Embracing the Fourth Tradition

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The Fourth Tradition is one of the foundations of group maintenance, relating in many ways to the Twelve Concepts for World Service. (Phototribe/Shutterstock)

The Fourth Tradition is one of the foundations of group maintenance, relating in many ways to the Twelve Concepts for World Service. (Phototribe/Shutterstock)

As we have done in previous months this year, we are following our article on the Fourth Step of AA/NA with an article on the Fourth Tradition. We noted in our article on the Third Tradition that, while Tradition One and Tradition Two may have been somewhat related to their corresponding steps, this is not always the case. Nor is it the case here, as the Fourth Tradition has little to do with taking a searching a fearless moral inventory. That said, there may be something of a symbolic relationship between Step Four and Tradition Four if we are willing to look for one.

Much as Step Four is the first step in which we begin cleaning our side of the street, the Fourth Tradition is largely about the need for groups to take responsibility for themselves. In this way, it is closely related to the Twelve Concepts for World Service (specifically Concept I and Concept III), which note that the power of AA lies within the groups. At the same time, both Concept I and Tradition Four also note that the fellowship’s collective conscience is at the heart of how these groups are run. As we will show below, the collective conscience and the individual groups must work in harmony if AA, NA, and other similar groups are to prove effective recovery tools for those in need.

In AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the chapter covering Tradition Four is relatively short. Nonetheless, the very nature of the Fourth Tradition is such that some addicts and alcoholics will inevitably have varying opinions on how this tradition should be embraced. As per usual, we will discuss some of these interpretations below. First, however, we will look at how the Fourth Tradition is defined in the 12&12.

What Is Tradition Four?

One cannot embrace the Fourth Tradition without understanding the concept of autonomy. (Erce/Shutterstock)

One cannot embrace the Fourth Tradition without understanding the concept of autonomy. (Erce/Shutterstock)

As stated in the 12&12, Tradition Four is:

“Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.”

The 12&12 is written with a degree of awareness, noting right off the bat that the word “autonomy” will carry a few weighty connotations for those who feel inclined to argue over what it means. But the Fourth Tradition basically means precisely what it says—as long as other AA groups are not affected, every individual group should feel entitled to manage itself in whatever way its members prefer.

Several aspects of the program may fall under the purview of the Fourth Tradition. Perhaps some groups will choose to carry extensive literature such as pamphlets, as well as other tools such as phone lists and birthday calendars. Other groups may stick to the bare essentials, carrying nothing other than a few copies of the Big Book and the 12&12. Some groups hand out chips every month, whereas some only hand them out for months one, two, three, six and nine, with additional chips offered by yearly increments. These yearly chips may be handed out on the member’s actual sobriety date, or on specified “birthday nights” that are designated to occur once per month.

Groups also may differ in which readings and prayers they choose to incorporate into their meetings. Most groups will begin with a moment of silence followed by the Serenity Prayer. They will then read the AA Preamble, followed by an excerpt from Chapter 5 of the Big Book (“How It Works”). A few groups may then follow with readings of the Twelve Traditions or the Twelve Promises, although many groups that choose to read the promises may wait until near the end of the meeting to do so. Some groups then end on the Lord’s Prayer, while others end by repeating the Serenity Prayer. The latter is generally preferred by groups who do not want to ruffle the feathers of those with non-Christian spiritual beliefs, as it is noted in the newcomers’ pamphlet that AA is not meant to be a religious program.

The last element that will likely vary from group to group is how they conduct their business meetings. Just about every group will have a General Service Representative, a treasurer, and a secretary. Many also have chairpersons in charge of literature or special event planning. Some even have members who handle relations with correctional facilities. If a member has been causing trouble for the group, be it inside or outside of meetings, it will be up to those who attend the business meetings to decide how the matter should be handled. But, as per the Fourth Tradition, this becomes an external affair if said member has been causing turmoil for other groups as well.

Multiple Interpretations

A group’s identity is largely defined by its members. This is a wonderful thing, but it can also lead to differences of opinion. (Lightspring/Shutterstock)

A group’s identity is largely defined by its members. This is a wonderful thing, but it can also lead to differences of opinion. (Lightspring/Shutterstock)

The sanctity of the Fourth Tradition extends back to when the Twelve Traditions were first established. At this time, AA maintained a rather unique statement:

“Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. group provided that as a group they have no other affiliation.”

