The relatives of alcoholics when gathered together for mutual aid, may call themselves an
Al-Anon Family Group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.
The only requirement for membership is that there be a problem of alcoholism in a relative or friend.
For our group purpose there is but one authority –
a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.
Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
They chafe at suggestions, insisting they know best. At this point, the meeting begins to push back and elections bring a new round of officers. Those members of the “select committee” who have been ousted now fall into two camps – the “elder statesmen” who reflect on their experience and see the wisdom of rotation of service and the “bleeding deacons” who nurse their wounds and feel rejected and bitter. But the group has spoken and over time its desires will be tempered by the wisdom of its elder statesmen who can add experience, strength and hope to the mix. This potent combination of the majority opinion leavened by the wisdom gained through the sharing of experience is what we have come to call “group conscience.” It’s why Al-Anon groups take time to hear the various opinions of its members during business meetings and then vote to determine the best course of action.
- “Tradition Two shows us how to practice the first three Steps as a group. We admit our own limitations, come to trust a Higher Power to guide us and then turn the group conscience over to that Power.” Paths to Recovery p145.
Some Al-Anon members may be particularly susceptible to the temptations of leadership. We are often used to taking charge – it’s what saved us during chaotic childhoods and we often carried those traits into relationships and marriages. Managing, controlling, fixing, obsessing – these are hallmarks of the disease and can flare up when we take a service position in a meeting.
- A member shares, “I know it’s ridiculous but when I’m in my stuff I’m convinced that I’m the only one in the room who knows how to do the timekeeping correctly. I mean what are we talking about? Watching the seconds count down and raising your hand when it gets to zero? And I think I’m the only one who can do this?”
Of course we all laugh – because we recognize this trait in ourselves.
- “My overwhelming desire for control becomes glaringly obvious when I am tempted to control my group. I decide that I know what is best for all of us, or that I am the only who truly understands the Traditions, or that I know what newcomers need to hear and I alone must make sure they hear it. I may view this as a finely-developed sense of responsibility, but my attitudes and actions still amount to a form of dominance… When I insist on having my way, I am tampering with the spiritual nature of Al-Anon as a whole. Just as my Higher Power guides me in my daily life, a Power greater than myself is working within my group through the voices of its members.” Courage to Change p215.
Al-Anon refers to a “Higher Power” – to “God as we understand God” – and members are free to embrace whatever spiritual vision works for them. But the principle of asking for guidance from this “Higher Power” is what governs our actions as individuals and as a group. We seek guidance as individuals by practicing the Eleventh Step – by strengthening our relationship with Higher Power and praying only for knowledge of Higher Power’s will for us. As groups we access this wisdom by taking a group conscience – listening to the opinions of the members and then voting and accepting the wishes of the majority.
- A member shares, “I love the fact that we decide things in meetings by group conscience. It gives me the opportunity to practice the principles – particularly in our business meetings. I may have a very clear idea of how to solve a problem. Our format gives me the opportunity to state my opinion – once – and then listen to the opinions of others. We then vote to determine which course we’ll choose. When the group decides against my opinion, I have the opportunity to let it go, to trust that a power greater than me has weighed in. It has helped me so much to practice this. Our format makes me really focus my argument and then really listen as others weigh in. Finally it allows me to be peaceful and accepting when the decision is made. This has really paid off in my work and in my family. I am much less argumentative, worried and resentful. I can move on, trusting that not everything is my responsibility.”
And when we fall short? When we argue our points obsessively in meetings or buttonhole other members afterward to criticize the proceedings or gossip about people who disagree with us?
- A member shares, “I see many fellows who want to grow with program. But there are some members who want to dominate and control, more concerned about prestige and power than transformation. If you pray, meditate, do service, and give and receive this program as a “we” program, you will transform. The literature How Al-Anon Works, Discovering Choices, and Paths to Recovery are excellent examples and if one is honest when answering the questions at the end of each chapter, it will help you grow.”
And what happens when a meeting goes off track? Is it controlling to suggest change? Is it better to just find another meeting?
- A member shares, “I went to this meeting I hadn’t gone to in a while. It happened to be a business meeting – but not a business meeting like any I’d ever been to before. The chair would ask about an issue and then look around the room and make a decision. I was really confused. I raised my hand and asked when we were going to take a group conscience. She said we had. I was even more confused and said when? I didn’t see anyone raise their hands. She told me that they didn’t need to raise their hands, she just “knew” what the group wanted. Well, needless to say I was really thrown by this and haven’t been back to that meeting. But now I’m wondering if that was a cop out. What if some poor newcomer wandered in there and thought that “group conscience” meant that one person decided because she just “knew” what everyone wanted? I talked it over with members at a Traditions meeting I go to and they seemed to think we had a responsibility to point out when meetings strayed from principles. So I may go back there and raise this point.”
- “There’s no reason you have to continue going to a meeting where you are uncomfortable, but if you don’t tell that group why you are not going to attend anymore, are you being responsible? Aren’t individuals who speak, even when they are in the minority, part of what group conscience is all about? Isn’t that really how group conscience is formed?... And what about the newcomer?... They may never go to another meeting anywhere ever again.” Al-Anon Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions p97
We are governed by our group conscience and served by our leaders. It’s an important distinction and what keeps our meetings democratic and open.
- A member shares, “The idea that leaders do not govern is crucial to me as a graduate-school instructor. What ‘power’ do I have? Not much. I encourage students to do their work and let them know I’m paying attention to their activities. But I cannot hold anyone’s head over a book. In the past, I got stressed and angry at them and myself for my ineffective attempts to force my will. While I’m not yet fully divested from that stinkin’ thinkin’, the second tradition provides me an opportunity to consider an alternative. In my better moments, I realize that accepting myself as someone who leads without governing is my only path to serenity. The servant-leader role also helps me control my impulses around the ‘problem student.’ I get at least one every semester. What excitement when I can immerse myself in righting someone else’s life. I now have yet another student I could fixate on for months. Fortunately, it’s February. So I’ve heard a healthy dose of second tradition lessons recently, reminding me to seek sanity in Alanon’s teachings. Now I’m trying to focus on getting the problem student to someone who’s actually trained to help her.”
Knowing that we can seek guidance from Higher Power through the Eleventh Step and our group conscience relieves us of the terrible responsibility of having to make sure that everything turns out the way we’d wanted. Unlike Atlas, we can shrug the burdens of the world off our shoulders. And who knows? Things might turn out even better than we’d hoped…