It’s an oft-repeated joke around our lodge: How do you eat an elephant? We tell it to newly made Entered Apprentices when they’re overwhelmed with learning proficiency, etiquette, names, titles, meeting times, and everything that comes with being a new member. We repeat it to the Worshipful Master when he has the inevitable mid-year freak out about how much he still wants to accomplish before the year is over and he is asked to retire to the sidelines. But for the purpose of this article, it’s a phrase that our Temple Board states at every meeting, every gathering, and every working day we hold.
Our Masonic Temple was built in 1934 and was (at the time) a state-of-the-art building. The building was purpose-built for Freemasonry and even includes a hidden room that you can only enter by being lowered into it for the York Rite degrees (shhh, don’t tell anyone, it’s not even on the blueprints). Every aspect of the building was designed for comfort during meetings, for providing a strong impression on candidates during degree work, and for being a family-friendly location for all of the various groups who meet here.
Having said that… our Temple was built in 1934. The walls are horsehair plaster, the oldest electrical is still cotton wrapped, and the years have not always been kind. Maintenance has varied from “we must do everything possible to take care of this building” to “who can we hire to fix this?” to “we can’t afford to fix it, maybe if we don’t look it will stop?”
A few years back, when our building was hemorrhaging money faster than we could replace it, and things were falling apart faster than we could afford to fix them, two enterprising brothers had a “revolutionary” idea – why are we paying someone to do a lot of this work, when we can do it ourselves?
In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? Why pay hundreds of dollars a month for lawn maintenance, when we all have lawn mowers, fertilizer spreaders, and access to all of the same types of yard care equipment that the “professionals” have. Sure, it may take us a bit longer because we’re using smaller mowers, smaller spreaders, and nothing that we can ride on, but there’s no reason we can’t spend the time to take care of a property we love so much.
So these two brothers made a plan; Saturday mornings, they would meet up at the building, and work on cleaning up the yard themselves. If anybody else happened to be around and wanted to help, they’d be welcomed with open arms and pointed in a direction to work.
That first year, we saved thousands of dollars on yard care. That same year, we also established a Capital Improvement & Repairs fund, that could be tapped for emergencies… and there are always emergencies.
Once summer was over, and the yard work was done for the year, the brothers (who, by now, were quite more than just two) didn’t want to stop coming down on Saturday mornings and decided to turn their attention to the inside of the building. After all, there were hundreds of little problems that we could fix ourselves, like leaky plumbing, flickering lights, crumbling plaster… Once they really started looking around the building, it became nearly overwhelming how much work had to be done, but how do you eat an elephant?
Over the course of that winter, the tenants of the building started noticing changes. Problems they had complained about for years were getting fixed. Some parts of the building would suddenly become inaccessible for a time as they were shut down for refurbishment. A building that was feeling old and tired was suddenly trying to spring back to life, one small area at a time. Even more importantly, brothers from across the four lodges who call the building home were working together, cooperating, learning, and laughing in the process.
Our building’s Eastern Star chapter noticed it too and wanted to help out, but most of them didn’t feel comfortable doing electrical work on a live circuit while dangling off a wooden ladder 15+ feet in the air (and yes, that HAS happened, don’t tell OSHA), so they turned their focus to the large kitchen and started making breakfast for us while we were working. I want to be very clear that they VOLUNTEERED for this, at no point did we ask, but they felt it was the best way they could contribute to the work, and we are incredibly grateful to Electa Chapter #8 for providing us excellent food every week while we’re working.
Within a few years, what began as two guys trying to save us a bit of money on yard maintenance has turned into a rotating team of twenty to thirty brothers and sisters who will come in for various projects, great fellowship, and amazing breakfasts. On any given Saturday, you may find one or two guys ripping into some plumbing issue, while another small team is repairing plaster and repainting, another group is cleaning up woodwork and yet another group is outside working on a pavement issue. If you come down, you will be put to work, and you may end up heading up a project if you are particularly good at something.
