Group Conscience Meetings

The How It Works groups began in December, 1990, in Vancouver as a result of a group conscience meeting. Using the same format, the Palm Springs group was started on October 10, 1991. At the initial meeting of each of these HIW groups, a vote was taken to determine the name of the group, how many meetings would be held each day, the meeting times, the meeting format, the rotating committee members, and voluntary service positions. Those internal processes, principles, and practices of the HIW group have evolved over time, but all changes have been voted upon at formal group conscience meetings.

Prior to its formal creation, most of the founding members of the HIW group had been attending a series of Big Book study meetings, which included the use of audio tapes and “step sheets.” The study meetings had been initiated in 1988 by a member from Canada. His story is critical to understanding the importance placed on group conscience meetings by the How It Works group.

Like many alcoholics, his rather casual initial choice of which A.A. meetings to attend was made upon a recommendation from a friend. In this case, a friend of his mother suggested the St. Vital Group in Winnipeg, Canada. There, our friend met a man who had gone blind two weeks after he sobered up. From this humble man he learned much about the A.A. program. But he also learned that his blind friend was only capable of teaching what he knew. And what he knew was based on his own limited experience. Our friend also found that even though hopeless alcoholics seeking help were streaming in the front door of the St. Vital group, just as many were pouring out the back door. For a variety of reasons, the group didn’t offer a program of action that held their attention long enough to help them find the A.A. solution to their problem of alcoholism. His experience led him to seek alternatives to the approach taken by the St. Vital Group.

In 1979, he was involved in a group conscience process that resulted in the creation of The First Step Group of Winnipeg, Canada. His experience there helped lead the Palm Springs members to create the How It Works group by holding their own group conscience meeting. As explained above, those early members took a vote on everything that went into the formation of the group. They also voted in a process that required that any changes, no matter how simple, needed to be voted upon in subsequent and regularly scheduled group conscience meetings. The intent of the group conscience process, then and now, was to emphasize the unity of the group. The group conscience process allows all of the members working together to accomplish what they could not do alone. It also expands the usefulness of the group and its members to newcomers.

A group conscience meeting is held once a month in the group clubroom or regular meeting place. For example, since its inception the Palm Springs How It Works group has scheduled the meeting on the last Thursday evening of the month. It is held in place of the “traditions” meeting that would otherwise take place. The meeting is held during regularly scheduled hours to avoid the possibility that a small group of people could “call a meeting” to be held during unusual hours or at a secret meeting place. The objective, obviously, is to insure that everyone is given the opportunity to become an equal member of the larger group.

Items to be discussed at the group conscience meeting are written on a board in the clubroom. Virtually anything can, and has, become the topic of discussion. Examples include extremely critical issues such as which, if any, prayers are to be used to open and close regular meetings, whether to allow children and pets to attend meetings, changes in meeting times, changes in step sheets, and annual and semi-annual elections of rotating committee members. Other examples involve such matters as window coverings in the clubroom and the placement of furniture at meetings. A review of early group conscience minutes reveals such seemingly trivial items as payment of $0.25 for a “donated” can opener, whether to encourage members to bring their own mugs to reduce the use of purchased Styrofoam cups, and whether or not to hang “donated” mirrors in the bathroom or a clock in the clubroom. As these examples illustrate, not every issue taken up at the group conscience meeting is earthshaking. But as many members will attest, the decision taken on August 27, 1992 to provide real (liquid) cream for coffee drinkers, proved to be immensely important with respect to making the clubroom attractive to both long-time members and newcomers. Thus we see that every suggested change is important enough to be given group consideration. This assures us the ability to hear the voice of the group conscience and enhances the unity of the group.

To repeat, the whole point of the group conscience process is to allow everyone to be an equal member of the group and not to have designated or self-appointed “decision-makers” run the show. The group conscience process also protects individual members from falling into the trap of living by “self-propulsion.” As explained on pp. 60-62 of Alcoholics Anonymous, the self-appointed “director” tends only to produce “confusion rather than harmony.” And the other “actors” are all likely to “retaliate.” The group conscience process, to the contrary, emphasizes the unity of the group as a whole. The following stories about the selection of the Cake Night song and the opening and closing prayers at the daily meetings illustrate both the power and unity implicit in the group conscience process.

The song, I Want to Fly, has been part of cake night since the beginning of the How It Works group, but how it came to be selected offers important insight into the strength of the emphasis on the group conscience. The history is paraphrased from the story told by a founding member. In the early 1980s, he had been a member of two different groups which used the song Why Me, Lord? for Cake Night. The song had Christian overtones to it but most members seemed to like it. Overtime, however, the membership of one of the groups, the First Step Group, became more diverse, including some of the Jewish faith. The references to Jesus Christ in the song began to raise some controversy but there was no consensus to jettison it for another. Indeed, in 1982-83 the rotating committee of the First Step Group decided to substitute the song Amazing Grace at a specific cake night without benefit of a group conscience meeting or even letting the group know in advance. That didn’t go over very well with most members and one person specifically complained that she “had waited a year to hear the song ‘Why Me, Lord?’, only to be disappointed when they played something else.”

