If you’re ready to start giving back in your 12-step program, becoming a sponsor is a great way to go. Not only do you get to continue your own recovery by extending your expertise and learning about recovery in new ways, you get to help someone else on their journey. That two-sided aspect of sponsoring someone as they move through early recovery is one of the reasons 12-Step and similar groups rely on the system. Not only does it help the newcomer by providing them someone to lean on, it gives you new insight into your own behavior, new reflections on what you’ve learned, and forces you to learn to put things about yourself, your emotions, and your experiences with recovery into words you can communicate.
But? When can you start sponsoring someone else? How soon is too soon? And can anyone be a sponsor? The answers are complicated. For example, if you’re in early recovery, you probably shouldn’t be sponsoring anyone. You need to focus fully on yourself and your recovery. That stage will normally extend at least the first few months after you get out of rehab. From there, it isn’t so clear.
What is An AA Sponsor?
An AA sponsor is someone who takes on a new member and essentially takes them under their wing. This is different from a “twelfth step call” in that, rather than visiting someone and directing them towards an AA program after they’ve asked for help. While the Twelfth Step Call can function as the start of a sponsorship, it’s one visit. A sponsorship is a long-term mentor-trainee relationship, in which you share your experience, expertise, and learning with someone who is in a position where you used to be.
Sponsorship is also intended to help both parties. For example, the newcomer gets guidance, assistance with the 12 steps, and someone they can talk to about their journey. You get to learn more about sobriety from a new angle, while taking on responsibility for someone else and getting both the social accountability and satisfaction out of that – which can help you to build your self-esteem and sense of purpose.
Who Can Be a Sponsor?
Any member who is not a newcomer can usually opt to be someone’s sponsor. However, there are no rules relating to how long you have to be sober in order to sponsor someone else. That’s important, because it’s important that the sponsor and sponsored be able to relate to each other. If you pair someone who’s been sober for a decade with someone who’s been sober for a few months, you’re likely not going to make a good connection. So, it’s beneficial to have people who have been sober for 6-12 months sponsoring others. Before that, you’re probably struggling too much with your own sobriety. If not, you can talk to your group and may be welcome to sponsor someone – providing you stay ahead of them in the 12 steps and continue your journey of sobriety, so that you stay ahead of them and able to guide them.
Of course, there are guidelines for being a sponsor. For example, on page 10 of the Big Book. If and wherever possible, you should be of the opposite sexual orientation as the person you are sponsoring. The idea is to reduce the chances of interpersonal relationships escalating to romance or sex during the sponsorship, because this is considered extremely harmful to both parties.
When Are You Ready to Be a Sponsor?
The primary purpose of a sponsor is to carry the message of the 12 Steps to newcomers. So, it stands to reason that anyone putting themselves forward as a Sponsor should have a knowledge of the 12 Steps. That doesn’t have to be thorough, but it should be significantly greater than the newcomer’s. AA groups will often judge your ability to be a sponsor based on your understanding of the program, your sobriety, and your progress. Most importantly, in most groups, it’s custom to ask your own sponsor if you’re ready to take on the responsibility before doing so.
Your sponsor will often look for understanding, patience, willingness and ability to dedicate time to the newcomer, and other general aptitude.
However, in some extreme cases, newcomers themselves can function as sponsors, with some records showing people who have been in AA for just a few weeks taking on the role. At the same time, most groups strongly discourage this, and prefer someone who has been sober for months to take on the role.
What Does a Sponsor Do?
As a sponsor, it is your role to guide and direct the newcomer through the 12-steps, through sobriety, and through navigating the emotional upheaval of early sobriety. That means:
- Showing a good example to the newcomer by being and staying sober and by having a history of sobriety
- Encouraging and helping the newcomer to attend and take part in AA programs, including seeing different perspectives and viewpoints in them
- Helping the newcomer to keep an open mind about AA
- Introducing the newcomer to others and ensures they participate in events and making friends
- Ensuring the newcomer has access to the Big Book, 12 Steps, and 12 Traditions, Grapevine, As Bill Sees It, Living Sober, and other AA literature.
- Being available to talk and work through problems when needed
- Helping the newcomer to make sense of 12-Step literature
- Helping the newcomer to join group activities
- Helping the newcomer to find importance and value in Traditions
- Ensuring the newcomer understands and is given anonymity in person, on social media, and in public
- Helping the newcomers loved ones with understanding AA, their options for AlAnon and Alateen, etc.
- Showing patience and self-restraint, including the ability to admit when you don’t know or are wrong
- Encouraging the newcomer to work with other alcoholics, including taking up their own sponsorship when they are ready
As a sponsor, you’ll also be responsible for things like refusing to judge the person you’re sponsoring. You have to allow them to develop without imposing your own views, even if their moral or religious views conflict with your own.
Eventually, the important aspect of being a sponsor is to help the newcomer to rely on AA for guidance and to use AA to stay sober. That means not relying on the sponsor and being able to step out of a relationship to get different or more suitable help as they progress.
Eventually, being a good sponsor means sharing your individual experience and personality in a way that guides the newcomer through AA. Your approach will vary depending on who you are, how long you’ve been sober, and the newcomer’s attitude and personality. And, while there are certainly ideal ways to go about being a sponsor, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
So, if you think you’re ready to be a sponsor, talk to your own sponsor.
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