Another Level of Service

By John S. 

I have been sober in AA for a long time, since July 20, 1988 to be exact, and I’ve been pretty active in the program. I’ve always had a home group where I would attend meetings regularly. I worked with sponsors and I have in turn sponsored others. I have spoken at other groups, and I’ve taken meetings to treatment centers, jails and the state penitentiary. Over the years, I’ve been on a number of 12th step calls, and I have taken many a drunk to the emergency room. I also unfortunately have attended more than my share of funerals for those who didn’t make it.

The sentence in the Big Book about “staying on the firing line” really means something to me. I believe that by keeping myself on the front line, where alcoholics face life and death struggles, I keep fresh in my mind the reason why I came to AA in the first place, and it helps me remain grateful for my sobriety.

Though service of some kind has always been part of my experience in AA, it has only been within the past year that I’ve learned about another level of service which I find immensely satisfying, service outside of the group, and service to AA itself.

Many years ago, maybe twenty or so, I was the General Service Representative for what was then my home group, and I attended a few District Meetings and one Area Assembly. I didn’t understand what was going on, and I didn’t think much was being accomplished, so I lost interest and never went back. At that time and for the next two decades, I primarily thought of and experienced AA in terms of my home group and that’s where I performed service work.

This changed last year when I helped start an agnostic AA meeting in my community. There was already an agnostic AA group in a nearby town that had been meeting for the previous two years, but we were the first agnostic group in our city, and I wasn’t quite sure how we would be accepted. Shortly after our group started meeting, I was reading and listening to people in the agnostic AA community who wrote and spoke about service work, and from them I learned that it would be important for our group to act as good AA citizens and to actively participate in service outside the group.

Unbelievably, after 26 years of sobriety in AA, I never volunteered to help our Central Office, yet I credit them with saving my life. On the morning after my last drunk, after getting out of jail, finding my car and contemplating jumping from a bridge, I called the local AA Central Office also known as an Intergroup, and simply said, “I think I need help”. The calm, compassionate and understanding person on the other end of the phone was my first connection with Alcoholics Anonymous, and that person somehow through the telephone wires infused me with just enough hope to go on living, and to find the wherewithal to attend my first AA meeting. That day will be forever etched into my consciousness, and I will always be grateful to that anonymous person who took my call.

Twenty six years after that life-saving call to Central Office, I placed another call for help. This time however, my call was to let them know about our new group, and ask them to list our meeting in the area meeting directory. As they do for all AA groups, they were happy to list our meeting, and later for a nominal cost, they mailed flyers out to announce our meeting to the AA community. Ever since, our group has made certain to always send a donation to the Central Office every month, and we still consider it to be the most important service entity that we help support.

My relationship with Central Office at that time was all business and handled by phone calls or email, but this changed one Friday night when I decided to pick up some supplies and pay them a visit. That night, I met the Director of the office, and we had a very nice chat. Though we may have different approaches to how we work the program, I could identify with her as an alcoholic and like her, I credit AA with saving my life.

After speaking with her, I felt like I had been to an AA meeting, and that conversation was a turning point in my recovery, because it was the first time in decades that I made a face to face personal connection with our Central Office. She quickly became someone who I admire and respect for her dedication to service, and she is one of the best examples of AA that I can imagine.

Soon after that meeting, I started to attend the Central Office Delegates meetings where I met other people from Central Office as well as people from other groups. I enjoyed those meetings very much. They are like AA meetings, but the sharing is at the group level instead of the individual level. Those are some of my favorite meetings now.  I feel totally at home there, and I am always happy to see the people who work for Central Office.

central-office-phoneOne day at the Delegates Meeting, they asked for a volunteer to answer the phone after hours, and I raised my hand to offer my service. What an honor that turned out to be. Every single time that I answered the phone with the greeting “Alcoholics Anonymous”, I remembered the person who answered the phone for me when I needed help so many years ago.

I received a lot of calls that week, mostly from people wanting to know where a meeting was located, but one person who felt his sobriety was on the line, called in the wee hours of the morning because he knew talking to another alcoholic would help. Though the ringing phone woke me from my sleep, I was glad to take the call. We ended up talking about all sorts of things, there wasn’t anything in particular that I needed to say. We just talked about our experience in AA, nothing too deep. It was a nice conversation that helped both of us.

