The steps to freedom from addiction developed and refined by the 12 Step movement (initially Alcoholics Anonymous, but later spreading to many other forms of addiction as well) bear a close look by Christ followers. They look a lot like what saints and mystics have told us are the steps to spiritual maturity. But today’s post isn’t about the 12 Steps; it is about the 12 Traditions. This lesser-known aspect of the 12 Step movement are the guidelines for establishing and maintaining a vital 12 Step group, developed by hard-won experience over the decades. Just as the 12 Steps bear consideration by Christ followers, so do the 12 Traditions represent a treasure trove of applied ecclesiology. I have taken some liberties with the phrasing to make the applications obvious for congregations.
Tradition One: Our common welfare should come first. Personal spiritual maturity depends on unity.
We sinners have lived much of our lives in isolation, preferring to be alone so we can sin the way we wanted without interference. Even when surrounded by other people, it became progressively difficult to connect with them as our compulsions grew. Our desire to live free of compulsion forced us to change these attitudes, and recovery began for must of us when we got out of isolation and joined a body of Christ followers. Many of us would not be alive today if it were not for our community of faith. If we are to continue to live and recover, we must have the continued support of our fellow Christ followers. Thus, the unity of the community is a matter of life and death to us.
Christ followers come from diverse backgrounds, and in our communities we sometimes encounter people with very different approaches to following Christ. Often, our first impulse is to insist they are doing it all wrong. If we as individuals did not value the common welfare of the Fellowship above our own personal videpoints, the community would would soon split into argumentative factions and would lose the strength that comes from our union of many.
A respect for unity means that individuals keep in mind the rules of the group. Tradition One tells us to curb our impulses to confront or fix one another, and it reminds those leading a meeting to lovingly remind members of the group conscience if it is being ignored. This doesn’t mean that all members must agree on every issue regarding the operation of the Fellowship. Rather, we resolve our differences of opinion by considering the welfare of the group as a whole. Unity does not mean uniformity; we can disagree with others on important issues and remain supportive friends.
Tradition Two: For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority: a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
This tradition may seem thoroughly impractical, but it works. When faced with a problem or challenge, we ask for God’s guidance to show us what is best for the group as a whole. Then we discuss the matter carefully, we vote on alternatives, and we trust that the decision we reach together is God’s will.
Instead of a power structure, we have a service structure. Any offices and boards exist only to do service; they have no power to enforce rules on groups or individual members. Groups normally spend very little meeting time with group business. If someone wants to make a change in the way a group is operating, this is brought up for discussion at a group conscience meeting of the group’s regularly attending members (held either in conjunction with the regular meeting or separately). The informed group conscience decides what action is to be taken and individuals act for the group to implement this decision.
The group conscience is not the same as majority rule. This conscience is an expression of the group unity from the First Tradition. Rather than being guided by individual self-interest, we seek as a group to apply the Principles embodied in Scripture to the decision at hand. We affirm each group member’s right to take part in the discussions, and we listen to everyone attentively with open minds. All those who consider themselves a group member are welcome to speak or vote; since the Third Tradition asserts that the only requirement for membership is a desire to follow Christ, groups do not place behavioral requirements on voting rights. For to exclude some from speaking and voting because they are struggling to follow Christ consistently and fully denies them effective membership in the group – membership that can be essential to recovery from our “disease of isolation.”
Not all our group decisions will be wise and practical. Like individuals, groups learn from their mistakes. We find that God often leads us through our blunders. Members who have been around long enough to learn from such experiences are sometimes tempted to think their opinions should govern their groups (despite this Tradition). When they try to control others, however, things usually go wrong. Since service is part of our personal growth, service positions are rotated regularly even when the person holding the position has done a good job and would be willing to continue.
Tradition Three: The only requirement for membership is a desire to follow Christ.
No person who has this desire can be barred from any group. A person can never be too immoral or moral to be a member. Nor is it a membership requirement to have common experiences with the disease of sin. We even find a wide range of opinions about the Bible and how best to apply it.
