Chairing AA Meetings

Sponsorship Prepares the New Member to Chair AA Meetings

Although the Redux discussion has focused largely on the specifics of sponsorship through a new member's step work, there is still another critically important area which can also be included in first class AA citizenship, and hence, included in the responsibilities of a thorough and complete AA sponsorship. Further, this particular area is one which seems to receive "short shrift" as a formal part of what might be generally considered as a traditional part of sponsorship.

Here, we can look at what is possibly a more expansive view of one of the most important parts of our AA program -- the quality and effectiveness of our meetings. As has been mentioned before, the man in our sponsorship will quite possibly be an on-going AA member long after we have become a fond "AA memory." We have all heard frequent, grateful references to past sponsors in the shared comments of other AA's, and we should not avoid the possibilities -- and the responsibilities -- involved in becoming one.

One way to consider the product of our efforts at sponsorship is to categorize the various places where that work might become a material asset to future AA's. We can think of this as three places where both we and the man in our sponsorship will share our experience, strength and hope. We need look no further than our AA medallions for a clue as to what those might be.

Recovery suggests that our own, individual sobriety and recovery will be required not only for our own survival, but also for effective AA citizenship. Unity suggests that we will all be working toward the same goal, that is, assisting each other -- new, old or in-between -- to achieve and sustain sobriety. Service suggests that we will joyfully and effectively answer the call when another alcoholic might need our help.

The "places" follow this same basic idea. Recovery will find its place in our individual, personal lives. Unity will be everywhere in all of our actions, but it will be especially manifest in our sharing with others. Service will occur wherever it is needed, always made possible by our own Recovery and directed by our Unity of purpose.

This section of Redux focuses on the application of these ideas to the role of the "good AA citizen" in chairing meetings.

The "Culture" of Service - The Meeting Chair

Of course, it would hardly surprise any reader if Redux were to "dive into" a quick guide of specific "Do's and Don't's" at this point. However, as appealing as such an approach might be to the alcoholic appetite to "control everything," there may be a fruitful alternative. A lockstep pursuit of such "Do's and Don't's" could hardly reflect the necessary personal commitment required by our understanding of the central focus of both our Step 12 or our idea of service.

So, absent the pitfall of thoughtlessly applying tricks or techniques, where does this leave us?

Here, we can introduce the general concept of a broader "culture" of service, one part of which will be a solid preparation for the task of chairing meetings. To approach such an idea, we can attempt to focus our attention on enhancing the over-all idea of successful meeting chairmanship, rather than a few anecdotal "guide lines" which offer the shallow promise of performing such a task without ever really becoming personally involved.

The absolute necessity of sharing in the "language of the heart" runs through all applications of the "experience, strength and hope" idea, and this includes the task of chairing a meeting. The spontaneous variability inherent in the vast possibilities of different styles of AA meetings can be "dead on arrival" otherwise.

There seems to be a common approach which suggests that the quality of AA meetings is essentially beyond our control, being, instead, some feature of a deterministic mythology. The actual fact probably rests somewhere in the middle ground between too much control and not enough. Further, such a laissez faire approach clearly has its own limitations. Sometimes it produces meetings with spectacularly high effectiveness, but, perhaps just as frequently, its results are less than they could have been.

Let's be frank. The "stakes" are sky high for every AA meeting. The group of alcoholics gathered in the room may contain a frightened, brand new member, an experienced member facing crisis or simply a friendly collection of seasoned AA's enjoying the good life of sobriety. It will fall to the meeting's chair to guide the effort, encouraging all participants to remember the Tradition of our Primary Purpose.

Of course, the content of individual comments remains with the corresponding speakers, but the atmosphere of the over all meeting, its conduct and its effectiveness all call to a higher collective discipline. Successfully chairing such a "get together" may be the ultimate case of "holding the saber loosely."

Introducing a "Big Picture" View of Chairing a Meeting

Sponsorship in this case may well include a few "tips" which have emerged in the experiences of the sponsor, but, perhaps even more valuable, a broad over-view of the essential nature of our AA meetings may provide a beneficial foundation as the new member embarks on this task. Remember, most AA's have never really accumulated much experience at such practices prior to their arrival at our front door.

There actually are a few common metrics which, when artfully applied, can provide great assistance to the inexperienced new member as he begins the important service of chairing meetings. But, even before any suggestions are made, however, perhaps the first order of business will be to compliment him on bravely stepping up to meet his responsibilities as a functioning AA!

If the chair of an AA meeting intends to direct the group effort effectively, he will need to consider some of the "facts on the ground" as he sizes up both the over-all "personality" of the group as well as what priorities might need to be addressed in the meeting.

