My Experience as a GSR

By Thomas B

Recently, I completed a two-year commitment as the GSR for my home group, Beyond Belief, in Portland, Oregon. It was my first experience in AA General Service above the group level since my first decade in recovery. It was also a most rewarding and gratifying experience, a boon for my long-term recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous.

A bit about myself. I had my last drink on October 14, 1972, and I went to my first AA meeting on the Westside of New York City on October 19, 1972. I’ve been graced, by a higher power that I do NOT understand, to have remained sober in Alcoholics Anonymous ever since.

Being active in AA service work has always been an integral part of my recovery. During the first decade of recovery, I held a number of service positions with AA groups and served as the co-chair of the first New York Young Peoples Conference. I experienced AA in New York City to be fully inclusive and open to anyone who desired to stop drinking, regardless of religious tradition or with no religious beliefs at all.

I also worked for 30 years in prominent positions as a professional in the field of addiction treatment. Due to concerns about being a two-hatter, both a well-known professional in addiction treatment, as well as a person in AA recovery, I felt it would be inappropriate for me to engage in AA General Service work above the group level.

In 2011, my wife and I moved from Woodstock, NY to a small town on the southern seacoast of Oregon. There, we experienced AA to be an evangelical and pietistic Christian cult. We were both shunned and shamed for being non-Christians.

We both had survived severe emotional and physical abuse from our fundamentalist Christian families, so we are agnostic freethinkers. We derive our spirituality from various wisdom and indigenous traditions around the world. Yup, we remain aging devotees of our New Age, hippie generation.

I sometimes describe myself, not too facetiously, as being “an atheist who prays”, at times ceaselessly, not because I believe that some mythical god will answer my frantic prayers, whether for a parking place or what have you, but as an endeavor to calm myself down during periods of distress and disturbance. Of late, I’ve identified as a Nontheist, one who considers the God question as insoluble and irrelevant.

I gratefully found Roger C.’s website, AA Agnostica, which was initiated in Toronto after secular AA groups had been delisted by their Intergroup Office. I became actively involved in this worldwide community of secular members active in Alcoholics Anonymous. I am most grateful to have had a number of articles published there, as well as here on AA Beyond Belief. I am as excited about being sober in today’s Secular AA Fellowship, as I was when I first experienced AA recovery in the 1970s!

After a couple of years in the prejudiced community of southern Oregon, we were able to move up the seacoast to Seaside. We are within a reasonable commute to Portland, a most progressive and urbane city. There on December 1, 2013, we established the Beyond Belief meeting at the Portland Alano Club. It’s a secular AA group, open to members of any belief or none at all. We are a group of freethinking AA members, who focus on staying sober by sharing our stories of experience, strength and hope with each other to not pick up a drink one day at a time.

After we had been meeting for three months with an average of 7 — 10 people attending, we determined that we were a viable group. Therefore, I spoke with the manager of the Portland Area Intergroup about listing our group. Over the next several weeks, we had what he referred to as  friendly “debates” as to  whether of not we were truly an AA group.

He contended that since we used different versions of the 12 Steps, and read from non-conference-approved literature, we were not an AA group. He suggested we form a separate organization, similar to what devoted Christian members have done by forming Alcoholics Victorious or Cerebrate Recovery. Many of his arguments were similar to those that had been used in Toronto and Vancouver to delist secular AA groups in these two Canadian cities.

Being elected GSR of our group, I began attending District 9 monthly meetings in Portland. I was most gratified to receive strong support and encouragement from the DCM and other GSRs for our Beyond Belief secular AA group.

In February of 2014, I attended my first Oregon Area 58 Assembly. My assessment was that much of AA in Oregon was quite different from what I had known in New York. It was much more oriented to a strict, orthodox interpretation of conference-approved materials only. Most especially was there a focus on the first 164 pages of the Big Book, which is revered by many as sacred text. I could sense from comments by a number of participants that a number of groups and persons in AA service work were adherents of the growing Back to Basics movement within AA the past 15 or so years. This was sadly reinforced, when the final business meeting ended with the Lords Prayer.

At the next Assembly meeting, I spoke with a former AA Delegate and Trustee about our difficulty getting listed by the Portland Intergroup. She conveyed to me that this shouldn’t be a problem, that she would speak with the Intergroup manager. A couple of weeks later when I next communicated with the manager, he informed me that our meeting was now, indeed, listed.

