About Sponsorship in AA

As a newcomer, I felt as if I was under constant pressure to get a sponsor. During meetings people often shared tidbits of wisdom bestowed upon them from their sponsors. Some claimed you couldn’t work the program without one, while others described drill sergeant sponsors who straightened them out about one thing or another. Listening to this, I would squirm in my seat because I didn’t have a sponsor and I wasn’t comfortable asking someone to fill that lofty role. Anyway, I was resolved to be content with simply attending meetings, knowing if I needed to talk with someone privately about a particular situation, there would be any number of people who could help me. 

Yet, people were seemingly relentless in applying the pressure. A typical conversation would go something like this: “Do you have a sponsor?” “No,” I’d reply. “Why not?” they would ask. “Oh, I don’t know,” I would say somewhat sheepishly, “I guess I just haven’t got to it.” And with that, the person would proclaim in a rather smug tone that they couldn’t work the program without a sponsor, which I took as an insinuation that I was an AA slacker. 

Eventually, I asked someone to sponsor me, and I have to admit that my overall experience was positive. My first sponsor was kind and supportive. He was happy that I was staying sober and going to meetings, and he never expected me to do anything more than that. My second sponsor took me through the first three steps and was with me during some difficult times. I learned a lot from him. My third sponsor helped me with steps four and five, and the next sponsor helped me with steps six through nine. My last and final sponsor came along after I had been sober for about ten years, and he remained my sponsor for the next fifteen years. Although, I didn’t call him often, I saw him frequently at meetings and I always considered him a friend. 

Today, I don’t have a sponsor, nor do I feel the need for one. I prefer to rely on trusted friends for feedback. That being said, I realize many people would like to have a sponsor, especially if they want to work the steps, so I thought it might be helpful to offer a little advice for those considering sponsorship for the first time. Ironically, one piece of advice is to be wary of advice. At any rate, here are my tips for whatever they may be worth.

  • Don’t rush. If you’re going to meetings, sharing honestly, getting involved, and not drinking, then you are doing just fine.
  • Choose someone who is already in your circle of friends, someone you know well.
  • Watch out for the person who is over-confident, who seems to have all the answers and isn’t shy about giving advice.
  • Stay away from anyone who suggests there is something wrong with how you think. Never allow anyone to think for you.
  • Remember that sponsorship is a relationship between equals. Your sponsor has no authority over you. If they try to exert authority, it’s perfectly okay to change sponsors. 

Having been around for so long, I’m sometimes asked to sponsor and I’m glad to do it. I like helping people with the steps if they are interested in them, but I’m pretty laid back about it. I never pressure anyone to do anything. I merely share my experience and stand ready to serve as sort of a guide. Though, I’m seldom asked, it is always an honor when I’m given the opportunity. 

The History of Sponsorship

So how did sponsorship get started anyway? Would you believe it involves baseball? The custom of sponsorship traces its origins back to Cleveland in the 1940’s. At that time, the only other AA groups were located in Akron and New York. Cleveland differed from those cities because it didn’t have Bill W. or Doctor Bob to pass on the program. Instead, the Cleveland group relied on the newly published book Alcoholics Anonymous. (Kurtz, Ernest, Not-God A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 89)

Cleveland AA also received some publicity surrounding the sobering up of the well-known baseball player Rollie Hemsley, who was playing for the Cleveland Indians at the time. This caused AA membership in Cleveland to grow rapidly, and the flood of newcomers was so great that new groups were created to handle the influx. It was the combination of soaring membership and the reliance on the Big Book with its heavy emphasis on working with others that gave rise to the practice of sponsorship. (Kurtz)

Here’s a description of early sponsorship from the book Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, by Ernest Kurtz. This is a recollection of Warren C. who was sponsored by Clarence S., an early member of the Cleveland group.

Clarence gave me a copy of the manuscript of the Big Book ­­–we had to read it, then, before we could go to a meeting. In order to go to a meeting, you had to qualify –your sponsor judged whether you were sincere or not, and Clarence insisted two things were necessary: you had to want AA above everything else in the world, and you had to know something about it.

No, Clarence didn’t make me kneel down –he didn’t have to –God I wanted the program! I had to –it didn’t come easy –it doesn’t come easy; and well, in the early days, the companionship was so important –the new, sober friends –we had to be sure.

Yeah, we were “fixing” other drunks, but only because we had to fix ourselves, so we made sure everybody wanted what we wanted. Now that might sound harsh, or it might sound like humility –all I know is we wanted to be sober, and we were scared, and so we did what we were told. That was “surrender”: you did what your sponsor told you to do. No arguments, no questions, you did it, or you got drunk again, so by God we did it!

These early AA members believed that their very lives depended on working with others, so they had to be careful not to waste their effort on someone who didn’t want the program. This is why it was important for newcomers to be sponsored by more experienced members who could guarantee that they were serious about sobriety. (Kurtz)

Sponsorship Today

Soon enough, sponsorship spread from Cleveland throughout the Fellowship, and today it is perhaps best described in the AA World Services pamphlet “Questions & Answers on Sponsorship.”

Essentially, the process of sponsorship is this: An alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through AA.

The pamphlet breaks with the past and makes it clear that the only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking. One does not need a sponsor to vouch for them before attending meetings. Instead, sponsorship is described as a relationship among equals as illustrated by the example of AA’s co-founders. Bill W. carried the message to Dr. Bob who in turn sponsored many others, but the two men sustained one another. Neither was in a position of authority.

