Tradition Four: Group Autonomy OR Intergroup/Area Tyranny?

Tradition Four (Short): Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.

Tradition Four (Long): With respect to its own affairs, each A.A. group should be responsible to no other authority than its own conscience. But when its plans concern the welfare of neighboring groups also, those groups ought to be consulted. And no group, regional committee, or individual should ever take any action that might greatly affect A.A. as a whole without conferring with the Trustees of the General Service Board. On such issues our common welfare is paramount.

Bill Wilson learned:

“Nowhere in AA is there to be seen any constituted human authority that can compel an AA group to do anything…After struggling a few years to run the AA movement I had to give it up–it simply didn’t work. Heavy handed assertion of my personal authority always created confusion and resistance.”

Bill Wilson elaborates:

Tradition Four is yet another confident declaration of mutual trust and love as it flows from each AA group to the other. We give each group full autonomy, the undisturbed right to manage its own affairs. To make this condition doubly permanent and secure, we have guaranteed to all AA groups that they will never be subjected to any centralized government or authority. In turn each group agrees that it will never take any action that could injure us all. Rarely indeed has any AA group ever forgotten that precious trust.

“We had discovered that there was perfect safety in the process of trial and error. So confident of this had we become that the original statement of AA tradition carried this significant sentence: Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA Group provided that as a group they have no other affiliation. This meant, of course that we had been given the courage to declare each AA group an individual entity, strictly reliant on its own conscience as a guide to act…Every group has THE RIGHT to be wrong.”

Bill Wilson said:

“…let us look more closely at Tradition Four. The first sentence guarantees each AA group local autonomy. With respect to it’s own affairs, the group may make any decisions, adopt any attitudes that it likes. No overall or Intergroup authority should challenge this primary privilege. We feel this ought to be so, even though the group might sometimes act with complete indifference to our Tradition.”

Bill continues for emphasis, to describe a most extreme, outrageous example of departure from typical behaviour:

“For example, an AA Group, if it wished, may hire a paid preacher and support him out of proceeds of a group nightclub. Though such an absurd action would be miles outside of our Tradition, the group’s ‘right to be wrong’ would be held inviolate. We are sure that each group can be granted, and safely granted, these most extreme privileges…hence we say to each group, you should be responsible to no other authority than your own conscience.”

Bill Wilson was often criticized for this laissez-faire attitude. Immaturity, lack of responsibility, promoting anarchy with a resultant dilution of our program were some criticisms. His answers to such criticisms were consistently simple:

“…almost anarchistic…a structure that actually invites deviation, knowing in advance it will fail, because we have the coercives of continuous drunkenness, insanity and death…because the penalty for enough deviation is drunkenness, and the penalty for drunkenness is insanity or death, we think that this is sufficient. We don’t have to supplement God’s work of correction.”


by Bob Pearson

At the closing brunch on Saturday morning, Bob Pearson (G.S.O. senior adviser), who is retiring early next year, gave a powerful and inspiring closing talk (excerpted below) to the 36th Conference. (This talk was rescheduled from Friday afternoon.)

Our greatest danger: rigidity

This is my 18th General Service Conference – the first two as a director of the Grapevine and A.A.W.S., followed by four as a general service trustee. In 1972, I rotated out completely, only to be called back two years later as general manager of G.S.O., the service job I held until late 1984. Since the 1985 International Convention, of course, I have been senior adviser. This is also my last Conference, so this is an emotionally charged experience.

I wish I had time to express my thanks to everyone to whom I am indebted for my sobriety and for the joyous life with which I have been blessed for the past nearly 25 years. But since this is obviously impossible, I will fall back on the Arab saying that Bill quoted in his last message, “I thank you for your lives.” For without your lives, I most certainly would have no life at all, much less the incredibly rich life I have enjoyed.

Let me offer my thoughts about A.A.’s future. I have no truck with those bleeding deacons who decry every change and view the state of the Fellowship with pessimism and alarm. On the contrary, from my nearly quarter-century’s perspective, I see A.A. as larger, healthier, more dynamic, faster growing, more global, more service-minded, more back-to-basics, and more spiritual – by far – than when I came through the doors of my first meeting in Greenwich, Connecticut, just one year after the famous Long Beach Convention. A.A. has flourished beyond the wildest dreams of founding members, though perhaps not of Bill himself, for he was truly visionary.

