The Myth of Sponsorship

No where in the first 164 pages of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous does it tell the newcomer or any other member of A.A. to get a sponsor.

I hear it all the time in the rooms of A.A., “Get a sponsor”, “Call your sponsor everyday”, and “Don’t make any decisions until you talk to your sponsor”.

I heard one fellow in the rooms of A.A. say, “My sponsor told me to call him everyday.” He replied, “But you’re out of town for the next two weeks?” His sponsor replied, “I said, you’re to call me everyday. I didn’t say I would talk to you everyday!”

Incredible! I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard this pathetic ‘bromide’ touted as a sound strategy for helping the newcomer recover. Furthermore, I hear other “sponsees” share about how dependent they are on their sponsors for advice and counselling on medical, psychological, financial, legal, and relationship matters. “They won’t make any decisions about anything until they talk to their sponsors.” It’s no wonder why the rooms of A.A. are wrought with co-dependent members unable to function independently without being hand-held and spoon-fed their sponsor’s “pap” for some indefinite amount time in the program of A.A.

I believe one of the biggest reasons A.A. recovery rates have plummeted from its stellar 50% to 75% success rates of the 1940’s to a dismal 10% or less success rate in the rooms today is due to poor and ineffective sponsorship.

Bill W. writes: “Though three hundred thousand have recovered in the last twenty-five years, maybe half a million more have walked into our midst, and then out again. We can’t well content ourselves with the view that all these recovery failures were entirely the fault of the newcomers themselves. Perhaps a great many didn’t receive the kind and amount of sponsorship they so sorely needed. We didn’t communicate when we might have done so. So we AA’s failed them.” (AAGrapevine. The Dilemma of No Faith. 1961. Vo. 17 No. 17).

Working with Others

“Any A.A. who has not experienced the joys and satisfaction of helping another alcoholic regain his place in life has not yet fully realized the complete benefits of this fellowship.” (A.A. Sponsorship Pamphlet. 1944. Clarence S.)

Question: What does the Big Book reference 123 times in the first 88 pages? Answer: Alcoholics working with other alcoholics. And, by working with another alcoholic, the Big Book doesn’t mean a “sponsor”, it specifically means two alcoholics working together, putting the A.A. Program into action.

How it important is it for A.A. members to work newcomers? Our Big Book says:

“Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail. This is our twelfth suggestion: Carry this message to other alcoholics! You can help when no one else can. You can secure their confidence when others fail. Remember they are very ill.” (Alcoholics Anonymous. 89)

“This seemed to prove that one alcoholic could affect another as no nonalcoholic (non-addict) could. It also indicated that strenuous work, one alcoholic (recovered member) with another (newcomer), was vital to permanent recovery.” (Alcoholics Anonymous. 3rd ed. xvi)

“We have recovered, and have been given the power to help others.” (Alcoholics Anonymous. 132)

“But if you are shaky you had better work with another alcoholic instead.” (Alcoholics Anonymous. 102)

“Helping others is the foundation stone of your recovery. A kindly act once in a while isn’t enough.” (Alcoholics Anonymous. 97)

What is the Function of the Big Book?

“To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book. For them, we hope these pages will prove so convincing that no further authentication will be necessary.” (Alcoholics Anonymous. 3rd ed. xiii)

“Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power? Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem.” (Alcoholics Anonymous. 45)

Spiritual Dependence NOT Sponsor Co-Dependence

Another thing I hear it all the time is, “Who is your sponsor?” When I reply, “I don’t have a sponsor”, I get an endless tirade of, “You know a person who sponsors them self, has a fool for a sponsor”. Now, when I came into the program, I had someone sit down with me and show me how to work the steps. After working the steps he then told me to show others how to work steps. And, that’s what I have been doing for the past several years, teaching others how to work the Twelve Steps and how to teach others to teach others to work the Twelve Steps. Occasionally, I will call the man who showed me “How It Works” to sometimes clear some Step Five work or discuss approaches on Step Nine, but mostly I call to talk about working with newcomers. And, he sometimes calls me to clear up some Step Five work or some other aspect of the program, but mostly he call me to discuss working with others.