Looking over the members present, he can size up his job of chairing the meeting. He will most likely see a wide range of accomplished sobriety, possibly some members who are clearly upset or possibly a general "lack of energy" which, if left unchallenged, might develop into a meeting where the minute hand on the wall clock will be a creeping torture which seems to have escaped the General Law of Relativity.

Let's look at a few convenient ways to characterize meetings both as an after thought and "real time" as they are unfolding. This approach relies heavily on the "continuum" idea expressed earlier in this discussion. Almost every meeting lands somewhere in the middle of the absolutes we sometimes find attractive as we observe things, and meetings are no exception.

Who is Listening?

We all know that formal meeting topics are definitely a "point of departure" much more than a crushing command decision. Even meeting topics which might, at first glance, seem to be "too advanced" or somehow "off topic" for some of the members present can wonderfully migrate to exactly "what the doctor ordered" as one of our meetings proceeds.

The range of possible meeting content can be characterized in the following way.

An effective meeting chairman understands that there is a great deal of "wiggle room" between the choices at either end of the range. Meetings for a group of seasoned AA's which repeatedly focuses on accounts of alcoholic drinking to the exclusion of other possible content can lead to a program vacuum where all the other parts of our AA program are never discussed. Likewise, meetings which focus solely on matters of continuing sobriety may leave brand new members scratching their heads in confusion.

An effective meeting chair can gently direct the meeting by calling on speakers in an appropriate range of sobriety experience. Very new AA members clearly seem to benefit from both the comments of seasoned AA's and the "live wire" sharing of other members who have been sober only slightly longer than the new man.

Experienced AA's who have brought an immediate challenge to the meeting can enjoy the same sort of benefit. A thoughtful share from a fellow traveller with a similar period of sobriety may be just right, or the constant reminder brought up by the comments from a much newer member may re-invigorate the all important gratitude which has been temporarily misplaced. Guiding the meeting in these directions is not necessarily a matter of happy serendipity or divine intervention.

Having some very earthly, determined "hands on the wheel" provided by a sincere and capable meeting chair can add a great deal.

The point is that the chairman must guide the meeting to where it needs to go. Every member present has travelled across town with a purpose to attend this meeting. Yes, the precise purposes may vary greatly in detail, but the collective goal deserves great respect. Making the thing work is a highly honorable effort, one which falls squarely as a responsibility of the meeting chairman.

"Feet on the ground, heads -- and hearts -- in the clouds"

Meetings can also vary greatly in their respective mix between sobriety's day-to-day challenges and the AA program's insistence on a spiritual solution to our problems. On one side, we discuss the "nuts and bolts" of living as sober alcoholics in a world which seems to relish introducing every sort of complication to our efforts. This is the world of wives, husbands, children, bosses and neighbors.

On the other hand, our AA program insists that we have no choice but to apply essential spiritual principles to our thoughts, out look and behavior. Much has already been said about just how confusing such a mandate may seem to AA's still growing in their newly settled sobriety. Naturally, newer members look to the discussion in our meetings to make that understanding constantly more robust and effective.

So, here the task of the meeting chairman will be to bring out both sides of the program with the goal of setting the over-all meeting content somewhere in the middle between the respective ends. We have attended meetings which either seem to be only slightly removed from an energetic "Dr. Phil" style self-help efforts and others which seem to be totally populated by modern day versions of "St. Thomas Aquinas," eagerly determined to share all sorts of marginally relevant mythology.

The point here is simple enough. Did the AA's who attended such meetings leave with what they had come to get or did they leave frustrated, perhaps a step closer to a deadly state of alcoholic hopelessness? This author has heard more than a few accounts of AA's leaving such AA meetings for a return to drinking before they even got back to their homes!

We can hardly place the entire blame on the conduct of that last meeting, but, in most cases, we can't totally exonerate it either. What was the meeting chairman doing?

Was the meeting allowed "free range" to roam wherever it might wander? Was too little attention paid to the needs of the members who were attending? Simply dispatching all responsibility to the actions of a Higher Power seems a little flippant. There were hands on the wheel during that last meeting, and they were the hands of a meeting chairman.

Our Basic Text describes a potent mixture of "feet on the ground and heads in the clouds." (BB p130) Although that comment is incorporated in its discussion of the affairs of the Family Afterward, the general idea fits well into the conduct of our meetings. A good balance between the "on the ground challenges" of sober living and the "spiritual challenges" of sober living makes for a productive and effective AA meeting. Too much of one and too little of the other can leave a meeting "out on a limb."