I echo those who feel that if this Fellowship ever falters or fails, it will not be because of any outside cause. No, it will not be because of:

  • treatment centers or
  • professionals in the field, or
  • non-Conference-approved literature, or
  • young people, or
  • the dually-addicted, or even
  • the “druggies” trying to come to our closed meetings.

If we stick close to our Traditions, Concepts, and Warranties, and if we keep an open mind and an open heart, we can deal with these and any other problems that we have or ever will have. If we ever falter and fail, it will be simply because of us. It will be because we can’t control our own egos or get along well enough with each other. It will be because we have too much fear and rigidity and not enough trust and common sense.

If you were to ask me what is the greatest danger facing A.A. today, I would have to answer:

  • the growing rigidity;
  • the increasing demand for absolute answers to nit-picking questions;
  • pressure for G.S.O. to “enforce” our Traditions;
  • screening alcoholics at closed meetings;
  • prohibiting non-Conference-approved literature, i.e., “banning books”;
  • laying more and more rules on groups and members.

And in this trend toward rigidity, we are drifting farther and farther away from our co- founders. Bill, in particular, must be spinning in his grave, for he was perhaps the most permissive person I ever met.

Bob Pearson (senior adviser)

Has your local area or intergroup been policing your meetings? Have you been informed that your Group’s message, meeting format, and/or meeting literature is not World Services Approved? Has your Group been taken off Intergroup/Area’s listings of meetings because of alleged non-compliance to Traditions? Let us know about your Intergroup or Area dictates, governance, and outright enforcement of mandates, rules and laws inhibiting a Group’s ability to “carry its message to the alcoholic or addict who still suffers”.

16 thoughts on “Tradition Four: Group Autonomy OR Intergroup/Area Tyranny?

  1. Though I fully agree with what the speaker said, I feel that the pedulam can swing to ar the other way. Though rigidity is problematic, letting go of our fundemental way of working the program is dangerous. For example: "Open Discusion Meetings" where we can listen to all kinds of nonsense and never hear the solution. While groups need laditude in how they run themselves, the Program of AA, and how it was done in the begining, should stay the same.

  2. The best book to teach the 12 Steps from is Back To Basics by Wally P. It is an inspired text with the truth about the 12 Steps. It is not AA approved and all the meetings I teach from this inspired text have been removed from AA meeting books.

    I consider that a Blessing, it shows me I am doing the right thing.

    I use Intergroup as a Barometer of what not to do.

    You see, the best way to acheive success today in AA or CA is to take the advise of Intergroup and then do the opposite.

    That is my experience.

  3. One last comment…

    No Intergroup, no conference approval, no meeting list, no policies, no literature, no world service, and above all no human being(s) EVER and I mean EVER…can stop me from walking into my local detox with the Big Book of Alcoholic Anonymous in my hand and a sincere desire to help in my heart. That is between me and God.

  4. I find the content of this transcript and Bill Wilson’s quotes illuminating.

    My questioning of attending my Area Committee is something I have personally struggled with for the past 6 years since I last sat at that table. I was a junior chair at the convention committee and active in the H&I committee. I had quite an outrageous experience though did not at the time recognize it was Tradition violation that sickened me. I have wrestled with many pros and cons of my participation since that time and my thinking wavers all the time.

    My decision over that period of time is to not support my fellowship’s Area structure nor contribute any money to support it. Each individual is of course free to find their own path and I will reveal mine, with the hope that it is helpful to those faced with the same question.

    Fundamentally, I hold that a culture of thought exists at the Area Committee which believes, very stridently, maybe not always consciously, that they are a governing or managing tool. This has from time to time been expressed to me directly as in "someone has to be in charge"…oh really! This belief is very contrary to their servant role and a very basic misinterpretation of Tradition. Governance is specifically warned about in Tradition 2. It may be the greatest danger to our unity.

