Leaders as “but Trusted Servants”— Lessons in Spiritual Leadership from the 12 Step Programs

The “traditions” of AA and the other 12 Step Programs are the statements of common experience of the early pioneers in AA pertaining to the communal life, structure and practices of the Fellowship.  And the Second Tradition says this:  “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.”

Now, to many who read this for the first time, it seems a nice aspirational statement, a lofty goal and a noble vision, but surely cannot be the practical working reality.  But the truth is, as anyone active in recovery will attest, this is in fact exactly how it works.  Outsiders and newcomers are baffled to learn the extent to which AA is not at all like most traditional corporate organizations–for profit or not for profit. For example, though there is a “General Service Organization” that acts as a kind of international coordinating committee (whose members serve on a rotating basis), there are no executives, no CEO’s, no presidents, either at the regional, national or international level. There are no dues or fees, no formal membership and no designated leaders.  There are no binding rules or regulations handed down from on high. There are very few paid employees and the few that exist serve purely administrative functions: “special workers” in the language of the Traditions. The 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions are the closest thing there is to a charter or constitution.  Locally, each 12 Step group is almost entirely autonomous, and its internal practices are, in fact, decided by “group conscience”—essentially group consensus worked out in occasional, highly informal, business meetings.

Now, those who have studied corporate governance, culture and leadership will attest that this kind of organizational approach is highly novel, and by all organizational or sociological theories and principles, it really ought to have failed a long time ago.  But it has not, and in fact, AA and the other 12 Step fellowships continue to thrive, grow and carry the miraculous message of recovery to suffering addicts worldwide.  How can this be?  What really goes on here?  Well, it will be my purpose in this post to explore these questions, with a view towards helping Christians see our own approach to spiritual leadership and church governance in a new light.

There are, in my experience, two dynamics driving this nontraditional approach to leadership operating in the recovery programs: first, the overriding priority of unity and the common good, and, second, the concrete expression of the ethic of service—what Christians might call servanthood—that inhabits the 12 Step approach to recovery.

First, the priority of unity and the common good.  The First Tradition of AA says that “our common welfare comes first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity,” and it is the second clause of this sentence that is especially worth noting.  If one remembers that everyone who is serious about their recovery has a certain deadly urgency, an unconditional commitment to doing whatever it takes to maintain sobriety and sanity, then the idea that our individual recoveries depend upon group unity takes on a vital importance.  Remember that, for the recovering addict, nothing—nothing—has a higher priority than his or her recovery.  And here, the Tradition is saying that the well-being of the community is a vitally necessary element of every individual’s recovery.  If that is so—and experience over seven decades has shown that to be true—then each of us must do whatever it takes to ensure the common good.  After all, the experience of most addicts has been that nothing else—not individual ethics or morals, family commitment or love, mental health therapy, resolutions or self-will, nothing else—worked to get us sober.  It was only once we were introduced to the 12 Steps that we were able to surrender, ask for and accept help, and get well.  So we know, intuitively from our experience and cognitively through the Traditions, that the survival and health of our recovery fellowship is absolutely necessary to our own survival and health.  That given, then people in recovery wholeheartedly accept and embrace whatever organizational approach has worked to bring success to the fellowship, including the reality of unconventional leadership.  But it is not just “unconventional” leadership; it is leadership based on a service model.  Which brings me to the second aspect of 12 Step leadership.

The 12 Step leadership model is based on service to others, and not on traditional traits of skill, wisdom, success, charisma, or any of the other attributes that often comprise organizational leadership.  The fact is, service to others is ubiquitous in the recovery programs.  Indeed the 12th Step says, in part, “we tried to carry this message to alcoholics,” and working with others in service and love is a hallmark of any mature recovery.  Truth is, most of us in recovery have learned that, unless we learn to get out of our own selfishness and self-centeredness and give ourselves to others—“give it away”—then we are not likely to stay sober. And so we help others.  At any given time I act as a sponsor to a half dozen men in recovery, and many people in the fellowships sponsor far more than that.  We work with others, we commit to being present for them in the ins and outs of life.  Most of us can tell stories galore of late night and early morning calls, of visits to jails, hospitals and treatments centers, all centered around reaching out to the suffering addict. We sit with our brothers and sisters in illness, in death, in family crises.  We show up in courtrooms to be with our brothers and sisters who are in trouble.  We hold their hands as they pass away, or we show up at funerals and embrace them when loved ones pass.  I am being quite literal here.  The fact is that most of us who are committed to recovery spend many, many hours each week in service to others in the fellowship.  Now, it is important that readers here know that I am not suggesting there is any particular merit or virtue in this service. There is not; for the fact is, we do it for selfish reasons– to ensure our own sobriety and survival.  That may seem a strange irony, but it is a truth—perhaps a subject for a future post.  But the point at present is that the ethic of service to others runs throughout AA and the other recovery fellowships: it is our currency, our stock in trade, for we know that, without this commitment to helping others, we will inevitably relapse and face insanity or death.  And so we serve. It is only natural, then, that our structures of leadership reflect this dynamic of service.

