unity service recoveryI’ve been to a lot of 12-Step meetings. I doubt if I could estimate with any real accuracy, but definitely a couple or three  thousand — maybe more. That doesn’t mean I’m any more sober than you. Lots of folks go to meetings for half a lifetime and fail to get really sober. I managed to do it for 24 years, so I know what I’m talking about. I mention the number only to provide context for the following.

Service is part of the foundation of the 12-Step fellowships — Unity, Service, Recovery and variations on that theme, along with responsibility: “if anyone, anywhere reaches out for help….” If the topic of a meeting is something like Ways To Stay Sober, it’s a sure bet that service will come up on the list of almost everyone who shares. But what is service, really?

We talk about greeting people at the door, setting up the meeting room, serving on committees, chairing meetings, sponsorship, cleaning up afterward, Intergroup positions, making the coffee, even doing service by simply being there and sharing our experience, strength and hope. Those and others I’ve probably left out are all essential aspects.

But there’s another, less obvious kind of service that’s particularly applicable to old farts like me, and that’s standing back and leaving the responsibility for running the show to the younger members. I don’t mean withdrawing completely; every group needs its old timers to provide guidance and generally demonstrate that “it works if you work it,” but we also need to step aside, allow others to learn those skills by doing, so that they become full participants in the fellowships, not just apprentices.

I’ve been to an uncomfortably large number of meetings over the years where that was clearly not the case. One that particularly comes to mind was run by the same three or four “senior members” for — to my certain knowledge — 10 years.  The meetings ran smoothly, there was always someone to chair, decide on refreshments for anniversary night, make sure the room was open, the monies sent to Intergroup and the national office as needed, rent paid, etc., but none of it was done by the newcomers. It was always the same few old farts. (Since I’m well into me 8th decade, I can call my peers anything I want.)

Talk about stagnation! It was the same format, the same commentary, the same quotes by rote from the literature, the same wise old faces nodding approval (or not), and the same faces up and down the tables at all the meetings. Rarely did newcomers stay long. That’s particularly telling since that group ran one of the few beginner’s meetings in the area for that fellowship. I suspect that even the newcomers recognized that it’s hard for tadpoles to thrive in a stagnant pond.

This sort of thing isn’t service, it’s ego run riot. As old-timers, it’s up to us to make sure the up-and-coming members of the fellowship get guidance to keep them from making basic mistakes regarding schedules, finances and so forth. That’s what group conscience is for. Apart from that we need to let them run the show. That’s appropriate service for us: to sit back, let the kids do the work, and not micromanage. If the work doesn’t get done we try gentle suggestions, but we don’t enable laziness by taking over unless things are about to collapse completely.

Our fellowships are not here to keep oldtimers happy but to help keep newcomers coming back. Is the newcomer really “The most important person here?” Sure, us old folks dislike change like any other sensible organism, but we ought to know by now that it’s going to happen anyway. We need recognize that our vision today is not likely to be the best one for the coming generation(s). We need the stimulation of the younger members to allow our fellowships to continue to grow.

Even the first 100 members of AA — certainly not the most liberal group — admitted that “We realize that we know only a little. God will constantly disclose more to you and to us,”  and a lot has been disclosed in the succeeding 80 years. We can’t cling to tradition while simultaneously ignoring that statement without bending a lot of logic.

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