    Secondly, the Traditions tell us that our solution to achieve unity is a loving God’s direction via group conscience. See, "someone is in charge!"This concept of group conscience is so very, very, very much more involved than what is understood and practiced at the Area. I have researched and written about this subject of conscience and submitted those writings, based on historical information, only to have them ignored and ridiculed. The result is that the guiding force at the Area table is a an organizational form of self will run riot. Interestingly, a hallmark of active addiction.

    These two most important and basic misunderstandings of Tradition provides me little common ground for discussion at the Area Committee. They contribute to the problem of disunity and avoid the solution of God’s guidance…a toxic combination. I am absolutely not prepared to compromise on Tradition values or fight those unwilling to listen or participate in hidden agendas contrary to our purpose.

    I have seen, over the years, many individuals that become involved at Area with the greatest good intentions of changing the Area culture. They end up compromising important values to get along and avoid conflict. Or they leave the fellowship altogether. The Area table pressure is great to conform and sometimes vicious. I used to joke that " when the meetings were convened, God left the building!"

    This is why my path has been to work outside the influence of Area and represent the Tradition values of our Second Legacy through my actions. This is my form of participation. My actions, combined with like minded others, have consistently led to a greater communication of our true message to newcomers. I am humbly satisfied with that result. The decisions at Area only have power if we give them our power and I am not willing to do this and become another of their victims. Nor am I willing to risk the unity in our fellowship by legitimising their actions, exemplified by the two motions currently at their table. The Area structure, which ironically, is designed to serve us, may unfortunately be our biggest threat.

    Also I do not financially support Area since this is a tool Bill gave us in the 7th Tradition to deal with service structure I do not agree with. This of course does not mean that basic services like phone line, schedule, website and helping new groups are not appreciated and done well. However, they are unfortunately not the only thing Area thinks it does and there in lies the rub.

    The question begging is,What to do at Area if one decides to stay and participate?" I don’t presume to have that answer but will offer an idea or two.

    Our first priority , like in recovery, could be an all out commitment to learn the Traditions, just as we learned and practiced the Steps. Not knowing the Traditions, which requires a familiarity with the history as Bill W. points out, is like trying to sponsor without having learned and taken the 12 Steps. Impossible to do with decent results, immoral and probably dangerous. In this way we may see our real purpose as "trusted servants," not governors, and learn what actions are required to be taken to achieve ‘true group conscience."

    Secondly, we could all focus our attentions on the basic service needs of our fellowship; schedule, phone line, website, new group help etc. , the basics, which are less likely to be messed up. We then can stay out of other subjects which we may find have little to do with our true purpose and get us into governance. Things like unecessary committees, enforcing Tradition, special events, conventions and individual group’s business. In the future we could proceed very slowly in awareness of Tradition in these Areas if we still find it necessary. This will seem radical to some, but I believe we are in a destructive spiral that needs correction.

    Thirdly, we could develop an introduction/learning function in some form to educate new members as to their role as a "trusted servants".This would include qualification guidelines that would support members in seeing if they are at all qualified to be at Area and provide a method to develop skills. This I believe is done in AA to some degree. New people are often lost at the table, then co-opted out of necessity to conform to the existing culture. New servants often bring only ignorance of their purpose and coupled with the right to vote, are a bad recipe for a "trusted Servant."

    Rob I.

  5. I can think of several examples of Intergroup/Area policing. Most often these petty "untrusted" servants will send "spies" to various meetings to check up on them, making sure they carry only "approved literature" and conduct "approved meeting formats". They use the Twelve Traditions as a force of rule and law rather than guidelines to unity.

    The Toronto Big Book Muckers’ were removed from the A.A. list in the mid-1990’s because A.A. representatives didn’t like the way they carried their message to suffering alcoholic/addicts. In May 1996, A.A. ousted two members from elected positions as coordinators of treatment center meetings because they had been espousing the Muckers’ philosophy. Representatives of A.A. are reluctant to comment on the Muckers’ or to discuss the relative merits of their approaches. At the time there were some 2000 Big Book Muckers’ across the GTA.

