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Attrition in OTO Bodies: A Response to Brother Fouts

Attrition in OTO Bodies: A Response to Brother Fouts

by Frater Entelecheia

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

My attention was recently drawn to an article on your site, OTO Initiation is a Path of Service, by Clay Fouts, Body Master of Sekhet-Maat Lodge in Portland, on the subject of attrition, service, and a unique role for Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (EGC) clergy. If we’re going to continue to grow as an organization and a movement, we need to take seriously the problem of attrition; however, in my opinion this particular post fell short of that goal.

Attrition is not a problem for all bodies

There are several problems with the analysis presented here, though the most serious ones happen in the first paragraph.

A recent discussion brought up the topic of why Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) sees so much attrition among its initiate members, especially at the more junior degrees.

The problem is that OTO is not a monolith. It is made up of many local bodies, and not all local bodies experience problems with attrition.

For example, attrition is not a huge problem at Horizon Lodge in Seattle. We currently have about 40 dues-paying members, including a core group of about 18 individuals who keep the place running as officers or ritualists, and somewhere around the same number of members of the Lovers triad. When you include Lovers from Tacoma who attend events in Seattle, the number is much higher.

A strong Lovers presence in a Valley belies the notion that attrition is a problem uniformly experienced, but what about members of the Man of Earth (MOE) degrees?

I attended my first event at Horizon in January 2014, and I joined the Order in July 2014 with two other individuals. Between then and when I took my First Degree four months later, one of those individuals dropped out. I took my First with the remaining individual and another person who had been made Minerval before me. The three of us took the Second Degree a year later with another individual who had been made a First on a previous occasion. Of the four of us, one dropped off (they’re still a member), and the remaining three took the Third Degree two weeks ago.

The pattern is similar for the cohort immediately in front of me and the cohort immediately behind me. In the last three years, of the dozen or so individuals I have seen take First Degree initiation, about two of them have dropped out.

While this is a relatively small sample size, it does show that, at least at Horizon, attrition at the MOE level has not been a problem in the last three years. I suspect this pattern has been going on for a while, and it explains why our Lovers presence is strong.

None of this is intended to show that attrition is not a problem for the Order (though it would help to see statistics to this effect). Nor do I intend to give the impression that Horizon is “better” in some abstract sense. But I feel it is necessary to give a concrete example to prove that the problem of attrition is not uniformly experienced.

Because if the problem isn’t universal—if it’s experienced by some bodies and not others—then that implies that some bodies are doing things to retain members, and other bodies are either failing to do those things, or they’re doing things to alienate their members. Or perhaps the nature of certain locations makes member retention difficult. But there’s no hope of fixing any problem unless one carefully analyzes a situation and picks out the causes.

When one asks former members why they’ve parted ways, the answers are all over the place. My own conclusions about this phenomenon I think pull the bulk of these disparate reasons together under one umbrella and offer a way that that we can do better going forward

Saying people’s answers are “all over the place” sounds a lot like saying there’s no pattern to their responses. If there’s no pattern, then there’s nothing to “pull … together,” and everything that follows is mere assertion. But if there is a pattern, then the pattern should be brought into relief and addressed constructively. A body master should be in a unique position to do this by providing examples and statistics.

Attrition is not caused by the demands or rigors of being an initiate

The author then goes on—again, without presenting any justification to the reader—to lay the problem at the feet of the “demands and rigors” of being an OTO initiate.

We retain very few Man of Earth initiates over time because very few people are intended for the demands and rigors of initiate membership in OTO … Being an OTO initiate is hard work. It’s expensive. It bonds you to your brethren (many of whom you probably won’t like on a personal level) but will alienate you from many more.

What precisely are these rigors and demands?

Each degree comes with its own oath. An oath is, technically, rigorous, and it technically makes demands of the individual. But if you can keep a desk job without getting fired or complete a degree program at a North American university, you probably already exercise the muscles of self-control required to keep an OTO oath.

Of course some people are constitutionally incapable of keeping our oaths, but this same incapacity would also make it impossible for them to engage in the kind of service advocated in the latter part of the article.

Furthermore, there’s a great deal of leniency when it comes to keeping people to their oaths. People are given many chances.

Of the MOEs I know who have dropped out—and admittedly I don’t know many—not a single one of them complained of the demands made on them by the Order, and all of them complained of the demands of life outside the Order. We “demand” that you pay dues each month and not threaten to kill people.

Given what the author believes the cause of attrition to be, I find myself unable to understand the next two sentences:

Ultimately, if people are not oriented toward service, they will leave. If they don’t understand their will as including the service of making the world more Thelemic or don’t see M∴M∴M∴ as an effective means of accomplishing that aim, they will leave.

If MOEs were dropping off due to the “expense” or the “hard work,” why would adding extra service tasks be the solution? Shouldn’t the answer be “lower initiation costs,” “lower dues,” or “expect less of MOEs”?

