well. These are some of the problems we face, I think.
The public perception of Freemasonry has changed over time. What has led to these variations? A good public perception results in an increase in the number of members.
I think fake news, conspiracy theories, polarization are amplified due to technology, and I think that’s why the public perception has changed also over time. I think we are also currently having a trust issue on a much more global scale. There’s been a decline in trust since 2008, then in 2017 there was even more decline, according to Edelman. So there’s a trust issue, and perhaps for a lot of people it’s unclear what we stand for in an understandable manner.
Again, if you Google “Freemasonry” you see all these people in strange clothing, you see conspiracy theories etc. It’s really hard, then, for people to understand what it’s about. I think that’s how perception forms. You need open-minded people with whom you can have a decent conversation and explain “hey, it’s actually not what you think it’s about, it’s actually about the opposite of what you think”. Technology has a big part in this as well, when it comes to fake news etc.
How do you see the future of Freemasonry?
For me, personally, it’s positive. The analysis that we’ve done was actually showing that the essence is extremely relevant, even more relevant in today’s society than before, because we face a lot of different challenges, very complex challenges. Freemasonry gives people a sort of guidance as well, helps find a moral compass, and it’s a method, a system that has proven over hundreds of years that it works. Therefore, it fits perfectly in today’s Zeitgeist. But again, with regards to the form which is visible, I think we will have a decrease in numbers globally because we are not able to yet show our relevance in today’s society. Most probably we will see a decrease and, maybe it’s strange to say it, but I don’t believe that’s necessarily a problem. Sometimes I think you need to get smaller, adapt to the changing circumstances, then rise again, like a Phoenix. I’d rather have 20 Brethren that I work with, with whom I share a variety of opinions and respect for our system, than having 50 Brothers who are actually coming only for a nice glass of wine and chit-chat about business and so on. I, personally, am very positive about the future of Freemasonry. That does not mean that we will see growth everywhere in the coming years.
What lessons should be learned from the pandemic period? How did Freemasonry in the Netherlands overcome the pandemic?
Maybe it’s good to explain one important difference between the Netherlands and other countries. I know the Netherlands is one of the few countries where we also do what we call “kompariren” in Dutch, I think it’s from Latin “compare” – next to our ritual we have evenings where we sit together and discuss topics together in a really structured manner. That’s something we have specifically in the Netherlands. We discuss topics together with Brethren and show different perspectives on one topic and learn from each other: “hey, this is your perspective, I can take this home”. We can disagree, we don’t have to convince someone else. We share perspective so that we get richer, actually, and think about it. That’s a very important thing we do in the Netherlands.
When the pandemic came, we had the same problems as everyone, we couldn’t be together. Of course, we went digital, as much as possible, but to do a Ritual digitally was not possible for most Lodges. But we still had this system in the Netherlands where we could come together digitally and at least have some room to discuss these topics. Therefore, I think it made it a little bit easier in the Netherlands compared to maybe some other countries that were only performing the Rituals. Most went digital, but of course it was a tough time because it’s a social system: you need to be together and you want to be together. There’s a complete difference between having a digital conversation, like we have now, versus a physical conversation. It was hard, we lost members, but we actually new members as well, so we’re doing quite well currently. Especially for the Entered Apprentices I think it was tough. They missed guidance, they’d just started and then all of a sudden they had this pandemic. But we learned many things: that we like to be together (physically too), but we also learned that we are flexible, we are able to set up digital meetings etc. That was also very interesting to see. In some Lodges it worked better than in others, of course.
Finally, Kees, please let us know your CV, both Masonic and profane.
I’ve been a Mason for seven years. In my Lodge I’ve been the Tyler and I think the Organist, but of course with digital music. I currently am Junior Warden in my Lodge. In my business life, I am heading a consultancy, it’s called Trends Active. I am a consultant mainly for multinationals all over the world and I guide my customers in staying more relevant and meaningful towards the future. I am specialized – or, rather, we are specialized – in changing the behaviour of human beings and companies come to us when they are developing new strategies or innovations, products, services etc. and we advise on how to align with the needs of people in order to develop more relevant products, services, strategies etc.
Thank you very much, Kees.
Thank you too, Claudiu!