Conference “Approved”

I’ve tried taking non-approved literature to regular AA meetings, and get met by looks of incredulity, and occasional abhorrence.

Many people think the conference approved literature is all we’re allowed to read in the meetings, and there is indeed an issue with that, since the AA publication smf-29 on conference approved literature states:  

The term has no relation to material not published by G.S.O. It does not imply Conference disapproval of other material about A.A. A great deal of literature helpful to alcoholics is published by others, and A.A. does not try to tell any individual member what he or she may or may not read.

What it does not say is: AA does not try to tell any individual member or any group what they may read.

I have noticed this kind of unclear wording before in other places. It is of course problematic when things are left unsaid. One could almost think it is a deliberate omission when the preamble does not say “AA is not allied with any religion, sect, denomination, etc.”

When it comes down to arguing about it all, we have of course found a variety of quotes from Bill in support of groups being autonomous in every way, that we can throw at whoever is open-minded enough to listen. I won’t reiterate those here. I am on a different errand:

We need to get the term “conference approved” changed.

It originated at the 1951 General Service Conference, and the decision at that time reads as follows:

Prior to the vote on this subject it was pointed out that adoption of the suggestion would not preclude the continued issuance of various printed documents by non-Foundation sources. No desire to review, editor or censor non-Foundation material is implied. The objective is to provide, in the future, a means of distinguishing Foundation literature from that issued locally or by non-AA interests.

These assertions notwithstanding, at this point all non-approved literature is pretty much outlawed in regular AA meetings, and the term “approved” is in large part to blame for it.

So, I would ask that all, who are engaged in the AA service structure, start working on changing that. I know changing one word will take a minimum of two years to decide, and probably a couple more to implement, but let’s get started.

So, what’s it going to be? I would suggest “Conference published”, but let’s toss it around for a bit, see what’s the best we can come up with, and get going with it.

About the Author

ife-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA. Events in the fellowship conspired to make him become way more radicalized than he ever wanted to be, and he finds it difficult to settle back down to focus on his own program again, for better or for worse. He’s spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in artwork and writing. life-j is now semi-retired on a five-acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dogs, chickens, and gardens.

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  1. Galen T. February 17, 2019 at 8:31 am - Reply

    The suggestion to change “conference approved” to “conference published” is a good one. But there is still a practical problem when a group looks beyond conference materials.

    Several years ago a group I attended opened itself up non-conference materials and all kinds of stuff began showing up — whatever individual members, or non-members, of the group thought of interest. Some of it had nothing to do with alcoholism or recovery, but rather with spiritual growth, broadly defined.

    The group soon became rife with controversy over just what non-conference materials should be permitted. It soon became clear that setting any general criteria was impossible. This led to the conclusion that the introduction of any “outside” readings, whether books or pamphlets, would require a group meeting to discuss and vote on the item in question. This would, for obvious reasons, but unworkable, not to mention contentious, and the group returned to its former policy of limiting itself to the “approved” books and pamphlets. During meetings members were welcome to keep citing any literature or resources they had found illuminating or helpful.

    • life-j February 17, 2019 at 9:53 am Reply

      Galen, that’s a very real concern, as indeed one of my fiercest opponents in a meeting always asks me “so what do you want to do if someone wants to read ’24 hours a day’?” – that does indeed put me on the spot. And yes, we can’t just say we don’t want to accept literature affiliated with any actual religion, since there may be some of us who would want to read a Buddhist recovery book. It is difficult. Thanks for bringing this up. I hope the discussion can focus on this for a bit and see where it goes.

  2. Dan L January 27, 2019 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    Oh! Oh! Oh!  The Terrible Slippery Slope of literature not approved by “the Council”!!  I myself nearly went into an alcoholic coma the first time I read some of the clandestine literature!  But then I got better.  At our “Beyond Belief” meetings we use the appropriate daily essay from Joe C.’s eclectic book coincidentally titled “Beyond Belief” as the discussion topic.  Certain local “AA Guardians” were absolutely horrified and suggested we would be struck dead in our tracks.  Oh well.  Life goes on.

  3. Tomas L January 27, 2019 at 10:52 am - Reply

    I think the truth is hidden in plain sight: The Lord’s Prayer proves that groups are allowed to read non-approved literature. The LP is a quote from the Bible, which is not Conference Approved, yet thousands of groups read it every meeting. As far as I know, all official AA statements about the LP have confirmed that AA groups are allowed to use it. (There are good reasons to get the LP out of AA, but Conference Approval is not one of them.)