Service should not be the orientation of the MOE

But more fundamentally, this statement and the subsequent one regarding “M∴M∴M∴ as a training ground for service and leadership,” easily mislead the reader regarding the purpose of the MOE degrees.

The “Constitution” makes clear not only that MOEs are to take no part in the governing of the Order, but that even service is not expected of an individual prior to becoming a Lover.

The Man of Earth takes no share in the Government of the Order; for he is not yet called upon to give his life to it in service; and with us Government is Service, and nothing else.
(An Intimation with Reference to the Constitution of the Order, BAPHOMET XI°, Article 5)

The focus of the MOE is upon the individual. This is reflected in the subject matter of these degrees: the individual soul’s passage through birth, aging, and death.

Sure, MOEs can serve in the Mass, hold officer positions, write and perform rituals, wash dishes, take out the trash, initiate (in some cases), and perform any number of acts of service for the Order. Second degrees have an opportunity to engage in a temporary act of renunciation. But it’s not expected, and to make it the orientation of these degrees—even where it is not “denying the personal”—is inappropriate. The orientation of the Lovers is service. The orientation of the MOE is on the development of the MOE.

But the article contains more than misleading statements regard the MOE degrees; there are also confusing statements about the purpose of the Order itself.

The essential work of the Order is initiating members into our mysteries

Making initiates is a means to an end, not the end itself. OTO’s mission is to promulgate Thelema, that is, make the the world more Thelemic. Striving to accomplish that through the primary activity of making initiates is doomed to failure. Doomed, I say! Stop trying that route.

On the contrary, in OTO making initiates is an end in itself.

Promulgating Thelema is also an end. It’s one of the reasons we regularly perform Mass. In Seattle, it’s why we go out of our way to connect with our broader community and make almost all our events public. We recently risked controversy and held a successful fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, so strongly do we believe in the broader role of the Order.

But making initiates is one of our essential tasks as a degree-based magical fraternity. The expectation should not be that we make the world more Thelemic by making every person in the world an initiate—the author and I agree on this point—but that never was the expectation anyway.

The author complains that initiation will never appeal to the “masses,” and this motivates his claim that we “need to develop our Gnostic Catholic Church as the principal vehicle for public engagement.”

I do not deny that EGC work—particularly the Mass—is essential for public engagement. But the fact that OTO is not for everyone is not a flaw, it’s a feature.

We provide unique benefits to our members, including but not limited to the ones the author is dismissive of. This is done to create Thelemic cadre who are able to shape the world into a more Thelemic one. This is not identical with making everyone adopt the Law of Liberty. Even in an ideal case, “the slaves shall serve.” (AL II:58)

Yet rather than promoting ourselves as a service organization that initiates people in order to provide them with opportunities to become servants and leaders to themselves, their families, and within the broader community, we bill ourselves principally as a mystery school where one learns occult magic that will give people super powers. There’s an overwhelming conflation in people’s minds between our program and that of A∴A∴ (not that occult super powers is the ultimate aim of A∴A∴). Very little of our high level communications— internal or external—do anything to rectify this misperception.

We bill ourselves as a mystery school, because that’s what we are. From the Manifesto of the OTO, first sentence:

The O.T.O. is a body of initiates in whose hands are concentrated the wisdom and the knowledge of the following bodies: [long list of mystery schools] It does not include the A∴A∴, with which august body it is, however, in close alliance.
(Manifesto of the O.T.O., BAPHOMET XI°, Article 1)

We should strive to have as broad an appeal as we can. But I cannot condone either (a) intentionally or unintentionally misrepresenting ourselves or (b) changing our fundamental nature—the True Will of the Order—in order to accomplish that.

We need to think critically about appropriate roles for EGC clergy

The author then goes on to paint a picture of how EGC clergy can fulfill this role of service and create a community with lower attrition:

The church clergy help the congregation tend to its social welfare, offer counsel and guidance, and develop structured educational and worship programs. Church staff serve their congregation by nourishing the rudiments of community and providing the structures by which supple and enduring ties can form, bringing people together into smaller subgroups that coalesce around shared interests, season of life, areas of study, or community service. Church leaders help guide congregants through the educational programs, connect newcomers with other congregants with whom they may have a shared interest, maintain ongoing contact with people slipping away, and otherwise facilitate the congregation in understanding how to internalize theology and apply it practically to their lives.

To be fair, I think there’s some truth to this, and I have discussed this constellation of issues with members in Seattle. The problem is that there is more than one issue run together here.

As an Order, we do not at the moment uniformly train our clergy to tend to “social welfare,” “offer counsel and guidance,” help people with “season of life” issues, or offer other traditional pastoral services. There may be as many requirements for becoming clergy as there are Bishops right now. That makes us different from many other traditional religious organizations.

But again, is that a bug, or is it a feature?

Other religions have a concrete notion, given from on high, of what constitutes the Good Life. In Thelema, we have “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” That’s the problem I see with the spiritual counseling approach. We need to figure out as an Order where organizational training or even counseling ends and where morality begins.

