By Deirdre S.
“Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.”
Tradition 3 (long form).
Find the need. Fill the need. It’s so easy even an alcoholic can do it. Sounds too easy? Of course it’s more complicated than that, but in a way it isn’t.
Questions about how to start a meeting come into the New York City AA Agnostics website every few weeks. Often it is asked by an individual who is frustrated by the pervasive notion that there is only one way to get and hold onto sobriety. That one way is often narrowed down to finding a Higher Power (HP) or “God, as we understood him.” While the concept was designed for wiggle room, it still can feel like it is dominated by that loaded word “God.”
So I developed an email that had a few hints about how to start a meeting. I have to admit, rigorously and honestly, that I have never founded a meeting! I’m sure that there are many with firsthand experience who can add to this conversation.
First thing I do is recommend that the person find a partner. If they haven’t found anyone in their area who is open about her/his beliefs or lack thereof, I suggest that they join one of the three Google Groups that I know about: Atheist AA or AA Atheists and Agnostics or the new Start with a Coffee Pot group. These lists have people from all over the world including, hopefully, someone from your local area. Minimum program is that they are places where a person can feel less isolated. Since each Google Group has its own personality, I suggest that all three be joined.
It takes a person to a form that, when completed, can be shared with potential partners in the same region. It is a very practical and valuable resource that has helped people connect and start meetings throughout North America.
After finding a partner or two the next challenge is to find a place to meet. If you look through the Worldwide Agnostics AA Meetings list on our website you will see a wide variety of places. There are meetings in hospitals, churches, community centers, clubs, granges, recovery centers, lodges, rec centers, women’s centers, LGBT centers, lounges, libraries, union halls, YMCAs, senior centers, Men’s centers, cafes, American Legions, college campuses, government offices, restaurants, Quaker meeting houses, AA clubhouses, Convents, On-line Chatrooms, and even a place under a tree (Maui, Hawaii).
If that doesn’t work folks can do what Ada H., David L., and John Y. did when they found each other and formed the first agnostic AA meeting in New York City, meet in an apartment or house. (See A History of Agnostic Groups in AA for a history of agnostic AA.)
If you get this far I think it’s a great idea to read the AA pamphlet – The A.A. Group: Where It All Begins. I recently re-read it and there is lots of AA wisdom in those pages. Some advice may feel like too much when you are just launching a meeting, but it’s good to know.
I suggest that people take a look at various sample scripts to see how others are opening and closing their meetings. There are several here: Meeting Scripts. Other meeting scripts and formats are available here: How to Start an AA Meeting.
Because it is an AA meeting it is important to include the AA Preamble. At meetings I attend a “volunteer” is drafted to read the Preamble.
There are several types of meetings including but not limited to:
Speaker meetings: where one person shares their experience, strength and hope with the group (known as qualifying).
Topic meetings: where a member shares on a particular topic to spark discussion.
Literature meetings: Various types of literature can be used that have to do with alcoholism. The AA publication “Living Sober” is very helpful and written from a secular perspective. It can be found in the AA Catalog under Booklets item number (B-7).
Step Meetings: These can be held at any time; however there is a tradition of sticking to the “Step of the month;” Step One in January, Two in February etc. I have used many versions of the Steps when I have participated or conducted these meetings including the original AA 12 Steps. There are many individual interpretations of the 12 Steps by atheists, humanists, buddhists, counselors, etc. available online here and on this website here: Alternative 12 Steps. There are others I have found in books such as The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide To Recovery, by Martha Cleveland & Arlys G., A Skeptic’s Guide to the 12 Steps, by Phillip Z. and, most recently, by Roger C.: The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps.
Building the Meeting
Many people make up fliers about the new meeting and start announcing it at AA meetings in their area during the 7th Tradition/Secretary’s Break under “AA related announcements.” One can also place advertisements in the local paper or in humanist / skeptics and related newsletters. That technique is still used throughout AA and is not considered promotion.
Recently there was an article in the New York Times about “no prayer” meetings in AA. It can be read here: Alcoholics Anonymous, Without the Religion.
Listing the Meeting
Listing the meeting can provide its own challenges. The first step is the fill out a “New Group Form” and mail it to General Services Organization (GSO) so that the group is added to the national list that the A.A. Organization provides to its members and others. This will mean that you have to have a person agree to be the General Service Representative (GSR). The mailing address is on the form.
The next step is to get listed locally at the Intergroup or Area District Committee Member. A phone call to AA’s GSO at 212-870-3400 or to local information will get you those contacts.
Many groups have had no trouble getting their meetings into local Intergroups if one exists in your area. Some groups have had difficulties. The reason to try is because “no prayer” meetings are and have been part of AA for decades. The original founders of agnostic type meetings believed strongly that staying in AA was vital. Agnostic, freethinker, atheist, humanist, and “no prayer” meetings have been part of the national conferences for years and often draw huge crowds. The groups have been listed nationally. And while there have been setbacks and delays efforts are being made to have a new piece of AA literature that talks about our experiences getting sober and staying in AA.
We are part of AA and as a “special interest group” deserve to be listed.
A mentor once told me to be “Mild in manner, but bold in matter.” Give that a try as you approach your local Intergroup.
If you want other alcoholics in your meetings who have a place to get sober, getting listed is important. But that said, if you find that the local leaders block your meeting, do not despair. Being listed at the GSO level is good and keeping that listing up to date with changes of time and place is important. AA as an organization changes very slowly, but they do change.
Please make certain to get your meeting listed on the Worldwide Agnostic AA Meetings list by emailing us at email@example.com. That listing is kept as accurate as possible, so if you change any details of your meeting tell us too.
The Meeting after the Meeting
At my first “no prayer” meeting one of the long-time members turned to me and asked me if I wanted to go out to dinner with the group. I’d been to other meetings, but never been asked to do anything social. I said, “No.” On my lonely walk back home I wondered why I’d turned down the chance to be social in a new way that didn’t involve alcohol. I vowed to say yes the following week and I’ve been saying yes to fellowship after the meetings ever since.
That is why I think it is important to make a general announcement about going out for coffee or food as part of the script. It helps make newcomers feel that they do not have to be part of the “in” group to get invited to coffee or food.
I’m sure I’ve left something out and I encourage folks to comment below to fill in any blanks I may have left.
Congratulations on the steps you are making. I know that sobriety profoundly changed my life for the better and that my continued association to AA has made all the difference. Good luck!
Deirdre S. lives in NYC where she once drank and drugged and now doesn’t. She got sober in AA in February 1997 with the help of friends and strangers. One day she found her way into an agnostic AA meeting and discovered a home. Deirdre is currently the webweaver of the AgnosticAANYC.org website. She is happily married to the man who originated the website in 2002, a fellow atheist in AA. Deirdre is a writer and filmmaker, two careers that she fantasized about while sitting around in bars and only could make a reality after she sobered up.