Turning, then, to the life of Christian faith, we can consider our leadership structures and ethics. Now, it is not my purpose here to have an ecclesiological discussion about proper church organization—hierarchical, representative, consensual or otherwise.  There are many learned theological treatises out there that take on those thorny questions.  We know that the Holy Spirit can and does work through all these forms of governance, and we know that all of these forms can be twisted to selfish and ungodly ends.  What is my purpose is to ask about the spirit and ethic that infuses these structures.  And I submit that if we but listen to the great Masters of the Faith, we will remember what is our call.

If we measure by His influence, Jesus Christ was the greatest leader who ever lived.  And yet, recall that when he was asked about greatness and leadership by his feuding disciples, he called to His side a small child and told them to become like this (Mt 18.1-5).  When He wanted to demonstrate the nature of the Kingdom of God, He took off his garments, gird himself with a towel, and knelt to wash their callused and dusty feet. “Do you know what I have done for you? If I, your Lord and Master have washed your feet, so should you wash one another’s feet” (John 13.12b, 14).  When He wanted to explain all this, He gave them a new commandment, “That you love one another, just as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13.34-35).   St Paul, who was converted from the heights of exalted leadership to setting out the Good News from the grimy cells of Roman prisons, urged the young Christians to “look to the interests of others, regarding them as better than yourselves” (Phil. 2.3-4), and then set forth the most beautiful of hymns about the nature of Kingdom leadership as shown by Jesus, “who…did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave…” (Phil 2.6-7).

Not just biblical but historical stories reinforce the ethic of servanthood for the Christian and the Church: St Peter, the historians tell us, insisted that his crucifixion be done upside down, lest he ever be compared with Jesus;  the desert fathers fled positions of prestige and power to live in simple service to one another in the wilderness; St Francis literally stripped off the adornments of wealth and status and walked naked away, ending up in the embrace of lepers and outcasts; Mother Theresa literally spent herself in tender service to those dying in the filth of the streets of Calcutta. Each year at Ash Wednesday, in many churches the clergy kneel and wash the tender feet of people in their congregation, as Jesus did, as Jesus said to do.

What all these Saints are telling us in the Church is that “our common welfare should come first; personal salvation depends upon our unity.”  Jesus and Paul remind us that in God’s Kingdom, the way up is down, that Gospel leadership is equivalent to servanthood, that the first shall be last and the last first, that we are to “empty ourselves and take on the likeness of a slave.”  This is our leadership ethic, this our way.  Our leaders must live this out for the survival of the Church, upon which all our salvation depends.  We, from the highest places of Church leadership to the new convert to the church janitor, must learn again what it is to live our lives in service to others, in simple acts of love and help, in practical and unspectacular everyday gestures, imitating our Lord and Master. For the servant is not greater than the master.

And like our friends the addicts, we must do this as if our very lives depended upon it.  Because, if we take the long view, the spiritual view, the Kingdom view, our lives do.


About Kelly Clark

I am a convinced, if not very virtuous, Christian, recovering from alcohol abuse and many other addictions, and have been working a program of recovery consistently for over nineteen years-- since I blew my life up with chaos and crimes and hurt many people I loved. I am active in 12 Step Fellowships, sponsoring several men and attending several meetings each week. I expect to finish a Masters of Divinity in the Fall of 2011, and soon will begin a discernment process in my church about possible ordained ministry. In my day job, I am a trial attorney, representing adult victims of childhood sexual abuse.
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2 Responses to Leaders as “but Trusted Servants”— Lessons in Spiritual Leadership from the 12 Step Programs

  1. Richard Sipe says:

    Just gets better and better.

  2. Cindy Young says:

    Wow! You are definitely a wonderful writer Kelly. I have been trying to be a better person on my own. What a lonely road I have been on. I was deeply saddened also with Amy Whinehouse passing. I related so much to her daily struggle to fill a void within. I will rethink AA for me. I believe in a “higher being” but need to be more open about Jesus. You have offered alot of information on which I must think about. Thank you for sharing.

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