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Spotlight on the 12-Step Sponsor Relationship

For me, the sponsor/sponsee relationship has been one of the most important, and sacred, relationships in my almost 27 year journey on the 12-Step path. For that reason, I chose sponsorship as the topic for this month’s article.  

Everything I am about to write is simply my opinion, based completely on my experience in this arena. If your opinion or experience has been different, that’s fine. Mine is no more valid than yours, and yours no more valid than mine. That being said, there seem to be few topics in AA on which there are more varying opinions – from how to choose a sponsor, who can sponsor, the role of the sponsor, and changing sponsors. And, there are no clear-cut guidelines or rules on these issues.

I am a hospice nurse, who works solely with the dying. The cases vary, and I often use what I refer to as the Braille System in my work, i.e., feeling my way along – like a blind person reading a page of Braille – because each situation is different. What worked with this patient, may not work with that one, and what worked with this one this morning, may not work with them this afternoon. It seems to me that sponsorship is similar, and the metaphor of using the Braille system – for the sponsor and the sponsee – is very appropriate.

Experience and Opinions

My experience is that I had my first sponsor 2 ½ years, my second for 6 months, my third for six years, my fourth for 1 year, my fifth for 15 years, and my current sponsor for 1 ½ years.

Each of my first five sponsees developed big lives as a result of the Program; one left the Program to walk a different spiritual path, two left the country for amazing work opportunities, and two left the area to either get married or to retire.-Jay WestbrookI have had male sponsors for 4 ½ years, and female sponsors for 22 years. I have had straight and gay sponsors, sponsors who were younger and those who were older, and sponsors with more education and less education than me – and each of my sponsors was absolutely perfect for me at the time they sponsored me.

Further, I have sponsored people with more time than me, and those with less time. Both my wife and I have sponsored straight men, gay men, straight women, and gay women, and we have sponsored across racial and religious lines. Sponsorship, for us, has never been about gender, sexual orientation, race, or religion. Rather, it’s about one alcoholic carrying a message of hope and transformation to another suffering alcoholic. There are those who may disagree, but that is my/our experience.

As to who can sponsor, or more precisely, when can one commence to sponsor, I have heard varying opinions. Some say you need a year or even two before you can sponsor, while others say the amount of sober time does not matter. Some say you have to have worked all 12 steps before you commence to sponsor, while others say that you’re fine as long as you’re at least one step ahead of your sponsee. I could be wrong, but it seems that if you’re only one step ahead of a sponsee, it would be pretty easy for them to “catch up,” and then what would you do. My rule of thumb is that a person should be at least half way through their ninth step prior to sponsoring. At that point, it’s unlikely that the sponsee will “catch up” to the sponsor, and the sponsor will [hopefully] have sufficient hope and transformation to offer the sponsee, in the form of a message of depth and weight.

Choosing a Sponsor

Choosing a sponsor is never easy, and different people do so in different ways. One may get recommendations from friends, while another may hear a speaker “tell their story.” In some cases, sponsors comes up to people and simply say, “I’m your new sponsor.” I have no opinion on these approaches, but here’s what I do when choosing a sponsor and/or when being asked to sponsor.

I ask potential sponsees to put pen to paper and write two lists:

  • What they want in a sponsor, including what they don’t want
  • What they’re willing to do for recovery…and what they’re not willing to do. (And “I’ll do anything” is not an acceptable answer, as it is seldom true.)

After completing both lists, we go over them to see if there’s anything that rules me out. For example, they may say, “I want a sponsor who will kick my butt, yell at me, make me go to meetings, and be like a drill sergeant.” I know some people need that, but I am not willing to do those things, so we know it’s not a match.

I also share with potential sponsees what I suggest in terms of meetings, commitments, calls, and step work, so they know up front what the expectations are. If they say, “well, I’m willing to go to meetings, but I don’t want to do that step stuff,” then we clearly do not have a match.

The Role of a Sponsor

As a sponsor, I believe my role is to share my experience, strength, and hope, to take sponsees through the Book and through the steps and traditions, and to ask meaningful questions for their consideration when they share their plans with me. It is not my job or obligation to lend them money, give them a place to stay, tell them where to live, what job offer to accept, and whether to get divorced or stay together.

I have talked to people who have sponsors that control every aspect of their life, and some are grateful for that, while others seem to resent it. Again, there is no rule  book on sponsorship, and I am simply providing my experience.-Jay Westbrook

Finally, I have had people with time approach me, wanting to change from their current sponsor to having me sponsor them. I ask them to write out the two lists described above, and sometimes that  writing reveals they are with the correct sponsor, while at other times it reveals that a change is in order. As they transition to me as their sponsor, I always suggest that they meet with their immediate past sponsor to tell them about the change, and to thank them for all that they did.

I hope this helped and, at the least, gave you some things to think about as you engage in the ongoing sponsor/sponsee dance of our 12-Step Fellowships.


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