    Recently, Toronto Intergroup refused to list an A.A. Group that used Back-To-Basics: The Alcoholics Anonymous Beginners’ Meeting Format of the 1940’s where newcomers could take all 12 steps in Four One-Hour Sessions. Apparently their message was not A.A. approved literature.

    I spoke with a fellow in Houston, Texas, who told me of a NA Group that was shut down by NA Intergroup because they were using the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as their basic recovery literature. It was considered non-NA approved literature.

    Most recently, Cocaine Anonymous Southern Ontario Area wants to dictate to CA groups what message they can post on their websites to the suffering addicts! Even when it conforms to approved CA literature! What’s next mandating specific meeting formats? CA-SOA also wants to decide and dictate to CA members who can form CA groups–even when a new group conforms to CA World Services Guidelines.

    It boggles a recovered addict’s mind.

    What’s the remedy?

    Take two Big Books and one newcomer and call me in the morning!

  6. I thought I should point out that the C.A. Phoenix Group should be listed in your Big Book Step Study list. That is, unless you have some tyrannical criteria for listing groups there. Rob, I have often found myself in a similar quandary — what to support and what not to support of my area — but each of us, obviously has our own interpretation of the Traditions and must follow that. Oh, and if I recall, the two persons that got "ousted" from their positions in AA in 1996 was over a dispute when the treatment centres in question complained about the mucking approach. But… whatever. There’s no value in hanging on to old "harms" – seems a bit like resentment. The bottom line is that the righteous adversarial approach negates a humble, power of attraction perspective. But each to their own.

  7. "AA’s often say, ‘Our leaders do not drive by mandate; they lead by example.’ If we would favorably affect others, we ourselves need to practice what we preach and forget the ‘preaching,’ too. The quiet good example speaks for itself. — AS BILL SEES IT p. 183

  8. Over the years and recently, a certain style of statements are made regarding Tradition discussions. These statements are offered as responses to sound, thoughtful arguments concerning Tradition violation and one appears in the comments associated with this blog. Often expressed as, “we each have are own interpretation of the Traditions,” as appears in previous comments. Or the comment, with with less sophistication, “well, that is what they do in AA, we’re not AA.”

    I would like to offer a view of these statements and their inherent vacuity.

    In the broadest sense, we all of course can all interpret anything, including Tradition, the way we want. This is self evident. However, this statement is not sufficient defense or justification for any thought or action. Spiritual action makes a higher demand. This is particularly relevant when it affects the freedom of individual members or groups.

    Thinking people will see that responsible interpretation implies the notion that there is some process employed to bring out deeper, revealing, meaning and understanding. Quite a more substantial thought than “I can think what I want because I can,” which is really the basis of these comments written above.

    How does this apply to Tradition discussions?

    Firstly, one of the tools we can use for responsible interpretation of Tradition are the historical records of the specific problems that the summaries of our Twelve Traditions were developed to solve. They provide a meaningful and important context by which to make sound interpretation. This history is the basis of any intellectually honest discussion of Tradition in the way that precedent informs our legal process. Ignorance of this point, particularly by those who are trusted servants, is very problematic.

    Bill Wilson advised this when he pleaded, “So we who are older in AA beg of you who are newer to ponder carefully the experience we have already had of trying to live and work together.”

    Secondly, honest reading of what our Tradition summaries actually say in clear, specific and unambiguous English may be done. No spinning of words, detracting from their obvious meaning, to serve the most fashionable agenda. In reference to the two recent motions at CA Area and viewing them through this prism, what can one easily conclude what is meant when reading the following?

    Tradition Two: “Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” No equivocation. Note there are no caveats like, “except when a few individuals decide to override this Tradition because they disagree.”

    Tradition Four: “Each group should be autonomous” Further reading would reveal that despite some warnings about irresponsible group behaviour, this freedom to groups would be held to be inviolate.

