This document is available for PDF download: Sponsorship

Edit.  Akron A.A. in 1940 was obtaining a 75% success rate in teaching alcoholics to get sober and stay sober. The techniques, strategies, and principles set out in this manual must be taken very seriously by modern A.A.’s, particularly if your own success rate with newcomers is nowhere near that high.

This edition of A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous (the 1940 Akron Manual) was formatted for web by Glenn C. in January 2002, and is available for printout at http://www.iusb.edu/~gchesnut. This valuable little pamphlet was rescued from oblivion by Barefoot Bob (Post Falls, Idaho), webpage http://www.barefootsworld.net/abc_pg60.html, e-mail bobhard@nidlink.com. I think it appropriate here to quote a few of the lines Bob put at the end of his webpage version of this manual:

“It is my hope that by getting back to the basics of A.A., and the sharing of this data, that the transition from the life of a drunk to a sober life


”Every sponsor is necessarily a leader. The stakes are huge. A human life, and usually the happiness of a whole family, hangs in the balance. What the sponsor does and says, how well he estimates the reactions of his prospects, how well he times and makes his presentation, how well he handles
criticisms, and how well he leads his prospect on by personal spiritual example – well, these attributes of leadership can make all the difference, often the difference between life and death.” – Bill W.

”The door opened and he stood there, fresh-skinned and glowing. There was something about his eyes. He was inexplicably different. What had happened? 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!

He had come to pass his experience along to me – if I cared to have it.”……”My schoolmate visited me, and I fully acquainted him with my problems and deficiencies. We made a list of people I had hurt or toward whom I felt resentment. I expressed my entire willingness to approach these individuals,
admitting my wrong. Never was I to be critical of them. I was to right all such matters to the utmost of my ability. I was to test my thinking by the new God-consciousness within. Common sense would thus become uncommon sense. I was to sit quietly when in doubt, asking only for direction and strength to meet my problems as He would have me. Never was I to pray for myself, except as my requests bore on my usefulness to others. Then only might I expect to receive. But that would be in great measure. My friend promised when these things were done I would enter upon a new relationship with my Creator; that I would have the elements of a way of living which answered all my problems. Belief in the power of God, plus enough willingness, honesty and humility to establish and maintain the new
order of things, were the essential requirements.”

Alcoholics Anonymous began with sponsorship- the action of one alcoholic sharing his experience, strength, and hope with another alcoholic. Prior to AA’s official beginning, Ebby carried to Bill the news of his newfound sobriety and the practical program of action by which this was accomplished.
While in Townes Hospital, Ebby took Bill through the six-step program practiced by the Oxford Group and encouraged Bill to do the same with others. Although Ebby did not remain sober, Bill continued to refer to Ebby as his sponsor- the man who carried the message to him.

Sponsorship in AA, like many of our important tools of recovery, was developed and formalized to fill a need in the program and became established as a tradition due to its effectiveness in helping the alcoholic to achieve permanent sobriety. The original text of the Big Book makes no mention of the term “sponsor” or “sponsee” or “pigeon” or “babies”, although Chapter 7 gives all the instructions necessary to sponsor an alcoholic into the AA program. In the beginning, while growth was painfully slow, there was no need to formalize the practice of sponsorship. All members entering AA did so by the practice of our Twelfth step and more than likely spent some time with some of AA’s founding members before attending his first meeting. Sponsorship was formalized as an AA tradition due to the explosive growth of AA in Cleveland following the publication of the Cleveland Plain Dealer article on Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939.

In AA Comes of Age, Bill W. states of this period, ”It was soon evident that a scheme of personal sponsorship would have to be devised for the new people. Each prospect was assigned an older AA, who
visited at his home or in the hospital, instructed him on AA principles, and conducted him to his first meeting. But in the face of many hundreds of pleas for help, the supply of elders could not possibly meet the demand. Brand-new AA’s, sober only a month or even a week, had to sponsor alcoholics still drying up in hospitals… How could they possibly manage, we did not know.

But a year later we did know; for by then Cleveland AA had about 30 groups and several hundred members… The Cleveland pioneers had proven three essential things: the value of personal sponsorship, the worth of the AA book in indoctrinating newcomers, and finally, the tremendous fact that AA, when word really got around, could now soundly grow to great size.”

Clarence S., a Cleveland AA originally sponsored by Dr. Bob in the Akron Group, can be credited with establishing the system of sponsorship as we have come to know it today. Due to the large number of inquiries and limited number of long-time AA’s, he saw the need to organize the assignment of
sponsors to prospective AA’s and to write some guidelines for the sponsor to follow.

One of the earliest pieces of AA literature to make reference to this system of sponsorship was the Akron Manual, published by the AA’s in Akron in 1940 and was in distribution within a year of the publication of the Big Book. This was followed by Clarence S. and the Cleveland AA’s publication of “AA Sponsorship…It’s Opportunities and Responsibilities.” Both of these pamphlets describe the role
of the sponsor as one of providing the newcomer’s introduction to AA. The current pamphlet “Questions and Answers on Sponsorship” published by AAWS states, “To join some organizations, you must have a sponsor- a person who vouches for you, presents you as being suitable for membership. This is
definitely not the case with AA. Anyone who has a desire to stop drinking is welcome to join us!”

