AA Sponsor Background and Insight
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an organization that is known worldwide, as is the term AA sponsor. However, beyond the fact that its reason for existence is to help those struggling with alcohol addiction, the public at large misunderstands many aspects of AA. For instance, although due to its roots there is certainly a spiritual aspect, Alcoholics Anonymous does not "push’"religion on its members. Also, the essence of AA is that is is a "mutual aid fellowship" rather than attendees getting help from instructors.
Deeply rooted in this latter concept is the existence of ‘sponsors’ as an integral part of the AA process. Like the organization itself, the idea of sponsorship is one that many are familiar with but are unaware of the specifics. A sponsor goes far beyond the person a recovering alcoholic will call in times of trouble, or that will help organize an intervention in the event of a relapse. In this article, we’ll demystify both what exact a sponsor is as well as insight on what to look for in and how to be a good sponsor. A good starting point would be AA’s genesis, which was itself a result of the yet-unnamed concept of sponsorship!
The History of AA
The very beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous can be traced to the Christian organization known as The Oxford Group. This organization was formed around the belief that all life's problems (including alcoholism) are due to individual "fear and selfishness," and can be solved by surrendering to "God’s Plan." Group member Ebby Thacher was a former alcoholic who credited his sobriety to the fact he had "got religion." He reached out to his friend Bill Wilson, who was struggling with addiction himself. Aware that Wilson was not religious, Thacher suggested his friend form his own idea of God – a "higher power." In short order, Wilson gave up drinking for good.
Soon, Wilson was recruiting other alcoholics to The Oxford Group in hopes of helping them achieve sobriety. However, during his own process, he had become religious himself and made this the crux of his work with alcoholics, with little success. When it was suggested he focus more on the "science" of achieving sobriety, everything changed. On a 1935 trip to Akron, Ohio, he met a "hopeless alcoholic" named Robert Smith. Using his new approach, Wilson’s ‘sponsorship helped Smith become and stay sober.
Smith, Wilson, and others put all they had learned into a book that was published in 1939: Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism. Thanks to this title, the as-yet nameless organization now had a name! Unfortunately, like many quickly-growing groups, there soon began to be infighting and disagreements on how AA should be structured, run, financed, and presented. Knowing the danger this presented, Wilson developed the "Twelve Traditions," which established Alcoholics Anonymous as an “an altruistic, unaffiliated, non-coercive, and non-hierarchical” organization that would not seek publicity. These are not another name for the twelve steps, but rather an outline of how twelve-step programs like AA should be run. This structuring has certainly been successful. In 1940, AA’s membership stood at 2,000 – all in the United States. Today, there are an estimated 2.1 million members, with 1.3 million of them located in the US.
The beginning of this international organization that has helped millions of people throughout the years was undoubtedly two men co-sponsoring each other. This does not only refer to Wilson and Smith. For the rest of his life, Wilson referred to Thacher as "his sponsor," even though Thacher was not able to stay consistently sober and was a notoriously obnoxious drunk. This speaks to the idea that sponsorship is a two-way street, and explains why sponsors will often thank their sponsee for helping to keep them sober.
The History of Sponsorship
It’s interesting to note that in the original Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism "The Big Book," as it is also known, the terms "sponsor" and "sponsorship" are not used. But the concept was certainly already an important part of AA, as evidenced by an entire chapter titled "Working With Others."
This seventh chapter provides guidelines for those attempting to help other alcoholics. Throughout the chapter, the writers warn against “talk[ing] down to an alcoholic from any moral or spiritual hilltop” or “start[ing] out as an evangelist or reformer." Instead, they suggest that one “make it emphatic that he does not have to agree with your conception of God” and “[i]f he thinks he can do the job in some other way, or prefers some other spiritual approach, encourage him to follow his own conscience.”
A Manual for AA
The year after Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism was published, A Manual for AA was released. This pamphlet explicitly spoke of sponsors, with its official description being “a practical guide for new members and sponsors of new members of Alcoholics Anonymous.” While much of the information is directed towards newcomers, sponsors are given certain directives as well. These include assuming full responsibility of the newcomer and teaching him certain basics like the twelve steps.
There were certainly issues with this early pamphlet. Even though the "Big Book" suggested letting non-religious new members define their own idea of a "Higher Power," A Manual for AAexhorted the sponsor to ensure the newcomer acquired a copy of the Bible and other religious reading material. In fact, it is suggested that newcomers repeatedly read Alcoholics Anonymous that it becomes a “second bible.” Unfortunately, it was also explicitly said that the pamphlet was meant for men only. In fact, the writers go so far as to claim that the presence of women (including spouses or family members) is likely to make men lose their focus on sobriety and ability to properly complete the tasks necessary for success.
