A Fellowship of Bleeding Deacons?

In the previous essay, I described the increasingly negative interactions between my fellowship’s Phone Meeting Intergroup and me in the first two years of my recovery, after 20 years away from the program.  I had initially been impressed by their services because of the quality and variety of the phone meetings I attended, which reflected a solid body of past effort in developing formats for the different types of meetings and overcoming technical and human disruptions on the phone lines.

The tensions arose when I identified areas for minor improvement or to offer my own services in areas where the Intergroup appeared to be lagging.  The attitudes and actions of the leaders and many members seemed to violate the letter and spirit of the Traditions, which held a second class status within the Fellowship (the focus was on the Steps). Monthly business meetings were 15 minute affairs held at the end of a regular meeting, with those attending deemed the voting body, and no records kept of decisions, in spite of substantial turnover of members within short periods.    Most suggestions for change were greeted impatiently because of the time pressure and the assumption that things were working well as they were, and discussion was discouraged for the same reason.

The Intergroup was little better.  Soon after I attended, it  ceased all attempts to maintain contact information on the Group Service Representatives (GSRs) or to orient newly elected GSRs, and expected them to keep track of information by frequently checking the website. It stopped updating the printable schedule of meetings, to which new members were referred when they requested information on how to access phone meetings.  Without notice, it suspended monthly meeting for six months to oversee a “select” committee to create a service manual (never produced) and then began to meet on a quarterly basis.    When I asked for a copy of its By-Laws, the Intergroup informed me that only GSRs were allowed to see them, and when I asked a GSR to show them to me, she refused. No information on the terms of offices of the officers was posted, and the membership seemed to assume that the officers were elected for life.

It was the attitudes that accompanied these actions, held both by leaders and many members,  that were most disturbing. In many ways, the Intergroup officers and “oldtimers” seemed to be caricatures of the “bleeding deacons,” described by Bill W. as members with long sobriety who believed that they alone were qualified to lead the Fellowship.   The survival of the fellowship seemed to rest upon the maintenance of existing routines and procedures because of the belief that proposals for change signified the proposer’s lack of humility and surrender. My criticism of existing procedures (and of the leaders, by extension) was deemed to violate the unity called for by Tradition One. I was accused of lack of loyalty and being disruptive.   One member assured me that I would undoubtedly lose my sobriety due to the size of my ego, and other members used profanity in text messages or emails to and about me.

Oldtimers who opposed this philosophy and treatment informed me that their own encounters with the leaders had been painful, and more than one used the term “toxic” to describe the types of interactions they had had in the past.  Some of them disappeared from phone meetings as the Intergroup began to act in more arbitrary ways, shutting down meetings that used the authorized book written specifically about the addiction for which our Fellowship had been created.  Newer members who sympathized with my objectives were justifiably concerned about speaking up, either because it could subject them to hostile treatment or create tension that would jeopardize their sobriety – a major factor I acknowledged, leading me to retreat from confrontation.    After I stopped attending phone meetings, I was told of occasional disputes during phone meetings in which members would argue over the definition of sobriety. In the two years that I boycotted phone meetings overseen by the Intergroup, the number of phone meetings and attendees per meeting declined.

Learning From Experience – One’s Own, and Others

The persistence with which I initially sought to have the fellowship conform to the Traditions did not result from a mere desire for obedience to a set of rules.  Rather, I had taken to heart the belief that adherence to the Traditions allowed the fellowship to improve over time while exempting it from many of the power struggles and personality conflicts that Bill W. described in the literature – and which I had witnessed in organizations with which I was associated in the previous forty years.

The attention in the literature to the founders’ and the fellowship’s errors in the early years of AA had been a refreshing departure from my own experience of being told to submit inflated resumes, employment applications, and  performance reports by mentors and superiors for most of my professional life. I was excited to find an emphasis in the literature on the inclination to learn from experience, criticism, and self-reflection, and the admonition to put “principles before personalities.”  Since the 1960s, society had seemed to encourage assertiveness and the appearance of success more than the attainment of skills and habits that would actually produce the desired outcomes.  I had felt like an outsider much of my life because of my moderate political views and belief in the desirability of fact-finding and discussion to identify problems and develop strategies to resolve them.  I had witnessed the effects of ego, prejudice, ignorance, ideology, and interests in creating divisions and stimulating dissension among individuals and groups, in a variety of institutions.

