‘Our leaders are but trusted servants they do not govern.’
Tradition 2 of AA and Al-Anon. The full tradition is ‘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.’
There are no ‘leadership’ positions in AA/Al-Anon. There are service responsibilities necessary for the group and the wider organisation to function and fulfil its purpose. In general each group has a secretary, treasurer, literature person and person or persons who organise the tea and coffee. It is considered both a privilege and a duty to hold a service position. It is a service to the group but it is also an opportunity for personal spiritual growth. But the post holders have to stand down regularly, usually after a year at most. Hanging onto office is firmly discouraged. It is not healthy for the individual or the group.
Everyone is expected to take their turn to maintain the essential group services. Anyone can volunteer for a service position. The only requirement is evidence of some capacity to maintain the commitment and, in the case of AA, some reasonable length of sobriety.
St Benedict provides for the election of Abbots who then have to stand for re-election periodically. Matters affecting the whole community are to be discussed by the whole community. Care has to be taken that all can have their say, especially the newest and youngest, for, Benedict says, the Lord often speaks through these.
And just like the Rule of St Benedict the prescription for a healthy community life in the 12 step world is rooted and grounded in Scripture.
24 A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
He washes his disciples’ feet despite Peter’s protests
14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
Leadership in the churches is usually equated with priesthood or they might be called pastors. Many churches have moving services at Easter where a senior clergyman/priest washes the feet of members of the congregation – lay people. In theory the church leadership is modelled on a servant leadership ideal. Unfortunately it so often seems that the reality does not match the ideal or the symbolic actions.
The Christian universe seems full of books, conferences, blogs, etc, all about how to be an effective Church leader. All of it seems to be premised on the assumption that the job of the leader or leadership is to tell people what to do and how to do it. To give orders. Lip service is paid to the importance of the faithful followers, usually laity, but the gracious words are not incarnated in institutional structures. Sometimes it seems that every Christian should aspire to leadership, being a follower is very low status indeed.
AA does things somewhat differently. This is one of its attractions for many alcoholics who have problems with authority and authority figures. They are natural rebels.
There is no special authority, power or privilege attached to an AA service responsibility. Any that might attach has to be given up as rapidly as it is acquired and the position devolves to another member. Their function is to do the groups housekeeping, ensure the practical details are taken care of. Setting up the room, putting out the literature, buying and making the coffee. The only authority that attaches is the group consensus that the officials should be allowed to conduct the meeting in an orderly fashion.
People who fill service positions are not spiritual leaders to the group. They do not have followers or disciples. Their authority is limited to the task they perform in that meeting. They will share their experience strength and hope in recovery with the meeting on exactly the same terms as any other member. No-one has to take their advice or obey their instructions (should they be so foolish as to try to give an instruction outside the limited remit of their service role).
They have influence to the extent that they are deemed by others to be worthy of it.
They may not even be the members with the longest sobriety. Newcomers are encouraged to take up service roles as soon as possible. Service helps recovery. Oldtimers will step in where necessary but are usually happy to take a back seat.
It seems to work. If it doesn’t work out, the group will have a group conscience and resolve the matter.
Which brings us on to the first part of the tradition:
“For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.”
A group conscience meeting is a short meeting usually held immediately before or after the real meeting. It tackles any decisions the group have to make or issues that have to be discussed. Groups are usually pretty keen to ensure the business is kept brief and to the point and does not interfere with the real business of the meeting - recovery. Whoever turns up forms the conscience for that group at that meeting.
It is common for people who don’t wish to participate in the group conscience to remain outside until it is over. One of the reasons it works is that AA business is just that, AA business. AA does not involve itself in outside issues. It keeps itself as free as possible from matters to do with property and finance. It is rare for agendas to be prepared, minutes to be taken at group level. If there is a hot issue that will be discussed for which the group conscience is called it will be stated when the group conscience is announced.
There aren’t even any particular requirements for how often a group conscience is called. Some groups have them every month or quarter, some just when an issue is raised that needs some discussion.
An AA group conscience meeting is not ‘chaired’ by an hierarchically appointed person whose function is to steer the discussion, take the decision or manipulate the group into a pre-determined decision. The role of the AA/Al Anon ‘chairperson’ is simply to facilitate the orderly conduct of the meeting. In some meetings the person who leads the group conscience meeting is not the person who then leads the meeting. It is more like the Quaker business meeting method and format than a Church Council.
The twelve traditions are the basis for the organisation and orderly conduct of the groups, preserving the unity of the fellowships. Additionally the twelve world concepts ensure that the management of the global and national structures maintain responsibility to the groups they serve.
In the “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” Bill Wilson says about experienced AAers, “The elder statesman is the one who sees the wisdom of the group’s decision, …..whose judgement fortified by considerable experience is sound, and who is willing to sit quietly on the sidelines patiently awaiting developments.
They become the real and permanent leadership of AA. Theirs is the quiet opinion, the sure knowledge and humble example that resolve a crisis. They become the voice of the group conscience…..They do not drive by mandate; they lead by example. This is the experience which has led us to the conclusion that our group conscience, well advised by its elders, will be in the long run wiser than any single leader”
Bill Wilson then describes a situation where he wanted to do something that he felt was a good thing, but which the group opposed. He obeyed the group conscience and realised that this was indeed the better choice in the long run. The group on that occasion had a better understanding of the AA method than he, its founder, did.
Of course, part of the reason it works is because of the other traditions, they fit together like a jigsaw – but that is a subject for another post.
Note: For simplicity I have only referred to AA but the same principles and methods apply equally to Al-Anon.
So many of the problems of the Churches, some more others, seem rooted in a model of leadership which is based on power, authority, prescription, layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy. How uninviting. We seem to have reinvented ourselves as modern Pharisees or a remnant of the
Matthew 23: 1-12
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
So maybe a Christian Community could adopt Tradition 2 just as it stands without amendment. After all, if a load of alcoholics can make it work, surely the Christian Church can?