  4. Alex M. January 27, 2019 at 9:21 am - Reply

    Thanks life-j.  I suspect A.A. knows exactly what they are doing by using the term “conference approved,” which not only intimidates and confuses members, but helps boost AAWS literature sales and income. Switching from “approved” to “published” makes sense and is honest, but personally I’m not optimistic. Interestingly, the following literature is “not conference approved:”

    Alcoholics Anonymous – First Edition & Manuscript copy

    24 Hours a Day (meditations) – Richmond Walker

    The Little Red Book (step guide) – Ed Webster

    Stools & Bottles (1st 4 steps and meditations) – Ed Webster

    Varieties of Religious Experience – William James

    A.A. writings by Dr. Silkworth, Father Ed Dowling and psychiatrist Dr. Harry Tiebeau

    Ebby: The Man Who Sponsored Bill W. By Mel B. (Hazelden-Pittman 1998)

    Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks By Dale Mitchel (Hazelden-Pittman 2002)

    Many other books on the history of AA – Ernie Kurtz, etc.- most from Hazelden


  5. MsrySusan January 27, 2019 at 9:18 am - Reply

    My own experience as a District Committee member, an Area Committee member, and a General Service Representative  (and having served as alternate GSR and Alternate DCM prior to these positions, as well as service to group through various other positions) over the 33 years of my continuous sobriety has afforded me a view of how principles not only get distorted they get embedded in their distorted conversion.

    Here was the original decision about non-Conference approved material:

    Any individual is free to read, think, purchase, distribute outside of AA meeting any material they choose. However the money donated to AA through the group does not belong to the group or it’s members. Outside of the customary group expenses agreed on by the group and after a prudent reserve is allotted to maintain group expenses the rest of AA donations is divided up and sent to various AA World services including the publishing costs of AA publications approved by AA as a whole through its conference of Delegates, duly elected by all AA members that chose to vote. The money is not to be spent on outside enterprises nor is it to be used to affiliate AA name or endorse any other entity or enterprise.

    The minute an AA group endorses any cause, enterprise, program, institution, organization that group ceases to be an AA group and can not lend the AA name (legally) to any. THIS IS WHY, THOUGH  THE GROUP HAS VERY FEW CONSTRAINTS, THEY ARE BY DEFINITION breaking with AA if they participate in any of the above actions. Spending AA donations on publications that are not Conference Approved (and Medallions do fall in this category) is in breach of the legacies of AA. As an individual I have the sovereign right to make my own decisions and act on them. A group that does not address the Legacies of AA in the spirit of the law under which they were formed, is breaching the Unity of all AA.

    In short form: Spending AA donations for outside enterprises and displaying them is a decision to no longer willingly be an AA group as defined and established. No individual can assume control of the AA Group Conscience and it is Group Decision to be an AA Group.  Perhaps with this in mind better decisions can protect AA as a whole from outside enterprises. What any one person does outside of the “AA meeting” is their business.  Club Houses are not AA but they host AA groups and meetings.  Each group has its own Group Conscience.  But any Group who collectively decides to affiliate with other programs is no longer an AA group.  The value or worthiness is not in question. But if we are going to make sure there is AA for that baby yet born that may be afflicted with alcoholism it behooves is all to maintain our AA autonomy.

    • life-j January 27, 2019 at 12:58 pm Reply

      Susan, can you tell us where you found this (specifically, so we can go find it in its context)

      • life-j January 29, 2019 at 12:46 pm Reply

        Susan, please come forward and tell us where you found this quote. Though some of the wording sounds familiar, the piece as a whole sounds very un-AA-like. I have done a search for it both in the service manual and on Google, and did not find it. It seems like it must be someone’s personal over-interpretation of the guidelines in question, and if so, that is of course that person’s right, but it is problematic if it subsequently gets posted as “official” AA material. We always have a few people waiting eagerly  in the wings for an opportunity to enforce AA policy (which really needs only minimal enforcement, if any), and the last thing we need is for them to work with misinformation.

        • life-j February 5, 2019 at 3:08 pm Reply

          Indeed I have now contacted the World Service AA archives, and they searched their archives for the above quote and found nothing. In other words IT IS NOT THE ORIGINAL DECISION TEXT, or even related to it. MsrySusan, for all the service credentials she lists needs to get her facts in order. But I would still like to know where it came from, now that we know for sure it is not official AA writing. Of course here we all live by the principle that AA writing does not have to be official to be true, but the quote provided embodies a radical departure from many basic AA principles which are commonly agreed upon by all.

    • Joe C. (@Rebellion_Dogs) January 27, 2019 at 10:56 am Reply

      I too have spent a lot of time in service meetings and gabbing around coffee pots talking about what founders meant by this or that. Each group should have its own thoughtful discussion about what’s right for their members. But neither other groups or AA has a whole ever did or ever will have the authority to tell a group what to do or not do – or inflict consequences for nonconformity. Does the two-sided coin of Tradition Four 1) Each group is autonomous 2) except in matters affecting other groups or AA as whole mean a) Groups are autonomous except when their not and then other groups or AAWS can can excommunicate the group, or b) Each groups mind their own business except that they play a role and are invited to participate in local or fellowship-wide matters?

