Meetings: 12 Step Basics

What Does a Typical Meeting Look Like?

If you google the problem (ie. Alcoholism) and 12 Steps, or if you know the name of the group (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc) you should be sent to a website where you can find a list of meeting locations and meeting times for the area. They are most generally held at a church meeting room. A private setting but not hidden away. Most often walking into a meeting you will not meet individuals who are around for other business, aside from a possible receptionist or janitor. The size of the meeting can vary from 2 or 3 to as large as 20 or even 40. It all depends on the particular meeting and you can almost always find a different size more in line with your comfort zone. These meetings cost nothing, although they do pass a donations basket, based off of their 7th Tradition which states all meetings ought to be self supporting, not accepting outside donations.

Meeting Format and Topics:

The meeting will be led by a volunteer facilitator who is a member of the group, some meetings will require 30 days of sobriety in order to lead. They will begin with a list of how to participate in the meeting then comes introductions and everyone is introduced as they go around the room: “My name is Bob and I am an alcoholic.” “Hi Bob,” everyone responds. The member will finish by stating length of sobriety: “sober since December, 19th, 2012.” “Thanks Bob,” the rest of the members say. Then they open with a prayer, oftentimes the Serenity Prayer:

God, Grant me the Serentity to Accept the things I cannot change.

The Courage to Change the things I can,

And the Wisdom to Know the difference.

From there an introduction of topic or reading will be shared. Oftentimes a book study involves reading from 12 Step materials (we will cover this in another post). On occasion a member may share their First Step with the group, but only after they have worked it through with their sponsor. Meeting time ranges from 45 minutes- 90 minutes.

 The key which makes everyone at ease is you only share if you want to. No one is forced to do it.


All meetings and their members are “anonymous,”  meaning two things. The meetings are held strictly for those with the addiction, unless it is defined as an “open meeting” at which others can come to learn more about the addiction program in question (AA, Narcotics Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Overeaters, etc). Secondly, members are only known by their first name and possiblea last initial (“my name is Chuck C. and I am an alcoholic”). Anonymity was particularly important to the founders because they found it was an essential ingredient for overcoming the ego and self-obsession which was a root cause of the addiction/disease. As stated at the end of most meetings. “The opinions shared in this meeting are strictly those of the individual and do not represent AA as a whole. Remember we never identify ourselves publicly, including on TV, internet or other public media with AA.” Anonymity is the key ingredient which provides a space for spiritual growth away from public attention.

No Leaders only trusted servants

AA has no leadership, but rather elected trusted servants carry out the practical tasks of printing books, organizing conferences and meeting lists as well as phone lists and anything else of relevance to a group. Each meeting can look very different. Each meeting is run by a volunteer member of the group and most often is lead by someone different each time. There is often a script which is meant to increase the ease of facilitating a meeting.


Sponsorship is all about learning from those who have taken the actions of the steps and are living a life that attracts you to what they have. The newcomer can listen to member shares and if they here someone they identify with they might visit with them afterwards, ask if they have worked the steps, and then if they would be willing to be your sponsor. All newcomers who take the program seriously find this to be one of the most invaluable parts of the 12 Step programs. For many, they will continue to have a sponsor for 20-30 years or more. They are someone to keep you accountable, give advice, and share their experience, strength, and hope.

Common Problem

So how do you know you belong in a meeting? The 12 Traditions of the 12 Step programs address this in Tradition 3: The only requirement for (A.A.) membership is a desire to stop (drinking). Thus, eligibility to attend is based off of having a common problem and having the desire to be free of it. It really is that simple.

Continuing to Explore the 12 Steps

As we continue to learn about 12 Step programs, I would encourage you to keep in mind the emphasis is on the need for spiritual program which was influenced by a variety of religious traditions, which included Catholicism. Sister Ignatia and Fr. Ed Dowling were two individuals highly involved from the beginning (more on them later). While Founded by Bill W and Dr. Bob , rumor was that Bill even underwent some RCIA with Archbishop Fulton Sheen (If anyone can confirm this source please do so in comments.). When you look at the Steps and Traditions, it is clear the principles are derived primarily from two places: 1) The Sermon on the Mount and the 2) Ignatian Spiritual exercises. There were others to be sure, but we will unpack them and their impact later. For now I would emphasize the Catholic values captured within the 12 Steps. Today the best example of someone integrating them well into our Catholic Tradition is the work of Dominican, Fr. Emmerich Vogt O.P. (To see more of his work on the topic please visit his website).

Remember: Find those who RADIATE the Light of Recovery

We will continue to unpack key themes and ideas about the 12 Steps in the future. I hope this gives you a crash course introduction so if you or anyone you know needs help with addiction or dependency behaviors this can be a beginners resource. Remember the key is to find a good meeting where you meet people “glowing” with recovery. They need to be exposed to those who have long term recovery and they need to attend at least 6 meetings to get a feel for what that meeting is really about. If after six meetings they don’t feel it is a good fit they can be encourage to try a few different ones. If after attending 3-4 different groups they still don’t feel its right for them, maybe its not at this time or they need to start by reading materials and then revisit meetings later. The key for you, or anyone in a support role, is not to push it, but let them explore it at their own pace. I know this can be particularly difficult when you are afraid for them or for yourself. But you can get started by leaving around materials for them to read or reading some of them for yourself (a great place to start is the “Big Book:” maybe even starting with the chapter to family members)

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