Answering the Central Office phone for that week turned out to be an amazing experience, and I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t answered the phone for their Central Office or Intergroup to do so at least once. Not only will you be helping your Intergroup and the suffering alcoholic, but you will also be helping yourself.

Through service work, my AA world has grown and my experience with AA has widened beyond that of  my home group. I love my group and it’s still very important to me, but I learned to have a greater appreciation for what I call AA’s infrastructure of service. This amazing network of people from around the world, who will stop to take a phone call when someone reaches out for help, and they do it asking nothing in return. It’s truly an incredible thing to experience, and it brought me to the realization that this service infrastructure is much bigger and in some ways more important than my home group. It’s probably the most important part of AA. It is the real “firing line”.

I’ve been attending the Central Office Delegates meetings for over a year now, but I will soon turn this over to another member of our group and I hope she enjoys it as much as I did. I know she will do a great job. She’s already helped start a new meeting for our group, and she knows all the people at Central Office. She will be a great representative for our group, and I am grateful for her willingness to serve. Thank you Amy!

Connecting with and helping the Central Office in what limited way I could was very satisfying. They are indeed the backbone of AA, doing the work that makes 12th Step work possible. Learning about what they do and witnessing their dedication, inspired me to move on to still another level of service, General Service as described in the AA Service Manual. For the past year, I’ve been representing our group as it’s General Service Representative, and as with any type of service in AA, I have been receiving far more than I’ve given.


About the Author, John S.

John S. lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his wife Susan, two cats, Phoebe and Luna, and a very sweet Wheaten Terrier, Gabby. John has been sober since July 20, 1988 and his home group is the We Agnostics Group which has been meeting since August 2014.

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Christopher G
Christopher G

Thank you, John, for your kind and generous response. It has helped to assuage my fears about “my” meeting getting hijacked (control issues). The very worse thing that could happen is that it would be hijacked and I could and would start another new meeting to meet my needs in format and formula. Thanks, also, for the ideas on new and old business and minority voice. Priceless.

Christopher G
Christopher G

Thanks, John. I was a GSR a few years back for a traditional meeting and was only in it out of curiosity and really no desire to serve, just observe, and eventually just quit going. Since coming out and starting our own meeting I feel for the first time that I have a personal home group and want to represent it to the rest of AA. I am concerned about how to hold our group business meeting. Is it only open to people who consider it their home group? Can people have more that one home group? How do you… Read more »

Laurie A

A good read John. ‘Our (my) primary purpose is to stay sober and (as far as I can) help others to achieve sobriety.’ And, ‘When anyone, anywhere reaches out for help, I wasn’t the hand of AA always to be there  – and for that, I am responsible.’ It’s best if I don’t try to judge another member’s commitment. Today’s reading from ‘Beyond Belief: agnostic musings for 12 Step life’ is apropos: ‘Bill Wilson once said that we don’t get sober just so we can go to meetings… Am I grateful and open to giving back to life? Do I bring value… Read more »

Thomas B.
Thomas B.

Thanks so much, John, for this lovely article of your experience strength and hope with service both at the Intergroup level and as GSR within your District and Assembly. I am just finishing a two-year term as the GSR for Portland, OR’s Beyond Belief group, which has been most rewarding. This was my first experience with General Service above the group level, since for most of my recovery I held prominent professional positions in the field of addiction. I served at the group level, but didn’t want to do service above that to avoid confusion about being a “two-hatter”, a… Read more »

Humbled to be sober
Humbled to be sober

John, I wish you well on your journey.  I’ve had the privilege to work in a Central Office and to do General Service.  Both opportunities gave me amazing opportunities for growth. In 2011, I was serving as a General Service Representative for my home group.  At our Area’s Pre-Conference Assembly that year, we were discussing an agenda item about creating literature that included stories from agnostics and atheists who were “successfully sober” in AA.  I sat in that room for two days listening to people share with our delegate, “I don’t know how an atheist could possibly be ‘successfully sober’”… Read more »