However, in early AA, this is precisely what sponsorship was. The sponsor in early AA called upon the prospective member, presented his story according to Chapter 7 of the Big Book, and determined whether or not the prospect qualified for membership- whether he was an alcoholic and whether he had a sincere desire to stop drinking. The newcomer was then sponsored into AA. Upon determining that the prospect was a real alcoholic and that he was willing to follow our program of recovery, the sponsor was to arrange for hospitalization of the new member, arrange AA visitors to call upon the new man while he was in the hospital, introduce him to the AA book and our principles, and to take him through some or all of the steps of the AA program-all before taking him to his first meeting. Thus, the newcomer was
fully aware of our program and on our path to recovery before entering AA. In Akron, it was assumed that the prospective member would go through the hospitalization process where they would be attended by Dr Bob and other ”old-timers” One of the best descriptions of Akron sponsorship is in the story of Earle T. in the 2nd and 3rd editions of the Big Book.

”Then and only then, after a thorough indoctrination by eight or nine individuals, was I allowed to attend my first meeting…The day before I was to go back to Chicago, a Wednesday and Dr Bob’s day off, he had me down to the office and we spent 3 or 4 hours formally going through the Six-step program as it was at that time. The six steps were:


1.     Complete Deflation

2.     Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power

3.     Moral Inventory

4.     Confession

5.     Restitution

6.     Continued work with other alcoholics.

Dr Bob led me through all of these steps. At the moral inventory, he brought up some of my bad personality traits or character defects such as selfishness, conceit, jealousy, carelessness, intolerance, ill temper, sarcasm, and resentments. We went over these at great length and then he finally asked me if I wanted these defects of character removed. When I said yes, we both knelt at his desk and prayed, each of us asking to have these defects taken away.

This picture is still vivid. If I live to be a hundred, it will always stand out in my mind. It was very impressive and I wish that every AA could have the benefit of this type of sponsorship today. Dr Bob always emphasized the religious angle very strongly, and I think it helped. I know it helped me.
Dr Bob then led me through the restitution step, in which I made a list of all of the persons I had harmed, and worked out ways and means of slowly making restitution.”

In Cleveland, it was becoming apparent that a prospect who was not in too serious physical condition could skip hospitalization and be indoctrinated into the program while maintaining his job and other responsibilities. Men were sponsored by alcoholics only a few weeks or months sober, and upon
completion of the steps were sent out to sponsor others.

Up until the early 1940’s the role of sponsor was thought of as making the 12th step call, sobering up the newcomer, and introducing him to the AA way of life. Members came into the program only as a result of such personal attention. Very little was written of the type of ongoing relationship that we know today as sponsorship. However, with the explosive growth of AA following the Jack Alexander article in the Saturday Evening Post, many members began to sober up without the benefit of such personal attention,
using the book and correspondence with New York or Akron AA’s as a guide. Many locations did not have the benefit of a hospitalization period in which to introduce the prospect to the program. More and more often, sponsorship began as the new member began attending meetings.

Additionally, as AA members reached longer periods of sobriety, it became apparent that many deep-seated problems remained long after “putting the plug in the jug”. Recovery from alcoholism began to be thought of in terms of emotional sobriety or spiritual growth, there began to be more distinction between “dry” and “sober.” Bill W. continued to suffer from terrible depressions and in 1940 met Father Ed Dowling, with whom he formed a lifelong relationship as a sponsor and spiritual advisor. By the time of the publication of “The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” in 1953, the idea of a long-term sponsor-sponsee relationship and recovery as lifelong spiritual growth was firmly in place, if not in the fellowship as a whole, at least in the ideas of Bill W. The 12 & 12 talks very little about the disease concept of alcoholism and the physical sobering up of the alcoholic. Sponsorship is mentioned often and the sponsor is described as a friend or advisor who helps the new member work through the steps after he has come into AA. It is clear that the role of the sponsor is one of aiding the member’s spiritual growth beyond physical recovery. It is also clear that the sponsor’s role is to take the new AA member through the working of the Twelve Steps.

Since the writing of the 12 & 12 in the 1950’s, one of the greatest challenges to the sponsorship system and to AA as a whole occurred during the “Treatment Center Boom” of the 1970’s and 80’s. Recovery centers based on AA’s Twelve Step Program sprang up all over the country and began dumping 30, 60, and 90-day sober alcoholics and non-alcoholic addicts into AA meetings. AA’s membership increased dramatically and many new groups were formed. This would at first glance seem to be a good thing. However, for the first time in AA history, large numbers of newcomers were showing up who were physically recovered and feeling good about themselves. This removed one of the most effective tools we have in working with a newcomer- the feeling of hopelessness coupled with a desire to do anything to get over it. Many of these newcomers had worked the first 5 steps with the help of their counselors and arrived with the feeling that they had already done the steps. Many had acquired many non-AA therapies mixed with the Twelve Steps and brought this into the program. Most arrived far less teachable than they ever had in the past. Most were not assigned sponsors, but told to find someone they could “relate to” and call them to talk about their problems. In many groups sponsorship has become optional, with newcomers instead using the group as a sponsor, coming to discussion meetings and vomiting their
problems on all those in attendance. In these groups, who open their meetings by asking, “Does anyone have a problem or topic they would like to hear discussed?” AA has become a sort of group therapy focused more on the problem than the solution. The effect has been to allow the program of recovery to be determined by the newest and most problem-ridden members in the group. The effect has been to weaken the importance of the sponsor-sponsee relationship in working out solutions to these problems.
The pamphlet, “Questions and Answers on Sponsorship” published by AAWS, gives many suggestions of what a sponsor does and does not do. Strangely enough, one thing it does not mention is that the sponsor helps the newcomer take the actions described by the steps. It only suggests that the sponsor
”goes over the meaning of the steps and helps the newcomer understand their importance.” Hmmm…

What has become apparent to many of us who love AA is that where there is strong sponsorship, there is strong AA, where there is weak sponsorship, there is weak AA.


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