Throughout the following year-and a-half, the Beyond Belief group enjoyed rapid growth and evolution, which matched the growth of secular AA throughout North America. This was enhanced by the most successful an international convention of agnostic, atheist and freethinking AA members during mid-November of 2014 in Santa Monica, California. At that convention both Phyllis H., then General Manager of GSO, and the Rev. Ward Ewing, former Chair of the AA Board of Trustees, gave keynote speeches endorsing our movement.

By the end of our first year, Beyond Belief moved into the largest room in the Alano Club, since our Sunday meeting had grown to average between 30—35 people in attendance. We, also started a second meeting on Wednesdays in southwest Portland. On the last Wednesday of each month, we host a city-wide meeting of Milestone Celebrations for all secular AA members in the Portland area, who celebrate recovery milestones during the previous month.

In addition, a second secular sobriety AA group, which named themselves Secular Sobriety, was formed on the eastside of Portland. They experienced no difficulty in having their three weekly meetings listed by the Portland Intergroup. Each of their meetings average some 25—30 people attending, so secular AA recovery is thriving in Portland. Recently, a women’s secular group named “She Agnostics” has been formed, as well as a secular ACA meeting.

I continued actively participating in quarterly Assembly meetings of Oregon Area 58, where I shared experience, strength and hope as a secular member of AA with other GSRs, DCMs, Committee members and Area Officers performing AA General Service work throughout Oregon.

I became a member of the Area Hospital Committee, where I took meetings monthly into the Oregon State Mental Hospital. However, after several of these meetings took place with another member, who brought and read from his Bible, I resigned, suggesting to the Hospital Committee Chairperson that reading from the non-conference-approved Bible was perhaps not in accordance with the spirit of AA’s history and traditions, as stated in the Preamble that AA is not affiliated with “any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution.”

In March of 2015, I attended PRAASA in Layton, UT. This was an incredibly rewarding experience, where I shared experience, strength and hope with AA members actively involved in AA General Service from all over the western third of the US.

A highlight was hearing a panel presentation by Ashly M. from Idaho on the topic “Does our Fellowship make Agnostics, Buddhists, Spiritualists, etc., feel welcome in our recovery meetings?” Essentially, her talk related how throughout some areas of North America, especially in rural, small-town areas, AA members with different beliefs from the Christian language of the Big Book are sometimes shunned and shamed. Certainly this happened to my wife and I, when we first moved to the southern coast of Oregon.

Last weekend, I attended my second PRAASA in Spokane, WA. I again was deeply impressed by the dedication I experience from people actively involved in the at times onerous but absolutely requisite work of AA General Service.

By far the most rewarding experience of two years service as GSR of the Beyond Belief group was that I was able to facilitate the following motion to be approved by a substantial unanimity of District 9 voting members:

Oregon Area 58 recommends that AA Grapevine, Inc. publish a collection of previously published stories written by members who are atheists, agnostics and free thinkers that share their experience successfully getting and staying sober in AA.

District 24, where the Secular Sobriety Group in east Portland meets, joined with District 9 to successfully present this motion at the La Grange September, 2015, Area Assembly. There was considerable commentary in support of this motion from the floor during the business meeting. The motion was approved and tabled for final consideration at the November Assembly in Clackamas, Oregon. GSRs were able to take take it back for consideration and discussion by their home groups.

Prior to the November, 2015, Area Assembly, I estimated at best that the motion had a 50/50 chance to achieve the requisite two-thirds majority of voting members for substantial unanimity. However, I was most pleasantly pleased when it received upwards of 90% affirmative votes. It was a testament that AA’s Twelve Concepts of Service — though sometimes maddening and at times onerously time-consuming — do effectively reflect the consensus of the membership of AA through our inverted triangle of General Service.

A final bonus occurred when we gathered in a huge circle around the large ballroom, where the business meeting had been held, and were led in saying “The Responsibility Declaration” by our past Delegate, not the Lords Prayer! This was quite a nice cherry on top of the wonderful two-year’s experience I had with General Service in AA.

Following my experience with PRAASA, I had definitely been bit by the General Service bug, so I threw my hat into the ring to be elected as Alternate DCM for District 9. Opposed to me was a dear friend, Molly.  For three rounds of votes neither of us came close to achieving the required two-thirds majority vote for substantial unanimity to be elected. Therefore, it went to the hat, and Molly’s name was picked to be the Alternate DCM. It was most easy to accept this in accordance with the wisdom of AA’s Twelve Concepts of Service. In my heart, I was content that this was the way it was supposed to be.