Nobody is expelled for not working the program [i.e. the 12 Steps] – or even for not respecting these Traditions! Following Christ is a journey, and the program is the road we travel together. The purpose of Tradition Three is to ensure that the road will always be accessible to all who wish to travel it. Thus, any two or more sinners who come together to practice the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions are considered a group, so long as they (as a group) have no other affiliations [see Tradition Four], do not require anyone to practice any actions to be a member, and register with the World Service Office [i.e. to be included in a meeting list so anyone seeking a group in the area can find it]. Groups may declare a special focus (i.e. for men or women or young people or race or lifestyle) or a defined topic of discussion, but even here group membership must be open to anyone who desires to follow Christ. These special focus or special topic tags are simply a way to let potential members know what kind of meeting they can expect.
A desire to follow Christ is at the heart of membership. There are many opinions about what it means, exactly, to follow Christ. Nobody is excluded from membership because of their personal opinion of how to do this. Note also that while the desire to follow Christ is required, a person doesn’t have to be doing this consistently or in all areas of life. We encourage each other to keep coming back, no matter what. In fact, many of us have kept coming back despite problems following Christ – and have found this to be the key to our following Him more consistently and fully.
Occasionally groups are plagued by members who disrupt the harmony of meetings. Of course groups must protect their members from violence or harassment. Groups have been known to confront a person acting in an abusive manner and ask them to leave the meeting. But even these people are never permanently barred from the group and denied the chance to follow Christ. Luckily, such extreme cases are rare. We have found that most personality problems can best be dealt with on a one-to-one basis.
Tradition Four: Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or the movement as a whole.
There are no musts in following Christ. As individuals, we are responsible for ourselves and are free to follow Him (however fitfully) however we wish. The same principle holds true for groups. This Tradition gives groups the right and responsibility to operate as they see fit, free from any outside influence. Autonomy means that groups can have no other affiliations (as a group). It also means that no other group of service body within the movement can dictate group action. The only limit to group autonomy is that groups should not do anything that will injure other groups or the movement as a whole.
This gives groups the freedom to do what works best for them. Each group chooses its own meeting place and time, format and practices. Every group makes its own decisions – and mistakes – without interference from any governing body other than its own group conscience. Failure to uphold a Tradition does not result in a group being summarily ejected from the Fellowship – we might not have any groups at all if that were the case! When a group does not honor the Traditions, it’s usually because members are well informed about them, not because they choose to ignore them. In extreme cases, where a group is affecting the Fellowship as a whole because of its persistent refusal to operate by Traditions, the group may be deregistered from meeting lists. However, the service body taking such an action should do so only after much soul-searching.
Autonomy also means that groups operate free of outside influences. A meeting held in a church, office building, hospital, school, or other gathering place must conform to building rules concerning smoking, noise, tidiness, rent, parking, and the like. But we do not let others influence the group by limiting members’ rights to express themselves in meetings. Nor can membership be confined to members of the church, employees of the company, patients at the hospital, residents of the area, or otherwise, since groups are open to all who have a desire to follow Christ. Certainly, outside organizations should not be allowed to interject their practices into meetings.
Tradition Five: Each group has but one primary purpose – to carry its message to the sinner who still suffers.
We who have found a sane way of living have a responsibility to make sure the movement doesn’t get distracted. Our groups come together so we can learn to follow Christ with fellow sinners. The Twelfth Step [i.e., to carry the message to recovery other sinners] enshrines our experience that we cannot keep the precious gifts of our own recovery unless we give recovery away by sharing the message. No matter how well we follow Christ, we still need to hear the message. Every time we offer our experience, strength, and hope to the still-suffering sinner, we give back what we have been given and this continue to the flow of healing power that fosters our own recovery.
A group is not a social club, though we make wonderful friends there and look forward to seeing them at meetings. Tradition Five reminds us that groups need to focus on meeting the needs of newcomers and struggling members. This includes personally welcoming them and explaining the basics of the program.