A.A. Sponsorship... Its Opportunities and Its Responsibilities
In 1944, a new pamphlet was published specifically for sponsors. Initially titled AA Sponsorship...Its Obligations and Its Responsibilities,its name was slightly modified to the more appealing AA Sponsorship... Its Opportunities and Its Responsibilities. In this new manual, the references to the Bible and other religious material were removed – in part to make AA more welcoming to Catholic alcoholics, since A Manual for AA recommended Protestant reading material and their version of the Bible (the King James version). Instead, there is a more inclusive approach to spirituality:
Since the belief of a Power greater than oneself is the heart of the AA plan, and since this idea is very often difficult for a new man, the sponsor should attempt to introduce the beginnings of an understanding of this all-important feature.
This pamphlet gives guidelines on how to discern if an alcoholic may be a good candidate for AA, telling the sponsor to figure out the following:
- [Does] the man really [have] a drinking problem?
- Does he know he has a problem?
- Does he want to do something about his drinking?
- Does he want help?
The pamphlet gives a more specific road map to the onboarding process – that is, how to make the newcomer comfortable with the idea of AA, the process and his relationship with the sponsor. It also laid out the most effective way to introduce the newcomer to the Twelve Steps and the Four Absolutes (Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness, and Absolute Love). It suggests that the sponsor explain AA to the newcomer’s family, and invite them to meetings.
Though there have been many revisions, this pamphlet is still very much in use throughout Alcoholics Anonymous. However, its author, Clarence Snyder, has become a polarizing figure to some AA members. Later in his life, he became extremely religious, and this greatly affected the content of his high-profile presentation at meetings and retreats. Many members consider his direction to be the only way to go, while others are wary of the Christian religiosity he eventually inserted into the sponsorship conversation.
Questions and Answers on Sponsorship
This pamphlet, published in 1976, is considered by many to be the authoritative document on AA sponsorship and has seen many revisions throughout the years. This document differs in that it offers a far less narrow approach to sponsorship, with a strong focus on humility, flexibility and considering the best way to help the sponsored person in question. Important points raised include:
- There is no superior class or caste of sponsors in AA
- The sponsor and the sponsored meet as equals
- Encourages and helps the newcomer to attend a variety of AA meetings — to get a number of viewpoints and interpretations of the AA program
- Quickly admits, “I don’t know” when that is the case and helps the newcomer find a good source of information
- Never tries to impose personal views on the newcomer. A good sponsor who is an atheist does not try to persuade a religious newcomer to abandon faith, nor does a religious sponsor argue theological matters with an agnostic newcomer
- An AA sponsor does not offer professional services such as those provided by counselors, the legal, medical or social work communities, but may sometimes help the newcomer to access professional help if assistance outside the scope of AA is needed
- The sponsor who lends money to a newcomer does so at risk and may even be slowing down the new person’s progress toward sobriety. The newcomer who turns to AA for money, clothes, or assurance of employment is coming to the wrong place for the wrong thing
- Sponsorship doesn’t mean forcing any specific interpretation of AA; many alcoholics maintain sobriety without personal belief
- Firmness overdone can upset a newcomer. It should be tempered with sympathy and understanding
- Regarded realistically, the slip can become a learning experience for both the person sponsored and the sponsor. Most good sponsors emphasize that people who have slipped continue to be welcome in AA.
Clearly, this pamphlet takes a markedly different approach in explaining sponsorship than earlier documents. This is no doubt a result of decades of learning – not only from experience but the advancing understanding of addiction and human psychology in general. Aspiring sponsors should certainly read all the information available to them, but this particular pamphlet is certainly the most in-depth. Most would also agree that the firm-but-compassionate approach suggested here is likely to be the most effective.
Succeeding As a Sponsor
If you are a long-standing AA member who is considering becoming a sponsor, one thing is clear: the right approach to sponsorship differs from case to case. Each sponsored person comes in with a different personality, different preconceptions, and differing responses to how you may approach them. Your first steps should be to gather as much information as you can on sponsorship – both from reading available material and speaking with experienced sponsors.
With the guidelines you will have now acquired in hand, the next step will be to build a relationship with your sponsored person and understand them and their unique situation better. At first, it’s wise not to make any assumptions about them or the best way to approach your sponsorship. Instead, spend most of your time listening. Give them the knowledge of the basics, and let them know about your experience, being clear that you do not assume theirs is or will be the same. As time goes by, it will become clear how best you can help you achieve and maintain sobriety.
If you’re a newcomer looking for your first sponsor, don’t force the issue. Through participation in meetings and integration into the community, you’ll meet many individuals (or have them introduced to you). In most cases, newcomers come into contact with someone they instinctively feel may be a good sponsor. While many individuals go on to have a lifelong relationship with their first sponsor, others will find that they need to find a better fit. This is completely normal, and an important part of successfully navigating the program.
One thing for both parties to remember is that they are each helping the other party to remain sober. Understanding that the relationship is mutually beneficial maintains an important humility on the sponsor’s part and a feeling of worth for the sponsored person at a time where he or she truly needs it.
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