As experienced AA's we have encountered meetings which seem to be almost entirely accounts of pre-AA alcoholic drinking or lingering difficulties resulting from the effects of the disease after sobriety is accomplished. This type of sharing of experience, strength and hope is invaluable to the newest, uncertain members of any group. However, when viewed in a larger frame, meetings which focus solely on such matters can imply to the newest members that these topics, although undeniably essential, represent the main elements of our AA program.

As mentioned before in this discussion, it is critically important for those just entering AA to understand the difference between the disease and its consequences.

Likewise, meetings which are repeatedly infatuated with discussion of AA spirituality can be similarly problematic. In many cases meeting discussions running along this other side of the spectrum can imply that all parts of the AA program "take a second seat" to the prospects of a new member's spiritual progress.

We know that AA's immensely practical approach to spiritual matters derives from the application of such new ideas to daily living more than distant speculation concerning details of an implied mythology. The advantage of AA spirituality comes from the great advantages it offers in day-to-day sobriety. Spiritual topics for meetings should be guided toward these practical matters rather than complex conjectures about special arrangements with divine powers.

Of course AA's are free to entertain whatever supernatural ideas they wish, but meetings where topics of this sort become a sort of athletic competition for positions of dominant piety, crushing self-denigration or out right evangelism, new members may simply leave. We know where they will most likely go.

A productive balance with respect to these different possibilities will cover all the bases. New AA members benefit greatly from both an introduction to concrete proposals about daily life in sobriety and the equally essential spiritual requirements for recovery. Experienced members may be encouraged to see matters arising in more stable sobriety in a new light.

The meeting chair must not only be aware of the importance of this mix, he will be responsible for encouraging all participants in the meeting to incorporate comments which explain this to the newest members. He can accomplish this task by thoughtfully selecting speakers who will present a spectrum of AA positions.

How Much Theory, How Much Experience?

In most cases AA meetings show a wonderful and dynamic ability to successfully mix material from personal experiences with material from our Basic Text. No matter the exact topic chosen for a meeting, as the discussion progresses, there will be comments which relate daily encounters to ideas expressed in our literature and vice versa.

A meeting chairman must remember that some of those attending have not read our Basic Text and are relying on the material presented in meetings to "flesh out" their initial understanding of our program. Naturally, some part of a meeting should directly address the extreme advantage of carefully reading through the AA Big Book. However, in many cases it is the experience of other members which will invite a new member's curiosity the most.

Big Book study meetings follow a variety of approaches to this suggestion. In some cases, the Big Book is read for half a meeting followed by a discussion of the topics presented. In other cases, meeting members are encouraged to comment as the reading goes along. Although when either approach is taken a new member enjoys an opportunity to apply AA ideas to the immediate problems he is encountering, he may still lack what he considers an adequate understanding to comfortably share his own experiences.


When the complexity of a discussion of a specific Big Book topic seems to be excluding a new man from participating, a well equipped meeting chairman can take steps to further simplify the ideas being discussed. Although it is a practice which is generally avoided in meeting protocol, a chairman can still "step in" very briefly to emphasize a more limited, more specific area for the discussion. Of course meeting attendees are not compelled to limit their own comments based on such an intervention, but it may open up the opportunity for a newer member to feel more confident.

Elements from both ends of this spectrum are necessary for an effective discussion. Further, as experienced sponsors -- and meeting chairmen -- we know that constructing the bridge between concepts from our Basic Text and what a member may encounter in his own journey to sobriety is critical. Effectively applying ideas presented in our literature to the day-to-day challenges we encounter in sobriety can often mark the difference between success and failure.

Confidently Chairing Any Meeting

The member in your sponsorship may find himself reluctant to chair a "new" meeting which he has not previously attended regularly. Here, the incredible strength of our tradition of anonymity comes squarely into play. When such efforts are undertaken successfully, both he and those attending the meeting can benefit from another demonstration of our continuity of purpose, and -- our continuity of practice.

After all, successful sobriety includes a growing confidence that AA remains basically the same no matter where one encounters it. It also includes an increasing determination to be a "good AA citizen" who is equipped to perform whatever tasks may present themselves. This will include accepting an invitation to chair a meeting he has not previously attended.

Hopefully, AA's know the wonderful "camaraderie" our Basic Text mentions. In most cases we find this comfortable and supportive company in a home group or a meeting we attend regularly. As we get to know each other more completely -- at least, as we come to understand the anonymous examples of alcoholism in such meetings -- our initial reluctance to openly share diminishes. This is one important reason for a new member to place himself into regular attendance at a specific meeting.