Once again, no where in first 164 pages of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous does it ever recommend that I call a “sponsor”. When I need direction or guidance, the Big Book is very clear about who I should contact: “…he (Bill W.) was convinced of the need for moral inventory, confession of personality defects, restitution to those harmed, helpfulness to others, and the necessity of belief in and dependence upon God.” (Alcoholics Anonymous. 3rd ed. xvi)

“But there is One who has all power that One is God. May you find Him now! (Alcoholics Anonymous.” 59) “Next, we decided that hereafter in this drama of life, God was going to be our Director.” (Alcoholics Anonymous.” 62)

In the evening:

After making our review we ask God’s forgiveness and inquire what corrective measures should be taken. (Alcoholics Anonymous. 86)

In the morning:

We consider our plans for the day. Before we begin, we ask God to direct our thinking, especially asking that it be divorced from self-pity, dishonest or self-seeking motives. Under these conditions we can employ our mental faculties with assurance, for after all God gave us brains to use. (Alcoholics Anonymous. 86)

During the day:

In thinking about our day we may face indecision. We may not be able to determine which course to take. Here we ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision. (Alcoholics Anonymous. 86)

We usually conclude the period of meditation with a prayer that we be shown all through the day what our next step is to be, that we be given whatever we need to take care of such problems. (Alcoholics Anonymous. 87)

AA sponsorship styles

The role of the Big Book Sponsor is to teach the newcomer how to work a Twelve Step Program and show them how teach other newcomers to do the same.

Dr. Silkworth writes: “In the course of his (Bill W.) third treatment he acquired certain ideas concerning a possible means of recovery. As part of his rehabilitation he commenced to present his conceptions to other alcoholics, impressing upon them that they must do likewise with still others. This has become the basis of a rapidly growing fellowship of these men and their families. This man and over one hundred others appear to have recovered.” (Alcoholics Anonymous. 3rd ed. xxiii)

The Big Book gives explicit instructions on how to approach and work with the newcomer:

But the ex-problem drinker who has found this solution, who is properly armed with facts about himself, can generally win the entire confidence of another alcoholic in a few hours. Until such an understanding is reached, little or nothing can be accomplished. (Alcoholics Anonymous. 18)

That the man who is making the approach has had the same difficulty, that he obviously knows what he is talking about, that his whole deportment shouts at the new prospect that he is a man with a real answer, that he has no attitude of Holier Than Thou (that means we are not saints nor are we crusaders or mission makers), nothing whatever except the sincere desire to be helpful; that there are no fees to pay (that means the program is freely given to others and that there is to be no professional class of therapy or counselling), no axes to grind (we’re not here to have windy arguments or frothy debates with the newcomer), no people to please (that means no ass-kissing), no lectures to be endured (that means we are not here to judge or run your life)-these are the conditions we have found most effective. (Alcoholics Anonymous. 18-19)

In the 1940’s, the A.A. Beginners’ Meetings ‘s provided a safe and structured environment where newcomers TOOK all Twelve Steps and recovered from alcoholism, as well as a place where those who had been through the Steps learned how to sponsor those who were just starting on their spiritual journeys. The Beginners’ Meetings fostered participatory sponsorship and many newcomers were sponsored by two or more A.A. members, the sponsor and his or her apprentice(s). The term the early A.A.’s used to describe this relationship was co-sponsorship.

Key Concepts from the 1940’s Beginner’s Meetings

Wally P., author of the book, “Back to Basics: The Alcoholics Anonymous Beginners’ Mettings” and an A.A. archivist, interviewed many of the A.A. pioneers from the 1940’s about the early program of A.A.

Here is what Wally discovered about A.A. sponsorship in the 1940’s:

1. Don’t put barriers between the newcomer and Step Twelve. Help the newcomer get to Step Twelve as quickly as possible, so they can experience the life-changing spiritual awakening that occurs as the direct result of taking the Steps. Reassure the newcomer that our program of recovery will relieve their alcoholism/addiction. Show the newcomer that the process is simple, straightforward and that it really works.

The program takes only a few hours to a week at best to learn. Bill W. started working with other alcoholics as soon as he finished his last treatment which was a 5 to 7 day stay in the hospital back in the 1930s.

“My wife and I abandoned ourselves with enthusiasm to the idea of helping other alcoholics to a solution of their problems….I soon found that when all other measures failed, work with another alcoholic (addict) would save the day.” (Alcoholics Anonymous.15)

“…the broker had worked hard with many alcoholics on the theory that only an alcoholic could help an alcoholic, but he had succeeded only in keeping sober himself. He suddenly realized that in order to save himself he must carry his message to another alcoholic.” (Alcoholics Anonymous. 3rd ed. xvi) “Hence the two men (Bill W. and Dr. Bob) set to work almost frantically upon alcoholics arriving in the ward of the Akron City Hospital.” (Alcoholics Anonymous. 3rd ed. xvii)

Ebby T. was only 60 days sober when he passed the solution over to Bill W.

“But he (Ebby T.) did no ranting. In a matter of fact way he told how two men had appeared in court, persuading the judge to suspend his commitment. They had told of a simple religious idea and a practical program of action. That was two months ago and the result was self-evident. It worked! (Alcoholics Anonymous. 9)

2. It’s the responsibility of the Sponsor to call the newcomer! Demonstrate that you are there for the newcomer by checking in with them on a regular basis. Remember, the newcomer is very ill and needs your encouragement and support.

