Alongside our monthly series on the Twelve Steps, we make it a point to cover each of the Twelve Traditions as well. While the Twelve Steps pertain to our personal recovery, the Twelve Traditions generally apply to AA/NA groups as a whole. This might make it seem as if we don’t need to focus on them as much. But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. For despite the group focus of these traditions, each and every one involves a principle quite germane to our own sobriety. Although sometimes, as is the case with the Eighth Tradition, this can be difficult to see.
Until now, most of the principles in each of the traditions has been quite clear. The Eighth Tradition, however, is a bit different. This is because it focuses on AA/NA service centers rather on the groups themselves. Furthermore, it’s the only tradition to cite a rule before immediately naming a special exception. The Twelve Steps are mere suggestions, and it is generally assumed that people will either take them or leave them. But groups are usually expected to adhere closely to the Twelve Traditions. For the Eighth Tradition to list an exception is therefore quite unexpected.
Since the provision of an exception to the rule strikes us as the most notable characteristic of the Eighth Tradition, this will become the core of our focus when discussing how one might apply Tradition Eight to his or her own life. Before we can get there, however, we must discuss the tradition itself and what it means to AA. As always, we will do this through rigorous examination of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, commonly known as the 12&12. Those who do not possess a copy may find the relevant chapter linked in the section below.
What Is Tradition Eight?
As written in the 12&12, the Eighth Tradition is as follows:
“Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.”
Right off the bat, you’ll see two terms in Tradition Eight that might require some explanation. The first is the word “nonprofessional” as it applies to AA. The second is the term “special workers.” For the sake of ease, we’ll go ahead and tackle these in order, as the first term is by far much easier to define than the second.
The concept of AA remaining nonprofessional stems, in part, from the same reasoning given for Tradition Seven. When maintaining early AA groups, Bill learned quickly that money interferes with spirituality. Doctors and religious leaders may play their part in the lives of many alcoholics, but AA could not employ such people to stand among their ranks. Sponsors and other individuals who help their fellow sufferers in AA or NA must do so out of compassion—not for the sake of lining their pocketbooks. Moreover, they help because they find that doing so tends to help them in return. Those who tell their stories must also do so for the sake of reaching others. Without the Eighth Tradition, some may be inclined to misrepresent themselves just to make a few bucks. This helps no one.
Unfortunately, a large organization such as AA occasionally needs help. And some critics, citing the Eighth Tradition, have attacked those who worked for the program. According to the 12&12:
“Caretakers who swept floors, cooks who fried hamburgers, secretaries in offices, authors writing books—all these we have seen hotly assailed because they were, as their critics angrily remarked, ‘making money out of A.A.’ Ignoring the fact that these labors were not Twelfth Step jobs at all, the critics attacked as A.A. professionals these workers of ours who were often doing thankless tasks that no one else could or would do.”
Early groups attempted to enlist volunteers for these jobs, but to no avail. Many did not enjoy the work and therefore neglected to perform it. Still, they needed people to manage their offices and to look after their meeting places. In modern groups, some of these tasks are managed by volunteers. But thanks to the Eighth Tradition, those who require paid help are permitted to seek it without fear of rebuke from the General Service Board. Otherwise, programs such as AA and NA may grind to a halt, and those who suffer from alcoholism and addiction would be left without assistance.
Some might say that the special workers advocated by the Eighth Tradition should be non-addicts. This would ensure that nobody could accuse AA or NA of allowing members to profit from their disease. But the 12&12 notes a problem with this, which is that non-addicts and non-alcoholics lack familiarity with the program. In many ways, we understand this viewpoint. Many of our own staff members suffer from alcoholism and addiction themselves, primarily because we believe them to possess a unique advantage in treating the disease. This does not apply to all of our staff, but to a great many of them.