However, this coin has its other side. At some point an AA will face the prospect of taking his program "on the road," that is, attending local meetings he has not attended before or even attending meetings in a different town. Further, many AA meetings have an unsettling habit of asking visiting AA's to chair a meeting. Perhaps the usual attendees at such a meeting appreciate the introduction of different viewpoints concerning AA's ideas.

Although the task of being chairman to an unfamiliar meeting might, at first, seem a little "breath taking," it should be accepted as a normal part of AA service from which a good AA citizen can benefit. If the man in your sponsorship can be made entirely comfortable attending any meeting anywhere under any circumstances -- including comfortably and confidently accepting the responsibility of meeting chairmanship -- an important "tool" will have been added to his sobriety tool box.

Here, just a little sponsorship can make all the difference between a confidence crushing disaster and the energizing experience of an even greater and rewarding sense of "belonging."


Although the first few times the member in your sponsorship faces this challenge may be rather breathtaking, his ability to successfully, confidently and comfortably perform the role of meeting chairman no matter the venue will always serve to stand him in good stead. Even when he is a little rattled at the prospect of facing all these unfamiliar faces, he must remember that among the attendees at this meeting are AA's who need a meeting.

So long as he focuses his efforts on that fact instead of being self-absorbed with speculating as to judgements he imagines the attendees might make about his sobriety, our famous singleness of purpose will carry the day.

Nonetheless, a previous discussion with a sponsor concerning such possibilities may be worth its "weight in gold." Although the principles which will define his efforts are no different in a new meeting than in a familiar one, a few comments from his sponsor about the mechanics of the task can help greatly.

Balance is Everything

The diagrams in the preceding section offer a few examples of ways to "size up" the character of a specific meeting. Of course, just as is the case with all the other parts of our AA program, an over reliance on mechanical "tips" and "guidelines" must always be avoided in favor or a more personal commitment.

The point here concerns the desirability of a detached, principle guided appraisal of a meeting being chaired by the member in your sponsorship. The process is remarkably in line with the self-observation which was an essential part of our step work. As sober alcoholics, we have come to understand the necessity of a clear view of what we are doing as a prelude to improving our performance as we move ahead in our recovery.

"We have entered the world of the Spirit. Our next function is to grow in understanding and effectiveness. This is not an overnight matter. It should continue for our lifetime." (BB p84)

Although this admonition from our Basic Text is deeply embedded in individual step work, it can be conveniently and profitably extended to encompass our efforts at meeting chairmanship. Considering the individual cases of meeting spectra introduced in the simple graphs presented above can lead to an understanding of meeting chairmanship which can, well, further expand our effectiveness.

A Few Easy Adjustments for Better Meetings

Let's consider a few examples about why some AA meetings turned out to be less effective than they could have been. In each case the meetings have been influenced by suspiciously "self-absorbed" chairmanship as opposed to "service oriented" chairmanship based on the simple AA ideal of always thinking of others.

1. The Long March

When an AA attending a meeting finds himself looking at the clock three or four times as it painfully inches toward the end of the hour, all sorts of things might offer an explanation -- the reason may rest with the meeting, what occurred during his day or just his general outlook. However, when the newest member in the group is seen performing this same ritual, there may be some mechanical aspects of the meeting's conduct which need closer examination and possible improvement.

Are those who share staying within a reasonable time before they relinquish the floor to the next speaker? On the other hand, have the time limits for individual sharing -- perhaps as a result of Group Conscience decisions -- been cut so short that no comment, regardless of its merit, can be expressed completely enough for other attendees to benefit?

An AA meeting needs to move, and it is the responsibility of the meeting chairman to make it move. On the other hand, it should not move so fast and relentlessly that no idea is ever presented thoroughly or comprehensibly.

2. Only the "Village Elders" Speak

Has the chairman of the meeting selected speakers with a good variety of sobriety time, that is, some new ones and some more experienced? Perhaps even more important, is the sobriety of the speakers encompassing both successes and failures, revealing the benefits of applying our program's ideas or not and displaying the tremendous variety of experiences any AA group contains?

Has the meeting simply grown so large that no one is expected to speak for more than 3 and a half minutes? Has the idea "grown up" in the meeting that every member present should speak at every meeting, no matter how much such a policy might shorten the time for each comment?

The fact is that many of the matters involved in the AA program require more than a quick "nip and a tuck" to be presented sensibly enough to benefit a new member. An equally important idea is that when such discussions are conducted from both the point of view of a relatively new member and a more experienced member, the newest attendee will have a much better chance to understand both the topic under discussion and the way public AA is conducted. Given a more thoughtful approach -- and timing -- the new member may see its relevance to his own sobriety more clearly.

