Open vs. Closed 12-Step Meetings

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On published schedules of 12-step meetings, some are designated as open meetings, while others are shown as closed meetings. Open meetings are open to the public, while closed meetings are for members only—however, each program's guidelines define who counts as a member.

This article discusses the differences between an open AA meeting and a closed AA meeting (and similar 12-step groups). It also explores how to determine which type of meeting might be right for you.

Closed 12-Step Meetings

Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon Family Groups, and Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings are generally closed meetings unless otherwise stated. Closed meetings are limited to members and prospective members only.

It is up to individuals to determine if they are qualified for membership based on the following criteria from Tradition 3 of the 12 step groups:

  • ACOA: The only requirement for membership in ACOA is a desire to recover from the effects of growing up in a family affected by alcoholism or another dysfunction.
  • Al-Anon Family Groups: The only requirement for membership is that there be ​a problem of alcoholism in a relative or friend.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous: The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  • Debtors Anonymous: The only requirement for DA membership is a desire to stop incurring unsecured debt.
  • Gamblers Anonymous: The only requirement for Gamblers Anonymous membership is a desire to stop gambling.
  • Narcotics Anonymous: The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using drugs.

If you are interested in attending a closed meeting for any of these groups, it may be good to check beforehand to make sure that you are considered a member.

Reasons for Closed 12-Step Meetings

The spiritual foundation of all 12-step groups is anonymity. Members of the group can choose to attend closed meetings, knowing that everyone in the meeting is guided by the group's steps and traditions. This encourages each member to maintain their own anonymity and the anonymity of others in the meeting.

In a closed meeting, members can speak openly and honestly about their problem or situation, knowing that everyone else in the room has experienced similar situations.

Open 12-Step Meetings

If the meeting is an open meeting, members understand that there may be visitors from the public or even the media in the meeting, and they conduct themselves accordingly.

Usually, but not always, open meetings are speaker meetings, at which one person has been designated to speak, telling their story—what it was like, what happened, and what their life is like now. The speaker knows ahead of time that the meeting is an open meeting and that there may be non-member visitors present.

However, open meetings can also be discussion meetings. During open discussion meetings, AA members will share their experiences with the rest of the group. They might talk about why they started attending AA and how the group has helped them. These open meetings may focus, in particular, on how non-members can help support their loved one who is a member of the group.

Open meetings can be attended by any, including but not limited to:

  • The general public
  • People who don't have a drinking or substance use problem
  • People who are thinking about joining AA
  • Family members of people who are in AA or who have a substance problem

Recap

Open meetings are for anyone who is interested in learning more about the support group program. Open meetings can be attended by students, professionals, and other non-members interested in learning more about the recovery programs.

Primary Purpose of Open Meetings

The designation of a meeting as "open" does not change the meeting's primary purpose of the group. Generally speaking, when attending one 12-step meeting, members do not mention their membership in other 12-step groups during the meeting to keep the meeting focused on its primary purpose.

One of the benefits of an open meeting is that the individual's partner or other loved ones can attend. This can be helpful for a variety of reasons. Individuals in recovery can feel supported as they work toward recovery, and the loved ones who are closest to them can learn more about their experiences and the recovery process.

Having social support has been linked to a number of important benefits, including better treatment retention and a reduced risk of relapse following treatment.

If a meeting is not designated either open or closed on a published schedule, in most cases, it should be considered closed.

Open vs. Closed: Which Meeting Is Right for You?

How do you determine whether a closed or open meeting is the right choice for you? Both types of 12-step meetings can be helpful, but there may be times you want to select one over the other. 

You may want to attend an open meeting if: 

  • You are thinking about joining AA or another 12-step group
  • You want to hear more from people who are affected by alcohol or substance use
  • You want to have non-member friends or family come along to support you
  • You're interested in learning more about the recovery process

You might prefer closed meetings if:

  • You don't want family or friends to be present
  • You want to listen to others who have the same experiences as you
  • You want to share your experiences with other members of the group
  • You are working closely on a specific step and want input from other members

It is also important to note that online meetings are also an option. Like in-person meetings, online AA meetings can either be closed or open. This can be a great option due to the convenience and accessibility of the meetings.

Open Meetings
  • Open to the general public

  • Experiences can be shared with friends or family there to support you

  • You're open to learning more about recovery, AA, or another 12-step group

Closed Meetings
  • Limited to members and prospective members

  • Experiences are shared with other members of the group

  • You're working on a step and want input from members/others with the same experiences

A Word From Verywell

Twelve-step groups such as AA can play an important role in recovery. It is important to consider what you might gain from each type of meeting these groups offer, whether they are open or closed. If you are interested in joining AA or attending an open meeting to learn more, you can find meetings in your area or online by visiting the Alcoholic Anonymous website.

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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Alcoholics Anonymous. What's the difference between open and closed AA meetings?.