      We’ve talked about the 1953 Conference when groups were concerned with a “crime” worse than reading a Hazelden book; groups were changing the Steps, the words in some cases, the number of Steps in other cases. Bill was asked to speak on this subject and said, “We even have a Tradition that guarantees the right of any group to vary all of the, if they want to… Do you think we should tell those people: ‘You can’t belong to AA unless you print those Twelvle Steps the way we have them?’ No.

      … My feeling is that the more we insist on conformity, the more resistance we create. But if the Traditions and Steps reflect accurately what our experience has been, the alcoholic, no matter where in the world he may be, will eventually adopt the principles that will work the best for him. If your principles are correctly stated, he will adopt them. If any improvements are to come, who can say where they may come from?”

      Nevertheless, at our group, these are good discussions to have. Now, talking about what the other group is doing over there… not so helpful.


      • life-j January 27, 2019 at 1:33 pm Reply

        Joe, agreed, and yes, I will be at the history symposium in los altos next weekend. And if susan doesn’t tell us where she found this, I guess we can ask michelle mizra, AA’s archivist  at the symposium. Seems like an oddly un-AA-like piece of writing. What I quoted above I believe was from the minutes of the original decision, so this must be something else.

    • Tomas L January 27, 2019 at 10:31 am Reply

      Frankly, that decision seems like complete bs. It would mean that no group could buy coffee and not use any meeting location that they have to pay rent for. Buying coffee would “affiliate” them with the grocery store and coffee brand, and paying rent would “affiliate” them with the land lord. It would also mean that the old AA custom of placing an ad in a newspaper is verboten, and that no group can use any flyers to spread information about the group. (Unless they get paper and ink for free.)

    • John S January 27, 2019 at 9:48 am Reply

      What if an individual member who is chairing a meeting, reads from a book that is not approved by the conference as a meeting topic? In this case, the group itself did not purchase the book from group donations.

      Our group reads from non conference approved literature all the time. Our Central Office stocks non-conference approved literature that they purchase from group donations.

      Very few groups around here read from books that have not been approved by the Conference, but when I was first getting sober in 1988, many groups were reading from the 24 Hours A Day book published by Hazeldon. They stopped using this after AAWS came out with Daily Reflections.

      If what you say is correct, then this shows why it is so important for AAWS to publish and book that addresses the program of recovery in language that is neutral on religion or at least gives a true account of how atheists can work the program without a supernatural Higher Power.

  6. Joe C. (@Rebellion_Dogs) January 27, 2019 at 8:05 am - Reply

    The idea is a good one, or the idea behind the idea: greater clarity. The issue is the Conference does not publish anything. AA World Services publishes. The Conference decides what gets published and what does not, they instruct AAWS to meet the needs of the members – as expressed through the Conference. So “approved” is accurate – and prone to misinterpretation. Nevertheless, clearing up ambiguity is a good idea.

    Nothing the Conference does or declares holds any dominion over groups/members. For all the work they do, groups can disregard Traditions, Steps or literature. Some groups will, for their own purposes, restrict literature. But they have no say over what other groups or members on their own time do or read.

    Life, see you in San Fran? Hope so.

    Joe C

  7. Lance Bredvold January 27, 2019 at 7:43 am - Reply

    I have felt there were unfortunate effects from the use of that term, and thanks for making the damage more explicit, Life.  No better idea for rewording “approved” yet.

    Because our clubroom is for any 12 tradition groups, we now find literature from various specialty meetings including secular AA lying on the tables quite regularly.  And because some of them are less religious, I have preferred looking at the NA daily reader before our reflections book.  But the ubiquitous little black book is also usually there and often read from by others.   In past years several of us (and that included me) pushed for only conference approved literature and I still encourage my group to spend the groups’ money only on that.  Consequently, our anniversary meeting each month is a separate AA group.  Nor do we encourage use of money contributed in the basket to social events or treats.

    My feeling is that when someone contributes in the basket, they should be reassured that it is utilized in common AA functions for everyone’s benefit.  Of course, your idea still offers the ability to distinguish items which are felt by the conference to be suitable for the broad spectrum of AA participants.

    I’m sure we are unusual in these practices.

  8. John L. January 27, 2019 at 7:08 am - Reply

    Excellent suggestion: change “approved” to “published”.  There are fine and essential works not published by AA, like Under The Influence by James R. Milam.  At the same time, some AA literature is toxic, like most of the Twelve and Twelve.

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