In my work and studies, I examined why various schemes to improve the human condition, including those with the best of motives, failed.  So often, the answer was lack of patience in identifying goals, assessing the alternative means of achieving them, implementing them, and evaluating the results.  Too many considered these processes too time consuming or too costly, failing to consider the cost in money, time, and well-being when this short-sightedness produced disasters.  I remember a 1984 fellowship meeting in which I compared the results of the massive Bhopal, India gas spill (resulting from corporate negligence) to the wreck of our own lives when we failed to engage in 4th and 10th Step inventories to identify obstacles ahead.     In 1986, after the CHALLENGER exploded in mid-air, with teacher-observer, Christina McAuliffe aboard, I was unsurprised to hear that the rush to complete the space capsule was responsible for the construction errors that caused the explosion.

Failure to consult with or heed the advice of those with experience or whose well-being was to be served, whether through oversight or prejudice, also sabotaged many projects.  Scholars of public housing in the United States had found that most of the decisions were made by real estate developers interested in profit, politicians elected in areas where many non-whites and poor people lacked political influence, and white social workers who believed that they knew what was best for the poor who would live in the new buildings.  They closed their eyes to the likely outcomes of putting together large numbers of poor families with teenagers and children in tightly packed, high-rise buildings, leaving future generations to deal with this.

These were the reasons that the Traditions and related work had such a powerful effect on me when I came across them.  Bill W. had elaborated upon the Traditions continuously until his death in January, 1971, from the 1946-48 Grapevine essays that preceded their 1953 publication in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions to the additional books, letters, talks, and speeches that he contributed to and authored.   Although the words “criticism” and “democracy” are not included in the Traditions themselves, they underlie all of them because of the importance they play in ensuring that leaders seek the broadest advice, and employ the best methods and efforts, to achieve the goal of availing addicts of recovery.

For example, in April, 1959, Bill W. published an article entitled “Leadership in AA: Ever a Vital Need” in the Grapevine, including the following passage:

“Leadership is often called upon to face heavy and sometimes long-continued criticism. This is an acid test. There are always the constructive critics, our friends indeed. We ought never fail to give them a careful hearing. We should be willing to let them modify our opinions or change them completely.”

Critics were not always right, but that did not imply ignoring or stigmatizing them. Bill W. wrote of frequent occasions with which “… we shall have to disagree and then stand fast without losing their friendship.”  Even those suspected of being purposely disruptive were due attention.  About this group of ‘destructive’ critics, Bill W. wrote

“They power-drive, they are ‘politickers,’ they make accusations. Maybe they are violent, malicious. They pitch gobs of rumors, gossip, and general scuttlebutt to gain their ends—all for the good of AA, of course!

“Well, in AA at least, we have at last learned that these folks, who may be a trifle sicker than the rest of us, need not be really destructive at all, depending entirely on how we relate ourselves to them. To begin with, we ought to listen very carefully to what they say. Sometimes they are telling the whole truth; at other times, a little truth. More often, though, they are just rationalizing themselves into nonsense.

“If we are within range, the whole truth, the half-truth, or even no truth at all can equally hurt us. That is why we have to listen so carefully. If they’ve got the whole truth, or even a little truth, then we’d better thank them and get on with our respective inventories, admitting we were wrong, regardless.”

“If it’s nonsense, we can ignore them. Or we can lay all the cards on the table and try to persuade them. Failing this, we can be sorry they are too sick to listen and we can try to forget the whole business. We can think of few better means of self-survey, of developing genuine patience, than these usually well-meaning but erratic brother members can afford us. This is always a large order and we shall sometimes fail to make good on it ourselves. But we must needs keep trying.”[1]

Wilson also described the importance of consulting broadly on the development of “plans, policies, and ideas for the improvement of our Fellowship and its service.”  He advised “in new and important matters, it will consult widely before taking decisions and actions.  Good leadership will also remember that a fine plan or idea can come from anybody, anywhere. Consequently, good leadership will often discard its own cherished plans for others that are better, and it will give credit to the source.”[2]

An important manifestation of the idea of “principles before personalities” was the manner in which business meetings were conducted.   I was impressed by the description of the ideal business meeting in the pamphlet The AA Group….Where It All Begins (P-16).  In a section entitled “Principles Before Personalities,” it devotes several paragraphs to obtaining “an informed group conscience.”   It defines the group conscience as the “collective conscience of the group membership,” which “represents substantial unanimity on an issue before definitive action is taken.”  The group gets to this stage “through the sharing of full information [and] of individual points of view, and the practice of AA principles.  To be fully informed requires a willingness to listen to minority opinions with an open mind.”

