Tradition 4: AA Group Autonomy and Responsibility

Group Freedom and Responsibility in the 12 Traditions of AA and Al-Anon

Man listening in group therapy session

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Tradition 4 of the 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous states that the freedom individual groups have carried with it the admonition to protect the fellowship as a whole. This means that meeting formats can vary from group to group, but it also cautions against straying too far from the usual program.

"Tradition 4: Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole."

Tradition 4 Grants AA Group Freedom With Responsibility to the Whole

Each 12-step group has complete freedom to decide for itself the program content of its meetings and the topics that will be discussed. The group can decide if the meeting will be open or closed and when and where the meeting will be held. Each group can decide to change its meeting format and has complete authority to spend its funds as needed.

The group can also decide how it wishes to begin and end its meetings. Some groups close with a prayer, while others have a moment of silence. In all of these matters, each group has total freedom. It is entirely up to the membership of that individual group.

But the second part of this tradition reminds each group that it has a responsibility also to the worldwide fellowship and other groups. By adhering to the traditions and principals of its program, each group can assure that it will not stray too far away from the program's basic tenets.

Limits to Freedom Granted By the Fourth Tradition

The autonomy provided in Tradition 4 does not mean an individual group has the authority to re-word the 12 steps or traditions or to create its own literature. Nor should groups introduce, discuss, or sell outside literature at their meeting places.

Other than that, groups have complete freedom to design their programs to the needs of their members, which can result in a wide variety of formats.

Many a meeting has gotten away from the look and feel of its primary purpose by using non-conference-approved literature, showing videos of popular self-help speakers, or allowing treatment professionals to speak at open meetings on the latest therapy techniques.

There is a saying that there is no right or wrong way to hold a meeting, but the group can cease carrying the message if it strays too far from its traditions and concepts.

How Group Autonomy Creates Different Environments

One AA member described what it was like when encountering groups that did things differently. He says that when he first came into AA, he learned how it went in his little group, and as he went to other groups in neighboring towns, he would think, "They don't do their meetings right," simply because they weren't the same as the first group he went to.

Today these little things that used to bother him make him realize that they're what makes all these groups unique and different. He looks forward to the different meetings now because they're unique in their own rights. As long as the guidelines of the program are followed and the basic message is there for everyone, the autonomy of each group is one more example of why Alcoholics Anonymous works.

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By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.