Sponsors and Sponsorship

In the early days of AA, the fellowship was really anonymous. The only way you even found out that there was such an organization was to have someone invite and escort you to a meeting. This person was your sponsor, and became responsible for showing you the ropes, making sure that you got to meetings, and so forth. Later on, after Bill Wilson wrote the Steps and they were adopted by AA, sponsors began guiding their “pigeons” (as newcomers were called back then) through the process that has since become pretty-much standard for all 12-Step groups.

Over time, the relationship of newcomers and sponsors has changed a bit, but the essential idea behind sponsorship has not. A sponsor is a person with substantial sobriety or clean time, who agrees to help a newcomer through the steps. And that is all a sponsor is, as far as the fellowships are concerned. He or she may become a friend and mentor in other respects, but the principal responsibility remains the same — to insure that the “sponsee” makes it through the first few months of sobriety with the skills to continue on the path to recovery.

An aside: Note that I wrote “the path to recovery,” not the path of recovery. Recovery is a process, progressive and predictable, the same as relapse and the spiral into addiction. Early on, we are not “in” recovery, we are working toward it. After we have the tools, and are reliably applying them in our daily lives, we can say that we are established “in” recovery. This may seem like nit-picking, but it isn't. Unless we understand that recovery is a process, not an event, we are liable to assume too much, too soon, about our ability to remain clean and sober.

But I digress. I was in the process of pointing out what sponsors are for. They are not financial advisers. They are not marriage counselors, and the only relationship advice they need to be giving is to stay out of them for the first year or so. It is not their job to save our souls, nor is our religious affiliation (or non-affiliation) any of their business. Although they may elect to provide transportation to meetings occasionally, they do not relieve their sponsees of the responsibility to learn to fend for themselves. They do not provide loans, housing or romantic partnership for newcomers. That's why women sponsor women and men sponsor men, unless one of the parties is gay. (This was not always the case, but over the years it has proven to be a wise rule.)

One of the biggest changes over the years has been the custom of asking someone to become our sponsor. Early on, the person who brought you into the group became your sponsor. Then there was a period in AA when you came into a meeting and someone took you under their wing; in effect, your sponsor chose you.

Nowadays we get to choose, and that can be either a good or a bad thing. This writer spent a great deal of time trying to find a sponsor who was “right” for him, and made a number of lousy choices before hitting on one that worked. Remember the purpose: getting through the 12 steps. We don't need someone who can win a popularity contest, or discuss the fine points of Shakespeare, or help us improve our golf game. We need someone who thoroughly understands the fellowship and the steps. He or she will also insure that we become involved with the group and with service — progressively more as our abilities increase. If our sponsor is not doing those things, we need to take a good look at the relationship, because it is a pretty good sign that he or she either does not know, or does not understand the responsibilities that go with the job.

In the early days, it was presumed that after newcomer had gone through the steps, gotten involved in service, and broadened relationships in AA, the fellowship itself became all that was needed in terms of guidance. Although Bill Wilson referred to his friend Ebby as his sponsor until his death, it was not considered really necessary to have a sponsor after the first couple of years. Today that has changed, to a degree. Some people believe that they should always have sponsors. Others take the opposite position. I don't mean to push either, but I will say that it's nice to have someone you can talk to outside the family, who understands where you're coming from and who will not judge you.

Bottom line: we all need a sponsor early on, and it doesn't really matter if we like them. What matters is whether or not they're up to the job.

Disclaimer: this writer does not speak for AA, NA, or any other organization including Sunrise Detox. These are his opinions, and others will differ. As with all recovery information, try to take the good stuff and not get upset by the rest.