The “sinner who still suffers” isn’t always a newcomer. She or he can also be an established member experience difficulties with the disease of sin or with other problems. Seeing one of our members go into relapse or face personal problems can be frightening. We may instinctively react by not reaching out or avoiding them at meetings. When we act in these ways, we’re forgetting the primary purpose of our group, which is to carry the message of hope to those who still suffer – including those among us who have heard the message many times before.
Tradition Six: A group ought never endorse, finance, or lend their name to any facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
Tradition Five defines our primary purpose. Tradition Six cautions each group to stick to the primary purpose exclusively, no matter how many outside enterprises may interest us as individuals. Members who are unfamiliar with Traditions Five and Six sometimes promote outside enterprises in meetings – everything from books and vitamins to conferences and revival meetings. Many of these enterprises may be helpful and deserving of attention and support. Why then do groups make it practice to say no to all such outside endeavors? Though they may be worthwhile, they threaten to divert the attention of groups from the primary purpose, which is to carry the message of recover to sinners who still suffer.
While we often meet in facilities belonging to an outside enterprise, this implies no affiliation with the entity that owns the building. Groups pay rent for the use of the meeting space to keep this clear.
Our lack of attachment to any kind of outside enterprise gives us a marvelous freedom. We operate with a minimum of worry about funding, administrative problems, or the success and failure of outside ventures. By avoiding any such affiliations, groups can concentrate on following Christ instead of on problems associated with money, property, and prestige, which cause so much conflict in the world around us.
Tradition Seven: Every group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
If a group is to fulfill its primary purpose and remain free of outside influences, we must stay free of the need for outside contributions. Thus, each group ought to be full self-supporting. Money is needed to the keep the program alive, but no one is charged dues or fees, Instead, we collect the “Seventh Tradition,” and most are glad to contribute to keep our own groups and our Fellowship afloat.
We don’t ask for or accept support from outside sources. There is also a limit on the amount that may be given by one member in a year to the World Service Office. The reason is clear. If we accept gifts from outsiders, or too much from one member, it threatens out autonomy. We may become dependent on these funds and never learn to take responsibility and pay our share. The need to maintain good relations with the donor could then divert attention from our primary purpose. Meanwhile, those who are paying our way might naturally expect to influence our decisions. In these situations, we need to remember that our ultimate authority is a loving God as expressed in our group conscience.
Tradition Eight: We should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
Members serve each other in the group, but none receive payment. Our reward is something money can’t buy: our own personal recovery. This tradition of non-professionalism helps us steer clear of the profit motive and concentrate on offering recovery to all who seek it. Since there are no professionals, we all have equal opportunity to serve our fellow sinners. We don’t need certification, education, or credentials to share our program or to serve.
When the service centers that help many groups need special skills, professionals are hired for their expertise or advice. Experience has shown that some paid employees are necessary to take care of the Fellowship’s business. However, we are never paid for service we give towards our primary goal: to carry the message of recovery to other sinners. Members who lead retreats or events are reimbursed for their travel and lodging expenses but not are not paid for their leadership – even if they are professionals who command a fee in other settings.
Tradition Nine: We ought never be organized, but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
Chaos isn’t the goal of Tradition Nine. Rather, it encourages us to remain as free as possible from the bureaucracy that tends to form around institutions. In such instances, the organization and administration takes on a life of its own and obscures the real purpose of the group. Taking care of group business is very important, but as little as meeting time as possible should be spent electing service officers, voting on issues, organizing events, or making report. Instead we concentrate on sharing our experience, strength, and hope with each other and on studying the Steps and Traditions.
This Tradition helps to ensure that God always remains our ultimate authority. Without an organized power structure in which to operate, no single person or group of people can govern others. No rules can be laid down, no punishments handed out, no orders issued.
