Lessons from Alcoholics Anonymous

August 26th, 2011

I’ve heard several people involved in Twelve Step work say that the Twelve Steps are AA’s gift to the Church, and that the Twelve Traditions are the Church’s gift back to AA. To clarify, the Twelve Steps are tools an individual uses to help them find recovery in dealing with an addiction. The Twelve Traditions, on the other hand, have to do with how those groups of recovering addicts govern themselves.

Why look to AA for how to run a church? Consider the fact that, while mainline churches have been in steady decline for decades, Twelve Step groups continue to flourish, largely without money, property, or staff.

Sounds like we could learn something from a model like that. What if we used the Twelve Traditions to govern ourselves as the church? I've tweaked them below to consider how they might play out to help (or hinder) the church.

1. Our common welfare should come first; the health of the faith community depends upon unity.

I wish we could claim that this is a given in every congregation, but it’s not. In our church, our mission statement emerged from this principle. We say we are committed to “cultivating love that is greater than our differences.” But too often it seems we value uniformity over true unity.

2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority - a loving God as God may express God’s self in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

Reminding ourselves to put God first, and that leaders are actually servants, guiding from behind, is a healthy practice that can lead to flattening out our governance model.

3. The only requirement for membership/belonging is a desire to grow in God’s grace/seek God’s will in one’s life/commit to a life founded in faithful service.

I’m not even crazy about using the word “membership” as this suggests exclusivity, but some congregations are still hung up on this. But the statement overall places value on belonging over doctrine, and claims that shared compassion is more important than believing exactly the same things.

4. Each church should be autonomous except in matters affecting other churches or the denomination as a whole.

I know that for most mainline churches, this sounds impossible because of their denominational structure, but this is something I think the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) gets really right. We celebrate congregations engendering their own group identity, networking the churches together through loose regional and national structures that act more as resource providers rather than authoritative governing bodies.

5. Each church has but one primary purpose - to carry its message to all who still suffer.

This resonates strongly with the missional church idea of going out and being Jesus to the world, rather than sitting inside our walls and talking about Jesus to those who will stop by and listen. And too often the primary purpose of the church is to sustain the institution for the sake of itself. We’re well served to be reminded regularly that this is not our call.

6. The church ought never endorse, finance, or lend their name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.

This is the first really tricky one for me. How does this affect outreach and mission work? Insomuch as we’re called to be advocates for those without a voice and without power, it seems to go against our mission to withhold funds and support from organizations with a wider reach than our own congregation. But I’m also not going to just throw one out because it’s inconvenient. I do, however, believe strongly that the call to never let money, property, or prestige take precedence over our primary purpose is essential. Easy to say; harder to do.

7. Every church ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

As one who helped co-found a church that still struggles to pay bills after seven years, this one is tough. But I can also say that, having accepted an outside gift as a congregation about a year ago, it caused more conflict and hurt feelings – and ultimately caused more people to leave the church – than any other issue in our seven-year history.

8. The church should remain forever non-professional, but our congregations may employ special workers.

This is another one of those that seems impossible on the surface to many traditional church folks. You mean we don’t pay clergy? How will they ever pay off seminary? How will we get someone who knows what they’re doing? Keeping in mind that my wife is one of those paid clergy members, it’s worth noting that both the Mormons and Quakers have operated more along these lines for a long time. And as house churches and bi-vocational ministry become more the rule rather than the exception, this will seem more attainable.

9. Congregations, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.

Ahh, but we love our boards, our deacons and elders. The whole place would crumble to the ground without them, right? But there are other models out there that are working besides appointed boards to operate based on democratic vote. Even AA has a process of consensus building that allows all voices to be heard on issues, and helps guide the group toward consensus while not marginalizing the minority. If it works for them…

10. The church has no opinion on outside issues; hence the church name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

This is the one I can least imagine working in church. Because we are, by our nature, driven by our ideology, it seems untrue to our call not to have public opinions on what we believe is right and wrong. However, in gleaning wisdom from a remarkably successful model, it might benefit us to ask if the opinions we express on behalf of our churches directly serve the mission of the group, or if they stray further afield toward other agendas. A little corporate humility, so to speak.

11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.

Fortunately, we don’t have the issue of anonymity in our congregations, which is so important in AA for building mutual trust. However, if we’re ever to grow beyond superficial politeness into a more authentic, three-dimensional relationship with one another, there ought to be some kind of confidentiality covenant among participants. And the principle of attraction over promotion is taking hold in emergent circles, among others. The ethos of “they’ll know we’re Christians by our love” means volumes more than telling people what you believe. Live it out more; talk about it less.

12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Again, though personal anonymity is not as critical for us, anonymity about who said what to whom is. There will always be people you don’t like in any church you’re a part of, but in a sense the “principles before personalities” value brings us full circle back to the first principle. For us at Milagro, that means cultivating love that is greater than our differences. And like any meaningful cultivation, it’s a daily practice that requires attention, care and no small amount of effort.

Rather than a how-to guide or some kind of “Ten Easy Steps to Good Church Governance” manual, my hope is that these lead to a larger conversation. The more voices included in the conversation, the more likely we are to benefit from some collective wisdom greater than our own.

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