As it turned out, just recently I was nominated and elected to serve on the board planning and implementing another International AA Convention of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. This is scheduled to take place in Austin, TX this coming November 11 — 13.  I might very well have not been able to perform this service to our Secular AA Fellowship had I been involved with District 9 duties as Alternate DCM.

In conclusion, I strongly advocate that more of us in secular AA need to actively become engaged at all levels of AA General Service. This is the best way that we can ensure that the hand of AA will always be available for anyone, anywhere who reaches out for help with a desire to stop drinking, regardless of belief or lack of belief.

About the Author, Thomas B.

Sober from his primary drug of addiction, Colt .45 — preferably by the case lot — since October 14, 1972, Thomas is grateful for the full life he has experienced in recovery for over 43 years. He’s been active at the group level throughout his recovery and in 1978 was the co-chair of the first New York City Young Peoples Conference. He is a co-founder (with his wife, Jill) and current GSR of Portland, Oregon’s Beyond Belief group. Retired from a 30-year career in addiction treatment, he and a fellow Vietnam Veteran colleague, Vince Treanor, were instrumental in establishing the correlation between addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the 1980s.

He’s been an active participant on AA Agnostica since early in 2012 and has had the following articles published: 

He and his wife, Jill, live in gainful retirement on disability in Seaside, Oregon with their dog Kiera, and two cats, Savannah and Elsa, writing and helping to expand secular AA throughout Oregon.

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James O
James O
5 years ago

Thomas, Great piece and thanks for sharing. I’ve been searching the interwebs on which way freethinker meetings should be designated on intergroup meeting lists. Do you have any experience with this in Oregon? Getting the meeting listed is great, and we have some here in San Francisco already listed but we don’t have a specified designation upon which to filter all freethinker meetings listed. I noticed NYC has one ( They have it simply listed as “agnostic.” Seems we have a few choices between WAAFT, AAFT, Secular, Agnostic, Agnostic/Athiest/Free Thinkers, etc. I’d like to bring this up at my next… Read more »

5 years ago
Reply to  James O

In the Seattle area, they did not want to add any more special interest designations, so they suggested we instead add it to the meeting name – so we are now “Many Paths – Atheists and Agnostic Friendly”. New people seem to be finding us with this.

boyd p
boyd p
5 years ago

thank god for secular AA”

Curious how difficult purging theist language from declaratory speech habits can be.  My own experience of rural southern Oregon has been largely positive as regard “cultist Christianity”.  Many Christians attend our counties’ thirty plus meetings, but I have yet (in 5 years) to hear anyone slip into doctrine, with few exceptions.  When they do, they quickly correct themselves!

As to condescending tone, most of us are guilty, secular or religious. Each of us carries a bit of universal light.  Expressing it is too often problematic. Good luck and lets all keep trying.

Gene G.
5 years ago
Reply to  boyd p


Perhaps when I wrote, ‘thank God for secular AA,’ I should have put in parenthesis – insert sarcasm here.

Gene G.
5 years ago

Thomas, I identify with your being ‘shunned and shamed.’ Living in the bible belt of North Carolina, I have been on the receiving end of pats on the back and condescending looks accompanied by words to the effect, ‘There, there. You’ll get it someday.’ I am currently somewhat discouraged with traditional AA, but I do have an agnostic group in Fayetteville that I attend weekly. I also attend a nontheist Buddhist meditation group on Sundays that serves me well. If not for the service of people like yourself, I might have risked leaving the cult religion that passes for AA… Read more »

Jerry F
Jerry F
5 years ago

Thank you, Thomas, for an interesting article and for sharing your unique perspective. In my first term of two years as a GSR I went to the monthly meeting and was dismayed as a room of 50 – 60 people would fill as about five of them dominated the topics and the discussion. They spoke mostly about mileage compensation for GSRs and DCMs going to assemblies and conventions. I understood very little of what they were talking about. Years later I was GSR for another home group and this time, having stayed very active in other AA service work, I… Read more »

John S
5 years ago

Thank you Thomas for writing this article about service in Alcoholics Anonymous. I have never been involved in General Service work until I helped form a new secular AA group in Kansas City. I thought it would be important to get involved in the service structure based upon what I have read from others in the agnostic AA community. Though, I had absolutely no understanding of how the AA service structure actually worked, I quickly fell in love with it. The District where our group is located is very supportive of secular AA, and I have tremendous respect for the… Read more »