Tradition Ten: We have no opinion on outside issues; hence our name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
This organization will not be moved to throw its moral weight behind other good causes. How can we sit by and say nothing about the many social evils that seem to go unchecked in our world? Our members come from many areas and backgrounds, and we have many shades of opinion on every issue. If we were to take a stand on any one of these, we could immediately alienate some of our own membership as well as many of our fellow sinners outside of our groups. By allowing controversy over outside issues to drive people away who need the recovery we offer, we would be taking a step backward from our primary objective of carrying our message to the sinner who still suffers.
This does not mean that members must give up every outside concern and activity. As individuals, we are free to believe in, and work for, any cause we choose. The Tenth Tradition simply asks us to leave these issues outside when we enter a meeting.
Tradition Eleven: Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity in the public media of communication.
Filled with enthusiasm for the program, many of us want to tell every sinner about it. Carrying the message, after all, is an important part of the Steps and the primary purpose of the Fellowship. The Eleventh Tradition gives us some guidelines for carrying the message.
We publicize without promoting. We want people to know what we do and how to find our meetings. Thus we use public media of communication (websites, radio, videos, displays at fairs and conventions, etc) to provide factual information about our program. However, we do not promote it with personal appeals, celebrity endorsements, or other such means of persuasion. Few of us who are now part of this Fellowship tried it the first time we heard about it. We needed this program then, but it took a while for some of us to decide to come and be willing to work the Steps. Until we were ready, nobody could have “sold” us this program. We carry the message best when we share frankly what the program is and what our own experience has been. The Eleventh Tradition respects the right of others to choose it for themselves.
Members must maintain personal anonymity when speaking of their participation in any public medium of communication. This means not showing our faces and not using our full names. We have nothing of lasting spiritual value to gain—and perhaps much to lose—by publicizing our recovery. When we ignore the Eleventh Tradition, we set ourselves apart from other members in order to take on the role of spokesperson. Being a celebrity can be fun, but inevitably our star status isolates us. Then we have a hard time asking other members for help when we need it. Humility is one of the essential qualities we must develop in order to recover from sinning. Maintaining our anonymity at the level of the public media is one way we practice humility. It’s one way we let go of personal ambition in order to keep ourselves in fit spiritual condition.
Tradition Twelve: Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all these Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
Behind all these self-sacrificing attitudes is a single spiritual foundation: anonymity. It is essential that all of us understand and respect anonymity if the Fellowship is to survive and we are to find recovery here.
Our experience with the many aspects of anonymity starts when we walk in the door as newcomers. At that point, many of us don’t want anyone to know we’re coming, anything about our relationship with sin, and the problems it has caused us, or how we feel about ourselves. Here we find a haven, a place to share our feelings and experiences with other human beings who also suffer from the disease of sin. When we all respect the anonymity of others, we can trust that nobody outside these rooms will know we’re coming unless we tell them.
Yet anonymity means a great deal more to us than just not gossiping. To be anonymous in a group means to be one among many, to accept ourselves as no better or worse than our fellows. This acceptance places us in a state of humility and enables us to become teachable. We often go on a first-name basis in meetings, not because we’re embarrassed about our membership, but because last names simply aren’t important. Members may be famous or unknown. We may have many accomplishments or few, a lot of money or little. As we practice our Tradition of anonymity, we affirm an important truth: here, we’re all on equal footing—reduced to helplessness by our sin and freed to recover by following Christ. Money, intelligence, and status made no difference in our being sinners and they make no difference in our chances for recovery. So anonymity fosters humility and guards against reemergence of that blind self-will that leads back to sin.
We learn that our recovery comes to us through the Principles of the program, not through personalities. We discover that we can learn from and work in harmony with people whose personalities we dislike, as long as we focus on the Principles. Many of us have had the experience of hearing fellow members we disliked say things we found helpful to our recovery. For this reason, the names of speakers and leaders at large group events are not advertised ahead of time. Their Fellowship service titles may be used, but only when the speaker/leader will be performing the service responsibility of their office.