Perhaps our clergy should become exemplars, not only of the content of our oaths, but documents like Liber Oz and “Duty” as well. This would constitute “demands or rigors” far exceeding any I’ve seen in the Order at my own degree, though that or a related discussion may be of genuine worth.

But however we decide those questions, as far as I can see, that does not require EGC to take up an autonomous or expanded role relative to the Order. Nor does it seem to require our clergy to fulfill roles typically assumed by a Protestant pastor.

EGC work is an aspect of what we do, along with making initiates and celebrating the feasts of our calendar. The author has not convinced me that there is any problem in our Order the answer to which is to assign EGC an autonomous or even expanded role in community-building and member-retention.

Determining the causes of low attrition

My discussions with the Lodge Master of Horizon and with a local member of the Electoral College—as well as my personal experiences—have led me to believe that the following customs are responsible for our low attrition at Horizon:

  1. We create a vision that people will commit to. That vision includes the personal enrichment of our members as well as radiating strength and beauty to the broader community through our rituals. That vision is so strong that we have members who have moved away yet who still support our work through their monthly dues. That’s how strongly our vision continues to affect them.
  2. We are deeply and consistently committed to our core work of initiations, feasts, and EGC ceremonies. People notice when you believe in what you doYour work may not be for everyone, but those attracted to it stick around longer. When I’m speaking to a newcomer who is on the fence about initiation, and I look them in the eye and tell them I think this would be a good experience for them, they know I’m telling them what I believe. Suddenly the fee for that initiation is small compared with what they may possibly gain from a unique experience. That’s impossible to do when you’re second-guessing the work or trying to portray the Order as something it’s not.
  3. We provide many ways for people to contribute to the work. There is no “Horizon way” of doing the Mass or any ritual. People are allowed to experiment within the confines of the rubric. We have members who don’t do ritual at all but who contribute in other ways. We have members who are at every event, and we have members who show up once a year. We have members who only attend classes. As I said, we have members who only pay dues. We show people the ways they can contribute, and we let them decide their level of involvement.
  4. We ask our Minervals to pay dues, and we emphasize the benefits of membership. This drives some people off, but the ones who stay experience a sense of ownership and partnership in the organization.
  5. We don’t let problems go unaddressed. Complaints are taken seriously. We encourage open disagreement in our meetings.
  6. We don’t expect to all get along. We’re a fraternity, not one big family. We come together first and foremost around the work which embodies the principles. We tolerate people forming cliques, understanding that not everyone is going to like everyone else. This leads to us having a diverse community, where not everyone is part of the same subculture. This makes it much easier for newcomers to find a niche than if we were one big family where everyone already has fixed roles.
  7. If someone drifts away or suddenly stops paying dues, the body master reaches out to them. Usually the person still wants to remain a member, but if they don’t, then it’s an opportunity to have a discussion and figure out what went wrong and either fix it or learn from it.

These are all things we do at Horizon. Again, this is not to imply that we are just “better”. I honestly don’t feel we can grow as an organization unless we’re honest about what we do well and what we do poorly. We do some of the things in this list really well, and in some cases there is much room for improvement. But which of them is truly responsible for our low attrition rate?

If you’re a member of a medium- or large-sized body, look into your own attrition rate, and then see which of these things you do or don’t do. If you’re able to, make some changes, and see how it affects your membership retention over the course of a year or two. Or if you’re already doing these things, and it doesn’t seem to help, can we figure out what’s causing that?

If Brother Fouts had approached the issue this way, I wouldn’t have written a refutation. I would have sat on the edge of my chair reading it, taking notes, and I would have brought it to our business meeting to discuss.

Growing as an Order

A body master is in a unique position to offer information and a ground-level perspective on what’s going on in the most thriving corners of our organization. We need serious reflection on what we’re doing, not assertions or expressions of embarrassment over our core ideas. This attitude seems to me both more fundamental and simpler than rebranding ourselves or expanding the role of EGC.

I understand that the original post was written with good intentions, and I hope I have sufficiently acknowledged what I see to be the truths in it. That being said, in order to grow, the Order needs its members—especially those in leadership positions—to contribute experientially based and constructive analysis.

We need to work together to come up with concrete ways to get our message out, bring people through the doors, and grow and retain our membership.

We’re not going to succeed by glossing over problems, making assertions, pretending to be something we’re not, or evading the True Will of the Order. We’re going to do it by joyously facing our successes and failures at our core work: celebrating the Mass and feasts, and creating the best Thelemites we can by initiating them into our Mysteries.

Love is the law, love under will.


This article is written by Frater Entelecheia, a member of Horizon Lodge OTO in Seattle, Washington. He has been an Order member since 2014

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One thought on “Attrition in OTO Bodies: A Response to Brother Fouts

  1. The most prolific error made by critics and onlookers of any initiatory order (especially those of Freemasonry) is the erroneous equation of attained degrees with privilege rather than service.

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