I’ve heard many sponsors tell their sponsees to call them everyday as a way of showing their willingness and if the fail to do so, they’re fired by their sponsors. I understand the notion of trying to gauge the newcomer’s willingness, but measuring the newcomer’s willingness by their ability to phone daily is like a doctor telling their patient, “you have a terminal disease and I need to treat you daily, so you must call on me daily to make sure I give you the remedy.” That’s not the way it works. The doctor realizes the patient is sick and it is the doctor who calls on the patient regularly to see that their remedy is administered as required. It’s the same way with the suffering alcoholic. Their minds and bodies are sick. It’s our responsibility as recovered alcoholics to call on the newcomer, to make sure the newcomer gets our common solution so that they too may recover.

3. Read the appropriate parts of the “Big Book” to the newcomer. The newcomer is in no physical or emotional condition to read, let alone comprehend, the “Big Book” by them self. Therefore, read and explain the appropriate parts of the book to the newcomer, specifically those 50 or so passages that pertain directly to taking the Twelve Steps.

This is an approach the “Muckers” of the Greater Toronto area developed in the early 1990’s. The Muckers focus is the Big Book; they use no other text. The emphasis is on the first 89 to 103 pages of the Big Book, which have not been altered since originally published in 1939. The process of one alcoholic or addict guiding another through the Book takes between 24 and 30 hours, usually done in 2 – 3 hour sessions, typically over a period of 2 – 3 weeks. In the process, the newcomer circle words and highlight passages and writes comments and notes in the margin of their Big Book. That’s way they are called Muckers, because they muck up the Book! During this period of “being booked”, the individual actually performs the first 11 steps of the program. By teaching it the “Mucker” method to other newcomers they complete Step Twelve.

4. The healing is in the sharing not in the writing. Sit down with newcomer and guide him or her through the Fourth Step inventory. If necessary, write the inventory while the newcomer does the talking. this will help relieve any anxiety or apprehension the newcomer may have about this part of the program.

So often I hear of alcoholics relapsing on Step Four. Why? Because they’re sponsors cut them loose and tell them to go do an inventory. Most alcoholics are either too jittery and sick to write out their inventory, or too afraid to look at the carnage of their past, so they relapse instead. By taking the Step Four and Five journey together, both recovered alcoholic and the newcomer can uncover the character defects and make efficient headway to Steps Six and Seven.

5. Assist the newcomer with his or her amends. Work together on the newcomer’s amends. Be the first person the newcomer sees after an amends is made. Once again, when I work with newcomers, I assist them in mapping out their list of amends and how to possibly make them.

6. Share guidance with the newcomer. Show the newcomer that you believe in and are practicing two-way prayer on a daily basis. Again, I am always doing Step Three and Seven prayers with newcomers and encouraging them to meditate on the answers rather than calling me for advice.

7. Co-sponsor the next newcomer. Have the newcomer accompany you as you work with the next person. This way, the newcomer will gain confidence in his or her ability to guide others through the recovery process.

One of Cleveland, Ohio A.A. founders, Clarence S. writes in a pamphlet on A.A. sponsorship: “Additional information for sponsoring a new man can be obtained from the experience of older men in the work. A co-sponsor, with an experienced and newer member working on a prospect, has proven very satisfactory. Before undertaking the responsibility of sponsoring, a member should make certain that he is able and prepared to give the time, effort, and thought such an obligation entails. It might be that he will want to select a co-sponsor to share the responsibility, or he might feel it necessary to ask another to assume the responsibility for the man he has located.” (A.A. Sponsorship Pamphlet. 1944. Clarence S.)

Thus we grow. And so can you, though you be but one man with this book in your hand. We believe and hope it contains all you will need to begin. We know what you are thinking. You are saying to yourself: “I’m jittery and alone. I couldn’t do that.” But you can. You forget that you have just now tapped a source of power much greater than yourself. To duplicate, with such backing, what we have accomplished is only a matter of willingness, patience and labor. (Alcoholics Anonymous.162-163)

Life will take on new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends — this is an experience you must not miss. We know you will not want to miss it. Frequent contact with newcomers and with each other is the bright spot of our lives. (Alcoholics Anonymous. 89)

Cameron F. Toronto, ON

P.S. How do you work with newcomers? Let us know, we like to hear about your experiences working with newcomers.


Alcoholics Anonymous: the Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001.

S. Clarence. 1944. A.A. Sponsorship Pamphlet.

Who are the Muckers in A.A. and C.A?

Newcomers, How do you read your Big Book? 2008.

P., Wally. Back to Basics?: the Alcoholics Anonymous Beginners’ Meetings?: “Here Are the Steps We Took– ” in Four One-hour Sessions. Tucson, AZ: Faith with Works Pub. Co., 1998.