    Thirdly, one can always check to evaluate interpretations of Tradition by seeing how they affect unity of the fellowship. If a decision was made in one short conversation at a committee and a ground swell of disagreement results, then obviously group conscience is not in play, regardless of the fact that a majority vote occurred. True group conscience is unifying not divisive. It is arrived at slowly, over time, so that all opinions and facts may be considered. The AA Group Pamphlet, from 1995 describes this. “The informed group conscience is the collective conscience of the group membership and thus represents substantial unanimity on an issue before definitive action is taken…The result rests on more than a yes or no count”

    When I read an article like the one that inspires these blogs and that article is filled with historical context and the experience of well respected oldtimers and founders of the Twelve Step movement, I realize that the opinion has substance and weight. When the response to such articles are juvenile statements like, “we each have our own interpretation of Tradition” or “well, that is what they do in AA and we’re not AA”… when the responses never contain any historical context or founders experience…when the motions are more than obviously divisive… I am at a loss of what to say. It’s akin to the child’s argument, “You can’t make me!”
    God help us!

  9. Rob, your comments seem a thoughtful, if sometimes specious, analysis. Issues of interpretation abound in the discussion of what an Area or Intergroup can do or don’t do, let alone when people use words like “vacuity”. LOL. If it were not so, there would never be disagreements – yet, of course there are, in any of the 12-step fellowships that seem to rotate in discussion here. But let’s face it, having such a discussion in the context of an AAA platform, however, seems almost ludicrous given the origins.

    Saying ‘that is what they do in AA and we’re not AA” also seems to work both ways – if on one hand, Bill W, or you, might encourage the newer people to heed the experience of the elders, certainly we have to establish which ‘elders’ and which history. And please don’t suggest to me that grabbing expedient pull-quotes from various old-timers constitutes any kind of moral authority. There’s a pull-quote for every occasion if you look hard enough. Rule 62. CA, for example, is most definitely not AA. NA, for example, is most definitely not AA. Each organization’s experience with their respective Traditions is based upon their own fellowship’s experience (or lack of it). Go grab an expedient quote from one of the old-timers in those fellowships if you must comment about their fellowships.
    In all events, that a group has the right to be wrong, should not mean that others should simply stand back and watch. And if a group has the right to be wrong, it follows that an Area – as a manifestation of the groups — has an equal right to be wrong also. Moreover, it is sometimes too easy to clutch the Traditions to one’s breast when it suits, but ignore them totally when it doesn’t. But then, that is also a question of interpretation – if only, at the minimum, of who is doing what to who.

    And what of the spiritual principles behind our “interpretations” and what of the impact on unity? Again, discussing that in a AAA context seems ironic at best. From a spiritual perspective, if we are confident of our spiritual foundation and that of others, we might say that this person/group has a truth, the other person/group has a truth, and together they have a bigger truth. Instead of immediately taking positions that divide, we might seek positions of inclusiveness that unite into a bigger truth. But using judgmental terms like “juvenile” and “childlike” don’t, at least in my mind, correlate with the spiritual perspective of which I’m aware. I’ve seen little effort in that regard, and instead seen such efforts to foster inclusiveness simply rebuffed in totality. If this were the position sought, in all likelihood there would not be such a thing as AAA, which, only on the basis of observation, seems to encourage the polemic, indeed to provoke it.

    So you argue that if one short conversation at a committee sparks a groundswell of disagreement, that the committee does not in fact have a group conscience. I don’t think I disagree with that. At all. Yet, you seem to suggest – or interpret – that the recent action in CA to rescind group status to the so-called “special meeting group” was somehow ‘one short conversation’. Actually, it’s an example of your point. A short conversation at a committee allowed it group status when, in fact, later, its advocates freely admitted that it was a ploy to avoid Area involvement. This is spiritual? Personally, just me, I find it a manipulation and the root of all manipulation is divisiveness and dishonesty.

    It was the groundswell of group conscience you speak of that rescinded it. But I guess that too is a subject of interpretation. One doesn’t like the result? – then the process must be wrong. One doesn’t like a Trustees’ opinion on a matter, then it’s convenient and expedient to remind all that not only does Area not govern, but Trustees do not govern (and, what the heck, let’s ignore their elder experience in this case). Where is that long considered, carefully applied, more than a yes-no count deliberation that you speak of? If you claim the spiritual high-road, then show it to me.

