Digital membership could draw younger members to aging order, leaders say
DETROIT — The Knights of Columbus know that a digital experience can’t replicate the benefits of full, brotherhood-based membership in the 135-year-old fraternal Catholic men’s organization.
But that doesn’t mean the Internet can’t be a good starting point.
In a significant change, the Knights announced in January a pilot program allowing eligible Catholic men to join the organization online, an alternative to the traditional, council-based membership that has marked the Knights’ initiation process for decades.
The program, which debuted Feb. 5 in Michigan, has been rolled out in 21 states and two Canadian provinces so far, said Matthew St. John, online membership director for the Knights’ Supreme Council in New Haven, Conn.
The initiative will allow interested Catholic men a chance to experience some of the benefits of Knighthood without the commitment of joining a local council, St. John told The Michigan Catholic.
“This has been talked about for a long time, and the program reached a zenith in its idea phase in November of last year,” St. John said. “The reason is simple: life has changed.”
“We don’t see it as a change of our identity or process or of our councils, but as an opportunity for some men — men who are right for this initiative — to come on board, join the ranks and see where we can go together from there,” St. John said.
Online membership isn’t the same as — nor does it replace — traditional, degree-based membership. By joining online, members are officially part of the Knights’ state division and have access to Knights of Columbus resources such as Columbia magazine, insurance products and opportunities to become involved in local projects and events of their choosing, but do not belong to any particular council.
“We as an organization think we have a lot to offer Catholic men and their families,” St. John said. “A lot of us do a lot of things online, and if we can give them online membership as a first step toward committed, lifelong, council-based membership in the order, then that’s a great way for us to meet them where they are.”
Traditionally, membership in the Knights involves initiation in one of four “degrees.” The first, or “initiation,” degree, happens when a member joins a local council, followed by a second “formation” degree, and finally, full Knighthood in the third degree. Members who wish to go further can join the patriotic “fourth degree,” which is represented in part by the Knights’ highly visible color corps.
While online members don’t yet take their first degree, the hope is eventually men who join online will become involved in a local council, said Ken Krause, state membership director for the Knights of Columbus in Michigan.
“By doing online membership, a man can dip his toe in the water before he jumps in, so to speak,” said Krause, who belongs to Council 5981 out of St. Mary, Queen of Creation Parish in New Baltimore. “They will be able to see what we do, the programs we offer, and hopefully they’ll say, ‘This is an organization I’d like to get more involved in.’”
As of Feb. 12, the Knights of Columbus have 65,312 members in Michigan, with 26,843 Knights in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Those numbers represent a modest increase from last year — thanks in part to vigorous recruiting efforts — with 1,068 new members gained statewide compared to 651 losses since July 1.
“We’re going up, but I’d like to see those losses not be as high as they are,” Krause said. “When you consider that the average age of a Knight in Michigan is 62, that means we have a number of guys in their 90s. We’ve had close to 200 deaths in the last two months. That’s why we tell councils, if you want to stay viable and make your donations and help your parish, you need to bring in new members, and especially young members.”
While Krause cited newer councils at Western Michigan University and SS. John and Paul Parish in Washington Township as examples of robust — and younger — membership growth in Michigan, he acknowledged the benefits a 21st century model of recruitment could bring for the order.
“Millennials tend not to get involved in organized religions like the Catholic Church,” Krause said. “We’re hoping if young Catholic men give us a chance, they’ll see that it’s more than just church things. It’s community service, working with youth and families, and an array of things they can do. We’re hoping they’ll say, ‘Hey, this is something I’d like to invest some of my time in.’ Maybe it’s one more pathway to heaven.”
St. John said the online membership initiative is the fruit of many listening sessions, surveys and discussions with local and national leadership, but ultimately, it’s about responding to changing realities.
“Younger people tend to be more transient in their earlier years,” St. John said. “They’re not going to lay down roots somewhere if they just came out of college or are in their first job, and they might be reluctant to join a council if they don’t know where they’re going to be in 12 months. This is an opportunity to engage, carry their membership with them and then join a council when the opportunity is right for them and their families.”
St. John said adding a digital membership component isn’t a shift in culture or a move away from tradition, but a way to attract men to the timeless values of faith, family and tradition that have marked the Knights for generations.
“We really think for any Catholic man who is interested in doing more and being more, leading with faith, protecting their families and serving others — these are things we’ve done for 130 years,” St. John said.
Join the Knights online
To learn more about the Knights of Columbus’ online membership program, visit www.kofc.org/joinus.