I was surprised by how strongly the pamphlet promotes sponsorship. It urges newcomers not to delay asking someone to be their sponsor and it describes sponsorship as a “long lasting relationship,” and a “basic part of the AA approach to recovery from alcoholism through the Twelve Steps.” The pamphlet goes on to suggest that “in many successful groups, sponsorship is one of the most important planned activities of the members.”

The Q&A section of the pamphlet brings up a few items that I found interesting and deserving of commentary. The pamphlet encourages a newcomer to choose a sponsor who seems to be using the AA program successfully in everyday life and who has been sober for at least one year. It further recommends to “stick with the winners.” How can anyone who is new to AA, and who is unfamiliar with the Twelve Steps have any idea if someone is “working the program?” What if they encounter a wolf in sheep’s clothing? That’s why I don’t think anyone should rush into getting a sponsor. Take it easy, be careful.

The pamphlet also suggests that sponsors and the sponsored be of the same sex, and that gay members may choose sponsors of the opposite sex to avoid thirteenth stepping, which is when an older more experienced member takes advantage of a newcomer for sexual purposes. That’s probably a good idea for the most part, but I also know people who have sponsors of the opposite sex and it works for them. There are women in the fellowship who I respect and I seek their counsel from time to time. If I felt the need for a sponsor, I wouldn’t hesitate asking one of these women. However, I’ve been around for a long time and I’m not doing intensive step work. I think the pamphlet is giving sound advice here for someone who is newly sober.  

There is a reminder in the pamphlet to newcomers that they need not agree with their sponsor on everything. If they hear an idea that seems strange, they should ask questions. I once had a sponsor caution me about taking medication for depression, and I’ve heard from others who had the same experience. This is completely inappropriate. Don’t listen to anyone in AA who is giving advice about what medication you should or should not take. This is very important.

I found it interesting that the pamphlet cautions an atheist sponsor against persuading a religious newcomer to leave their faith, or for a religious sponsor to argue theology with an agnostic newcomer. The pamphlet is clear that sponsors are not to force a person to accept a specific interpretation of AA, as it’s entirely possible to achieve and maintain sobriety without a higher power. Personally, I think it would be highly unlikely for an atheist to try to convince someone to leave their faith. It’s far more likely for the believer to try to convert the atheist, and I wish the pamphlet had been more honest about the problem. The example given isn’t what’s happening in the real world. 

Although, I am concerned about how sponsorship is practiced in some quarters (yes, I’m talking about you Clancy!) I think it can also be a helpful and healthy experience. If you decide that you would like to work with a sponsor, please take your time with the decision. If you take it easy and proceed with caution, there is no reason why you can’t enjoy a safe, happy and productive experience with sponsorship.


About the Author 

Sober since July 20, 1988, John S. is a member of the We Agnostics group in Kansas City, Missouri.

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Bethany
Bethany

Thank you John for this great article! I wish I had seen it when you first posted it but I am just reading it now. I am new to AA (6 months) this time around (after being out for 15 years). The first time I got sober, I stayed sober for 10 years. I did not have a sponsor then, so this time, I thought I should get a sponsor right away. And I did – in a traditional women’s meeting in Austin, TX (that appeared to me to be progressive/tolerant). When I started to realize how religious many of… Read more »

Peter T
Peter T

I like quoting the bit in the pamphlet about “atheist sponsors” – especially when I have the pamphlet in hand, I’ll pause and say – “look – not only does it say that atheists can be members of AA, but they can even be sponsors! who knew!?” 😀 Read Living Sober chapter 11, “Availing Yourself Of A Sponsor” – at the end it suggests that you can get beyond needing sponsorship. It sounds like you’ve achieved that, John, as I’d like think I have as well. I have a core group of sober friends that can help me and/or call… Read more »

Gerald
Gerald

I developed a pet theory a couple years ago: Most “real” alcoholics are actually primary addiction codependents, or possibly codependency is in second place to alcoholism. It took me years to understand what codependency is because I don’t have it. Years into AA sobriety, I would learn about codependency in ACA, whose Big Red Book explains that some Adult Children actually are not codependent. Learning about codependency explained a couple mysteries for me: 1) why I never related to Alanoners 🙂 and 2) what’s behind the “sick side” of sponsor-sponsee relationships in AA. I learned another thing about the “sick… Read more »

Joe C.
Joe C.

Nicely written article, John. Longitudinal studies shown that having a sponsor doesn’t improve outcomes with AAs. But being a sponsor improved outcome rates quite a bit. Is it harder to relapse when we are helping others? The rarely emphasized point of the Bill meets Dr Bob story is that both men were craving drink and it was Bill – not Bob who stayed sober as a result of that meeting. Bob would get sober eventually but maybe it was because he started helping others. Few in my home group step forward or reach out when new members ask about sponsors.… Read more »

Bob B
Bob B

Thanks for the article. I can see where some AA members can benefit from sponsorship but I believe it is not for everyone and should not be forced upon. That might have worked in the 1930’s but it has no place today. I’m not special but I do have one of those odd ‘what happened’ stories. To make it short I got sober through therapy (AA didn’t even cross my mind), the first year of not drinking I was on medication for ’emotional and mental disorders’ but was off of them within a year. I was assigned (this was through… Read more »