Primary Purpose and the Special-Purpose Group
John L. Norris, MD
Class A (nonalcoholic) trustee and longtime chairperson
of AA's General Service Board
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., October 1977
recent years, no subject seems to have been discussed
more often, in more detail, for longer hours, and with
more heat than the question of special-purpose groups.
Both the advocates and the adversaries of special purpose
groups hold very strong opinions on the subject, and those
of us who have tried to occupy the middle ground can see
the logic on both sides.
Third Tradition says, "The only requirement for AA
membership is a desire to stop drinking." In general,
we have inclined to this view: When other requirements
are added that might seem to exclude some alcoholics,
these should be considered AA meetings and not AA groups.
We have never discouraged AAs from forming special-purpose
meetings of any or all kinds to meet the needs of interested
individuals, but we have been hesitant to consider as
groups those that might seem to exclude any alcoholic,
for whatever reason.
members feel that no AA group is special and, therefore,
that no group should be labeled as such or even give the
impression that it is "special." However, the
fact is that such groups do exist - in the United States
and Canada, at least. There are women's groups, stag groups,
young people's groups, and groups for priests, doctors,
lawyers, and homosexual members. These groups feel that
the "labels" serve the purpose of attraction
(double identification) and are not intended to imply
exclusion of other alcoholics.
the earliest of the so-called special-purpose groups were
women's groups, and it is very easy to understand how
they came about. In the early days of the Fellowship,
before AA was well-known and when its membership was made
up largely of male alcoholics, many women felt very timid
about attending such groups, and their husbands felt even
more strongly about having them attend. The solution seemed
to be daytime meetings made up of women, and many of these
began to spring up all over our country. Beyond any doubt,
they served (and probably still do serve) a very useful
purpose, and many of the women who started in these groups
went on to become extremely active members of regular,
mixed groups of alcoholics.
adversaries of the special-purpose group would say that
this is an instance where the good became the enemy of
the best, to use co-founder Bill W.'s phrase. Once AA
had accepted one kind of special-purpose group, it became
difficult, if not almost impossible, not to accept others.
have no difficulty in understanding the kind of communication
and understanding that can exist among groups of people
who share other interests in addition to their alcoholism.
It has always been hoped that doctors, priests, policemen,
young people, women, etc. who meet together in special
groups will also participate in the activities of regular,
mixed AA groups. We live in a world made up of all kinds
of people, who function in a variety of professions, and
it is in this world that we have to function as individuals.
If AA is a preparation and support for normal living,
then it would seem that the most meaningful AA activity
would occur in groups made up of all kinds of people who
follow all kinds of professions.
proliferation of so many kinds of special groups has been
a matter of concern, and we sometimes wonder where this
will end. Will we soon be having Catholic groups, Protestant
groups, Jewish groups, atheist groups, agnostic groups,
groups made up of members of one political party or another?
Certainly, we hope not, and we don't anticipate any such
thing. However, we do feel that we should be aware of
a possible trend and perhaps bend every effort to encourage
our similarities and not our particularities.
mentioned earlier that we have never discouraged special-purpose
meetings but have been hesitant to list as groups those
that might seem to preclude other alcoholics' attending.
Perhaps we might talk a little bit about the differences
between an AA meeting and an AA group. Our directories
state: "Traditionally, two or more alcoholics meeting
together for purposes of sobriety may consider themselves
an AA group, provided that, as a group, they are self-supporting
and have no outside affiliation." And in the beginning
of our Fellowship in countries outside the United States
and Canada, we agreed on six points that describe what
an AA group is. They are:
All members of a group are alcoholics, and all alcoholics
are eligible for membership. (2) As a group, they are
fully self-supporting. (3) A group's primary purpose is
to help alcoholics recover through the Twelve Steps. (4)
As a group, they have no outside affiliation. (5) As a
group, they have no opinion on outside issues. (6) As
a group, their public relations policy is based on attraction
rather than promotion, and they maintain personal anonymity
at the level of press, radio-TV, and film."
a doubt, meetings are the primary activity of each AA
group and the most common way of carrying the message
to newcomers and to other members who want to maintain
recovery. When we make a distinction between AA groups
and AA meetings, we are emphasizing a concept rather than
the format of what actually happens when AAs get together.
We think of an AA group as something that continues to
exist even when there is no meeting taking place, because
a group does many other things besides hold meetings.
On the other hand, special-purpose meetings, which take
care of the needs of interested individuals, are usually
informal gatherings with no particular structure.
the 1973 General Service Conference, workshops on "The
AA Group" were held and went into overtime because
of lengthy discussion on the subject of special-purpose
groups. By request of this Conference, the subject was
scheduled for full-scale discussion at the 1974 Conference.
The time allotted for it again proved to be insufficient
and a special session - lasting four hours - was called.
The final action was that the AA General Service Office
should list all groups in accordance with the definition
of an AA group listed in the front of all our directories.
the final analysis, perhaps, what we are really dealing
with in special purpose groups is communication among
AA members and how to improve it so that we can do a better
job of carrying the AA message to alcoholics of all kinds.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., October 1977
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