My own experience has been so varied I don’t even know where to begin. When I was added as a representative to the Temple Board, they immediately made me the IT Director because I have some (very VERY limited) experience with it, and have tasked me with projects as varied as covering the entire building with WiFi, to rewiring the lighting to be smart accessible, to installing security cameras, and my current project of putting speaker systems and Bluetooth receivers into both of our lodge rooms so people can hear better. I have learned how to plaster from Don, an 86-year-old man who is very active in the Eastern Star but has just become active in the lodge over the past few years because he made so many friends while working. I learned maintenance of our aging boiler system from Matt, a 49-year-old man who constantly surprises me with the depth of his knowledge of obscure things. I’ve learned yard maintenance from Joe, electrical from Mike, and painting from Lynn, and what we don’t know we learn and teach each other. More importantly, we’ve all learned better teamwork and leadership, which we take back to our lodges and chapters to improve them as well.
The Capital Improvements fund has come in handy more than once when we’ve had to replace air conditioners, lay new carpeting, and hire other similar projects that were just too big for experience and time to handle. We’ve gone from passing the hat each month to having an investment manager working to tell us the best timing to take on big new projects.
So why am I telling you all of this? Is it just to brag about how amazing things are going for us, and make you wish you were us too? Of course not, although I am very proud of what we’ve accomplished. It’s to teach you something very important that you can use in your own lodge: how do you eat an elephant? Nothing we have done is unique, or requires much knowledge beyond “Alexa, how do I replace a sink?”
Think of the projects your lodge would like to accomplish. It could be building-related like what I’ve listed above, but it could easily be “have more active members” or “be visible in the public” or “add education to every meeting”. Regardless of the project, if it’s worth doing it should seem overwhelming and impossible to accomplish. As an easy example, take “have more active members”; what are you going to give these members to do to be active? Where are you going to get them? If you bring in new members, you’re going to need people who can do all of the degree work, mentors to work with them, food and drink, and time. When you write down everything that you’ll need to have in place to make it happen, you should be freaked out by it, and if you aren’t… set your sights higher.
Or maybe you’re looking at something more personal, like learning a new lecture, weight loss, or quitting smoking. How about building up your skills to earn a promotion at work? Buying a house? It’s time for you to look inward and begin asking yourself the big questions: who are you and what do you want? To quote every meeting of salespeople I’ve ever sat through, find out the why and no how will stop you.
Whatever you’re looking at accomplishing, I know you can do it, but you have to start. Remember: two guys who said “we can mow the yard ourselves” have now, over the years we’ve been working, saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars by doing it ourselves, have taught dozens of men new skills, and forged friendships across lodges that barely talked to each other before even though we were in THE SAME BUILDING.
Hundreds of thousands of Entered Apprentices over history have left their first degree thinking “I’ll never learn all of this” and gone on to do amazing things in Freemasonry. Thousands of new Worshipful Masters have sat down with a plan of what they’d like to get done, and believed they could never do it all, while going on to bring massive improvements across their lodge, and I bet if we were to sit down with some Grand Masters they would tell you the same thing.
One of those two men I told you about is now turning his eye on our York Rite, being able to do all of the degree work ourselves without needing to send our brothers to a festival, and I have zero doubt that he will accomplish it. I know I’ll be there helping in any way I can, which gives us two, and that’s enough to make massive changes, especially when we start with something small, like “Let’s get a team together who can do the Mark Master degree”. I fully expect that if you check back with us in a few years, you’ll find a fully functioning degree team running all of the York Rite degrees and orders in-house.
In the meantime, you’ll still find us on Saturday mornings, repairing plaster, repainting decades-old paint, and discussing new projects we’d like to tackle. In between all of the laughing, teaching, and occasional swearing at some unexpected problem, you might just hear some ritual practice happening too. Quite a few newer members have been able to pass their proficiency because of what they’ve learned while we were pulling new electrical lines.
But I really should at least tell you the rest of the joke… How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.