At the next group conscience meeting the issue was brought to a head and the song “Why Me, Lord?” was reselected by the group over the clear preference of the rotating committee. The entire membership of the rotating committee, acting like the bleeding deacons described on pp. 132-135 of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, quit and started their own group. It is not clear what happened to that group, but the First Step Group continued without missing a beat.

In 1988, the controversy came up again. It was at the point where the membership of the group was so large and diverse that a lot of people were being affected by it. A member of the group had written the song, “I Want to Fly.” A group conscience meeting of the First Step group decided to try it out along with some others by well known artists. After the smoke cleared “I Want to Fly” was selected by the group conscience as the new Cake Night song of the First Step Group. It was subsequently selected and affirmed as the Cake Night song at the first group conscience meeting of the How It Works group on October 10, 1991.

Another example of the unity of the group and its desire to present a unified message taken from the Big Book,Alcoholics Anonymous, is the selection of the opening and closing prayers for each meeting. The following example also illustrates a group conscience procedure involving the temporary adoption of new ideas, with a typical time for experimentation of three months.

For over ten years, the HIW group used the Serenity Prayer to open up the meeting and the Lord’s Prayer to close the meeting. This practice seemed to work for most members. However, one day one of our fellow members asked where these prayers could be found in the Big Book. Of course, they weren’t there. Not surprisingly, a lengthy and sometimes heated discussion ensued. But, as usual, the matter became the topic of a group conscience meeting. Following a lively debate, and upon approval at a regularly scheduled group conscience meeting, the practice was altered. The group voted to experiment with a three month trial, using the Step Three prayer (A.A., p. 63) to open meetings and the Step Seven prayer (A.A., p. 76) to close them. Three months later, at the group conscience meeting which came at the end of the trial period, the experience with the prayers was discussed and once again put to a vote. The vote was unanimous and they were adopted for permanent use.

Third Step Prayer: “God, I offer myself to Thee–to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of Life. May I do Thy will always!”

Seventh Step Prayer: “My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen”

In actual practice, the group conscience process is straight forward. New issues or suggestions for change may be posted to the board by any member of the group prior to the rotating committee member business meeting. (Nothing can be added to the board after the business meeting – any additions after the business meeting will be left on the board for the next month’s group conscience meeting.) Individuals raising an issue or making a suggestion must identify themselves. Self-identification makes it possible for others to know who to contact if they want more information about the question or proposal. A suggestion may be removed from the board only by the person posting the message. For example, he or she may have received clarification or elaboration from another group member that leads to a retraction or reconsideration. Self-identification is also important because it is expected that he or she will make a formal motion at the group conscience meeting and be available to answer any questions that may arise during the group’s discussion. The individual may, however, designate a stand-in representative in the event of necessary absence from the scheduled group conscience meeting.

Some, but not necessarily all of the new suggestions and ideas posted on the board will be topics of discussion at the monthly rotating committee members’ business meeting. This meeting is attended by people who have been voted upon and are currently holding voluntary positions on various committees (e.g., Chairperson, Literature Rep., Treasurer, Supply Person; see Appendix III for a complete listing of committee assignments and duty list). In order to allow committee members to seek clarification or elaboration prior to the group conscience meeting, the rotating committee members’ business meeting is generally held two nights before the scheduled group conscience meeting. However, no binding action or vote takes place at the rotating committee members’ business meeting. Quite the contrary! The whole point is that every issue or suggestion for change will be voted on at the group conscience level. This practice emphasizes the HIW adherence to AA Tradition #2: “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” (AA, p. 562)

Although no specific rules are applied, general practice calls for each topic to be presented to the group in the form of a motion, followed by a second. The logic or intent of the proposal is explained by the person making the motion. Thereafter, an open discussion takes place and, following the discussion, each motion is voted on by the group. Each motion is voted upon by a show of hands – all for – all against. Although our experience is that most motions are decided by unanimous or near-unanimous approval or disapproval, the democratic principle of “majority rules” governs when necessary. The group conscience meeting continues until all suggested topics have been discussed and voted upon (or otherwise appropriately handled). The meeting is ended by a member’s motion to close followed by a second, and a vote on the motion. If time allows, the group then proceeds into a regular open discussion meeting guided by the appropriate daily reading, following the regular meeting format. Minutes of the group conscience meeting are posted on the bulletin board and remain posted until the next meeting.

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