The section continues,

” On sensitive issues, the group works slowly—discouraging formal motions until a clear sense of its collective view emerges.  Placing principles before personalities, the membership is wary of dominant opinions.  Its voice is heard when a well-informed group arrives at a decision.  The result rests on more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ count—precisely because it is the spiritual expression of the group conscience.  The term ‘informed group conscience’ implies that pertinent information has been studied and all views have been heard before the group votes.”(28-29) [3]

This is followed by a detailing of the elements of a group inventory.  The inventory focuses on actions the group takes to attract newcomers from all walks of life, avoiding the tendency to favor outreach strategies that will result in attracting members similar to those already attending the meeting.  Is the group successful at sustaining the interest of the newcomers?  Does the group encourage the involvement of all members in its recovery meetings and the services that sustain it?

These are ideals, of course, in a world where reality sometimes plays tricks with the schemes we invent. The difficulty in achieving them, however, is not a reason to reject them outright, any more than we reject the tools of recovery because of the difficulty that we face in achieving abstinence and sobriety.  I state them here because I believe that they are key to keeping our fellowships attuned to methods –both old and new – that will bring the most recovery to the most people.    While they are probably familiar to many members of AA as part of the original legacy of the founding fellowship, they are likely to surprise members of newer fellowships in which the Traditions have been taken less seriously. Introducing these members to this body of thought is essential if they are to be expected to organize their services in accordance with them. Some members may argue that the Twelve Concepts, developed after the Traditions and the death of Dr. Bob, significantly alter the application of the Traditions, an argument I will treat in the last (fourth) essay of this series.

In the next (third) essay, I will describe my experience serving on two World Service Committees and interacting with the President of the Board of Trustee in late 2019.  Here, I witnessed more directly the negative effects of rejecting these ideals upon the quality of service to members, as well as the quandaries of interpreting the “autonomy” promised in the Fourth Tradition.   This experience led me to question whether the exclusion of enforcement powers from 12 Step fellowships was based upon false assumptions by Bill W. about the self-correcting mechanism that made such enforcement unnecessary. I will pose to readers the possibility of requiring leaders who do not perform their duties to leave their positions, so that others who have the capability of doing so can fulfill them.

[1] Bill W. “Leadership in AA: Ever   a Vital Need,” AA Grapevine, April, 1959.  At https://www.aagrapevine.org/magazine/1959/apr/leadership-aa-ever-vital-need  . Also, in The Language Of The Heart – Bill W.’s Grapevine Writings.   Part III, Segment 2. AA Grapevine, Inc., 1988.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The AA Group….Where It All Begins (P-16).    Alcoholics Anonymous World Service, Inc., 2018.  Accessed at https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-16_theaagroup.pdf , pp. 28- 29 .



About the Author

Wendy P. is a retired historian of the modern U.S., whose work focuses on the dynamics of race and cities. She lives in Arkansas. 

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Eddie C
Eddie C
5 months ago

I was writing my letter (an open letter) to AA telling them thanks, but I am now a fully recovered alcoholic (RE: 3rd printed pg in BB) I am finally fed up (sick and tired) of the religious cultism of AA in general. Finally I found secular AA – – Freethinkers – and to all “stuck” in traditional AA I can but say – sad you are missing true freedom – Shalom

Jack B.
Jack B.
5 months ago
Reply to  Eddie C

Yes. I have have been the target of close-minded BB thumpers who believe that alcoholism requires life long attendance at AA meetings. They get very righteous and accuse me of endangering the newcomers. All of that (and much more like it) is extremist horse poop!
I am a now and a future recoverED alcoholic. I am not addicted to ANY addictive substance or behavior.
My life today is what I dreamed for way back when.