A meeting topic of, say, our Step 7 should still benefit both the newest member and the most experienced.

3. The Fear of Saying "Thank You" and Moving On

One area of the responsibility of chairing meetings seems to create an on-going challenge. Outlining the problem is simple enough: a meeting chair will inevitably need to end a member's sharing at one time or another.

The process, naturally, has at least two sides to consider. On the part of the chair of the meeting, there will arise the uncomfortable necessity of telling one of your AA friends to "wind it up." On another side, each of us may have to constructively handle the prospect of receiving that very same message, thinking of others --in this case those who are in attendance at the meeting -- and choosing the opportunity to respect the effectiveness of the meeting over a chance to start a resentment.

After all, sobriety teaches us the important lesson: "Reality has no shortage of opportunities to get one's feathers ruffled."

As meeting chairmen, very few of us have found this responsibility particularly comfortable. However, avoiding it can almost certainly plunge an otherwise effective AA meeting into the status of the "Long March," while rising to the occasion can lead each of us to a more confident approach to not only this situation but similar challenges in other areas.

4. Applauding Durability - 87 Versions of "Can You Take It?"

Sometimes meetings migrate to a sort of athletic competition where experienced members present example after example of difficult circumstances they have encountered successfully in their sobriety. In each case the gravity of the challenge is presented in dramatic detail, framing the entire episode as one which is nearly impossible to survive with one's sobriety in tact.

Of course, such an indulgence often characterizes enduring such challenges as "miraculous" or exceptional. Too often such improbable "good fortune" is proposed to be the result of a special arrangement with whatever Higher Power the speaker may eagerly describe as an explanation.

Here, the implied message to the new member seems to miss the fact that such experiences occur all the time with AA members. Rather than "miraculous" and unanticipated, such successes are fairly routine and common. The AA program of recovery works -- regardless of the odds. Isn't that the message our meetings should convey to all those who attend?

Worse, once this trend is well established in a series of speakers, the competitive, athletic side seems to emerge. Once this has become well established in a meeting, the comments which should normally have been about the AA program begin a full flight into accounts of unanticipated exceptionalism, often with rather irritating aspects of both self-seeking and the presentation of outside interests, in this case, implied claims concerning the desirability of qualities found only in one's specific Higher Power.

AA focuses on recovery from our disease, and an uncertain, newer member need not be confronted with the idea that AA's experience this remarkable transformation only in exceptional cases. Any alcoholic who can get through the door can expect the same results if he works for them.

5. Drunk, Dead, Dismembered and Discouraged

Of course an important part of AA's message can only begin once a potential member realizes that we have all had experiences during our alcoholic drinking similar to his own. However, AA meetings necessarily involve much more than endless accounts of "how bad it was."

When considering our meetings in an over-view, there is a definite limit to the benefits of endless, varied accounts of AA's individual drinking histories. A few must be presented but too many such accounts begin to crowd out equally important information about sobriety and recovery. Meetings need to include discussions of both, probably with a much greater attention to the latter. Meeting time is a valuable and limited opportunity to present the details of the AA program of recovery along with good examples of specific experiences with each element.

One other questionable direction some meetings take is the discussion of alcoholics who have died from the disease and other alcoholics who have remained sober when that dismal fate has struck someone close to them. Again, it is a question of balance, and the responsibility for directing a meeting to that balance often falls to the meeting chair.

A central theme which can often help moderate such recurring comments is that an AA meeting, first and foremost, is directed at those who are in attendance. Long discussions of what happens in alternative scenarios with alcoholics who are not present misses the point.

As mentioned in the main Redux discussion, the sooner a new member understands the important difference between the alcoholic disease and its consequences, the sooner he will commit to solving his own problems. The solution will not rely on simply suppressing consequences, it will have everything to do with treating the disease.

Conclusion

The points and examples presented here are purposefully vague. Any regimen which strives to control meeting conduct, topics or chairmanship with an "iron fist" is doomed to fail before it even begins.

We have all heard the "herding cats" metaphor, and most of us can openly accept its applicability to any scheme to over-control our meetings. Balancing the normal alcoholic tendencies to control everything with a determination to make our meetings as effective as possible is the challenge.

Good sponsorship can easily include the general preparation of a newer member to perform the task of chairing a meeting effectively and successfully. It is yet another case where a sincere sharing of experience from a sponsor can add one more foundation to successful sobriety for the newer member.


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