In the early groups, special workers who suffered from the disease often received little pay. It was thought that making less money would allow them to maintain their spiritual growth with no profit motive. Some may still think that this should be the case. But the prevailing opinion these days remains that special workers are not “professionals” in any harmful sense. They aren’t being paid to sponsor people—they’re paid to ensure that a program of sponsorship and spiritual growth is possible in the first place. As such, the Eighth Tradition frowns upon arbitrarily cutting the wages of those who pour their blood, sweat and tears into the program’s central offices. These may be professional workers, but they are not professional addicts and alcoholics.
Interestingly enough, the Eighth Tradition espouses a viewpoint on institutions such as Amethyst as well.
“At first, we couldn’t see the real issue involved. In former days, the moment an A.A. hired out to such enterprises, he was immediately tempted to use the name Alcoholics Anonymous for publicity or money-raising purposes. Drunk farms, educational ventures, state legislatures, and commissions advertised the fact that A.A. members served them. Unthinkingly, A.A.’s so employed recklessly broke anonymity to trump the tub for their pet enterprise. For this reason, some very good causes and all connected with them suffered unjust criticism from A.A. groups.”
The 12&12 goes on to explain that breaking anonymity was the only problem with such cases. This is why, while some of our staff may admit to their previous struggles with alcoholism and addiction, we do not advertise which of them became sober through the help of AA or NA and which did not. Those who work in the field of addiction treatment should focus on sobriety itself, not the peddling of an organization’s label. Those who did get sober through a support group understand the importance of that group’s primary purpose. And while we may write about AA or NA from time to time, our goal is always the same—to provide information on various tools that we may use to achieve sobriety. Those of us with AA experience would never wish to violate the Eighth Tradition by focusing on conversion rather than sobriety itself.
Following the Eighth Tradition
Unless we happen to work with the General Service Board, there aren’t many ways to practice the Eighth Tradition as written. But we may still learn some valuable principles from everything discussed above. First, note that the early groups’ initial decision not to employ special workers arose largely from fear. They were so afraid of conflating money with spirituality that they ignored their own needs. Naturally, this served only to enhance those needs until there remained no other option. We must never ignore our needs out of fear. When we find ourselves afraid, we should talk to our sponsors and other trusted individuals. Consult those whose decision-making has always proved sound. If they tell you to go ahead and face your fears, you should listen to them. The benefits may outweigh the drawbacks more than you imagined.
Second, the Eighth Tradition teaches us that rules sometimes have exceptions. This idea might worry us at first. After all, one of our chief problems in substance abuse was our tendency to make exceptions for ourselves when it was unacceptable to do so. But think of the need to make amends in Step Nine. If we wish to make amends to a former drug dealer, a sponsor may tell us that this is not the best idea. Even though we’re supposed to make amends to all we have harmed, it’s not too difficult to see why there would be an exception in this case. When upholding a principle may put our well-being at risk, we must reconsider.
Finally, the Eighth Tradition teaches us that we shouldn’t always enforce our own principles on others. Toward the end of the chapter on Tradition Eight, the 12&12 states:
“We see that we have no right or need to discourage A.A.’s who wish to work as individuals in these wider fields. It would be actually antisocial were we to forbid them. We cannot declare A.A. such a closed corporation that we keep our knowledge and experience top secret. If an A.A. member acting as a citizen can become a better researcher, educator, personnel officer, then why not? Everybody gains, and we have lost nothing. True, some of the projects to which A.A.’s have attached themselves have been ill-conceived, but that makes not the slightest difference with the principle involved.”
At the end of the day, we must learn to stay in our own lane. The Eighth Tradition teaches us that people should not prohibit anyone from performing work that may help others. Our own personal reservations on the matter should not dictate anyone else’s behaviors. If we have the opportunity to help someone, we certainly wouldn’t want someone stopping us because we somehow went against their own personal principles. Likewise, our own principles must be somewhat adaptable to our given situation. We may have a principle to maintain self-sufficiency, but the Eighth Tradition tells us that we must still ask for help every once in a while. Because if we don’t learn to ask for help when we need it the most, we may jeopardize far more than our sobriety alone.