    I am deeply troubled by the divisiveness I see in some of the fellowships. I came to participate in this forum because I genuinely wanted to understand those perspectives of people that would self-righteously monopolize the proceedings of one group and then brag about it later – to understand perspectives that were so very different from my own. I’ve learned a few things – both about myself and some of the participants here. First, I’ve learned that I don’t belong here in an AAA forum. AAA is not a “fellowship” – if indeed that is what it is — that I am able to appreciate or to contribute to in a positive and spiritual way. I thank those here for their tolerance of my perspectives and I apologize to them for any disruption of their serenity that I have caused through my participation. I won’t do so in this forum again.

  10. Re: AAA is not a "fellowship".

    To clarify, AAA is really a fellowship. We have AAA groups and members all over the world who carry the message of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to suffering addicts.

    We are however a very loosely organized fellowship. We often feel that where ever there are two or more addicts working together in the Big Book – there goes a AAA meeting. We often encourage members of other fellowships to learn the steps and know their Big Book and go back into their fellowships to carry the message.

    P.S. Sorry to hear this is your last post Kurt. I often do not agree with your position, but I thought your posts were "yeast" for our bread.

    P.P.S. In the past, I have not been very supportive of the Twelve Traditions, but it was Rob I’s thoughtful posts, and emails about the Traditions that caused my change of heart and mind towards the 12 Traditions and motivated me to seek a higher understanding of what they are really all about. The best definition Rob I. every gave me was this:

    "When an individual thoroughly follows all 12 Step he/she will recover. When a fellowship thoroughly follows all 12 Traditions, the result is Unity".

    I’m for that how about you?

  11. "Doesn’t nearly every society on earth give authority to some of its members to impose obedience upon the rest and to punish or expel offenders? Therefore, every nation, in fact every form of society, has to be a government administered by human beings. Power to direct or govern is the essence of organization everywhere. Yet Alcoholics Anonymous is an exception. It does not conform to this pattern. Neither its General Service Conference, its Foundation Board, nor the humblest group committee can issue a single directive to an AA member and make it stick, let alone mete out any punishment."-Bill Wilson, 12 & 12, Pages 172-173.

    “You might think AA’s headquarters in New York would be an exception. Surely, the people there would have to have some authority. But long ago, trustees and staff members alike found they could do no more than make suggestions, and very mild ones at that. They even had to coin a couple of sentences which still go into half the letters they write: ’Of course, you are at perfect liberty to handle this matter any way you please. But the majority experience in AA does seem to suggest…’ Now, that attitude is far removed from central government, isn’t it? We recognize that alcoholics can’t be dictated to-individually or collectively.” -Bill Wilson, 12 & 12, Pages 173-174.

  12. AA is not a religious organization. There is no dogma. The one theological proposition is a power greater than oneself. Even this concept is forced on no one. (Bill W.)

  13. I feel the issue of autonomy can be a spiritual balm that can heal a lot of the issues that seem to be tearing at so many in the fellowship. I was raised in AA in a small town and was very fortunate to be a part of a group conscious that was taken seriously and handled with reverence and with a great deal of humble self searching. I remember those gatherings as the greatest teachers about how to get along in the world. I learned it was not about me, but about us. If we became terse with each other we took a break until next week and prayed about the issue at hand asking only for the "knowledge of his will for us, and the power to carry it out. When we would gather again we would all be better informed and a bit more humble and we would make a better decision. This did not mean that we were all getting what we wanted, but, we got something even better, a better understanding of ourselves.
    The idea that there are some set of standards that we are all supposed to agree to and use a one minded approach with is as insane to me as my drinking and using was…I think I learned that limiting others by making more rules, limited the ability of me and others in my group to admit, "we know only a little" and that "God will constantly reveal more to you and us". If members of meetings make decisions in this manner what right does anyone have to say otherwise. I think those that are trying to control others every move should realize that letting go let’s God have a chance to teach others, even if they make mistakes. We are not perfect, I am glad we don’t have to be perfect because my idea of perfection could be so wrong for me and many of my fellows.

    Autonomy allows me to open my mind and be teachable.

  14. I have understood the spirit of the 4th Tradition. The Local Area Service Committee is objecting to our group because they say people are attending our group and the other meetings on the same day are not having attendees. They want us to close our meeting.
    Where do we stand?

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