The Big Book promises that when a newcomer becomes an active supporter of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, he taps into a source of power much greater than himself (A.A., p. 163). The newcomer’s recovery is all but guaranteed if he becomes a responsible member of the group. Initially, of course, the group provides a substitute for liquor. But, more importantly, through active support of the group, the newcomer is released from care, boredom, and worry and he becomes happy, respected, and useful (A.A., pp. 152-153). Notice that emphasis is on active support of the group and the fellowship of A.A. As expressed by Tradition #1: “Our A.A. experience has taught us that each member of Alcoholics Anonymous is but a small part of a great whole. A.A. must continue to live or most of us will surely die. Hence our common welfare comes first. But individual welfare follows close afterward” (A.A., p. 563). The How It Works’ group conscience confirms the wisdom of this focus on the fellowship. Focusing the attention of the newcomer on how they can become an active supporter of the group hastens the transition from a self-centered person “getting help” to a recovered person “giving help.” Through group sponsorship, the alcoholic is given the opportunity to become a responsible member of the group.
Group sponsorship insures every newcomer that the program of recovery comes directly from the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous. The program is presented in a straightforward, consistent manner that is not dependent upon individual interpretation. Printed step sheets have been prepared for use by members of the group. They consist primarily of questions that are taken directly from and/or summarize the treatment of each step in the Big Book. The step sheets, approved by the group conscience, offer a unified approach to how each of the twelve steps is to be taken. Indeed, once a member has taken a step, he can at once show another member how to do so. All members are, in that sense, equal when it comes to guiding newcomers through the steps. Every member is to participate in the group support process, without regard to seniority or years of sobriety. There are no privates, sergeants, generals – we are all equals. In this way, the newcomer quickly becomes a responsible member of the fellowship and part of the group solution.
Approaching the twelve-step recovery process in a unified manner removes the potentially destructive power of individual personalities and cliques. As one member put it, “The idea that there should be individual sponsorship – that one member had a special relationship with another – often created problems. Different members had different ideas about the correct way to take a specific step. These differences, by themselves, created divisions within the group. Newcomers asked around to find out who the “Big Book thumpers” were. Alternatively, some sought out “easier, softer” sponsors. In many cases, newcomers had multiple sponsors and played them off against each other.” A unified, group approach gets rid of the influence of personalities. With group support rather than individual sponsorship, if someone who is taking a newcomer through the steps becomes unavailable for whatever reason, any other member of the group can (and should) pick up the ball and run with it.
The HIW group found that placing responsibility on an individual sponsor had the unintended outcome of de-emphasizing the newcomer’s dependence on a higher power. The group process, in contrast, removed the emphasis on “human power” and placed it directly on the willingness of the newcomer to seek a spiritual solution.
The move from individual sponsorship to group sponsorship was not without its own challenges. For example, in the early years, our clubroom may have unintentionally put undue pressure on members to support the alcoholics’ personal lives. Members felt pressured to help newcomers by paying for babysitting costs, running businesses, fixing relationships, taking on responsibility for transportation to and from work, etc. All of these things and more became distractions and moved us away from our primary purpose – “to carry [the] message to the alcoholic who still suffers” (Tradition Five, A.A., p. 562). In spite of our best intentions, we were taking care of their personal needs instead of dealing with their alcoholism. Almost inevitably, the members of the group, particularly those with many years of sobriety, were left discontent. Now, having learned the lessons of the past and operating under the guidance of group sponsorship, members pay attention to the personal needs of the individual alcoholic, but they do so fully aware of the warning contained in the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous: “The minute we put our work on a service plane, the alcoholic commences to rely upon our assistance rather than upon God….Some of us have taken very hard knocks to learn this truth:…We simply do not stop drinking so long as we place dependence upon other people ahead of dependence on God” (A.A., p. 98)
The solution to these early challenges was to allow individual personalities to take a back seat. As stated in the long form of the Twelfth Tradition of AA, “we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility” (A.A., p. 566). By replacing individual sponsorship with group support, the new person was allowed to make mistakes without it reflecting on a specific “sponsor.” The new person could better hear from all of those with many years of experience and, in the process, gain from the collective wisdom of the entire group. Supporting the clubroom by helping others, attending meetings, and putting money in the basket became as much a part of the newcomer’s sobriety as “doing the reading” and “taking the steps.”
As part of the process of encouraging group support rather than individual sponsorship, the HIW group invites newcomers to “take” (i.e., chair) as many meetings as possible. This helps them to become active and supportive members of the group. It also reminds others to share their experience, strength, and hope in a manner to which the newcomer can relate and to use language that the newcomer can understand.