This statement makes clear the extent of the autonomy given to AA groups and their members, but some differ on what this should mean. And what it comes down to is whether or not the manner in which a group is managing its affairs has the propensity to hurt AA as a whole.

For instance, take for example a group that chooses to end its meetings on the Lord’s Prayer. Now, perhaps a couple of members choose to remain in the circle and join hands with their fellows, but do not speak the prayer because they are non-Christian or because they simply do not believe that prayer should be performed out loud. To many AA members, this would be perfectly fine. But perhaps certain members of this particular group have not fully embraced Traditions Two or Three. They believe they have tyrannical rights to govern, and that there should be more requirements for AA membership than a mere desire to stop drinking.

Some might say that, according to the Fourth Tradition, this group has the right to ban those members for their refusal to pray. But many will believe the Fourth Tradition forbids such action, as banning members may sour them on AA, hurting their recovery and potentially the program as a whole. Given the violation of other traditions, the second interpretation of the Fourth Tradition appears to be more accurate. But as noted in the 12&12:

“Sobriety had to be [the group’s] sole objective. In all other respects there was perfect freedom of will and action. Every group had the right to be wrong.[Emphasis ours.]

This makes it sound as if the group does have the right to ban its members, provided they truly feel they will not hurt AA or other groups in doing so. They also must truly feel that speaking the Lord’s Prayer aloud is integral to the cause of sobriety. And while some would say the Lord’s Prayer itself is a violation of the Fourth Tradition and its dictate that these groups must be fully autonomous with no outside affiliation to other groups (the church included), the group does technically have the right to be wrong in the eyes of such persons. Since this complicates matters quite a bit, the best we can do is try to carry the Fourth Tradition in our own interactions within the group, maintaining the diligence to stand against any violations of the Fourth Tradition we may perceive to have occurred. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Following the Fourth Tradition

Embracing the Fourth Tradition requires us to determine when we must speak up, and when we must keep quiet. (AlexRoz/Shutterstock)

Embracing the Fourth Tradition requires us to determine when we must speak up, and when we must keep quiet. (AlexRoz/Shutterstock)

Needless to say, the most efficient way to carry the Fourth Tradition would be to take a service position within your home group. But if your group is following Tradition Two, this will give you no more authority than anybody else. In this case, it will be sufficient simply to attend the business meetings and state your case regarding any Fourth Tradition violations that you believe may have occurred within the group. Note why and how you feel such violations may affect other groups or the program at large.

The same can be said of conduct issues concerning a specific member. If they are only affecting other members of the group, then the matter is one of autonomy and should be treated as such. But if they are spreading their sickness around the district and infecting other groups with their disease, this is a matter that must be addressed in district meetings or with the service representatives of the other groups in question. If the problem is becoming difficult to manage, it may be time to call the General Service Board for advice.

Other times it might be necessary to contact the General Service Board are when another group is affecting yours (such as by trying to recruit your members through lies or deceit) or when you cannot resolve perceived Fourth Tradition violations. Perhaps your group has the right to be wrong, but the central office may have an opinion on the matter if they believe your group’s practices have the potential to soil the name of AA. Bear in mind, however, that you should not contact the General Service Board with every little issue, and you should request that your group hold a group consciousness meeting before taking any further steps. If you just have a personal disagreement with how the group is run, and you cannot reasonably say that your group is hurting AA as a whole, then the answer may simply be that you need to find another home group. And if you feel so strongly about the matters which are troubling you, finding a new group might not be the worst idea to begin with.

The Fourth Tradition is not something to be called upon any time there is a disagreement. One must act with diligence and a sense of responsibility only when they feel that the name and reputation of AA is at risk. Other perceived issues with the group and its maintenance are protected under the Fourth Tradition. You may not personally approve of the way your group handles certain things, but remember that every group has the right to be wrong. Also remember what we said above—it only takes two recovering addicts to start a meeting. Under the Fourth Tradition, you can do things your own way from time to time as long as you aren’t trying to mess with another group’s dedicated membership. Just learn to speak your piece when necessary, and to play nice with others in the interim. If your group truly embraces the principles behind the Twelve Traditions, instances of Fourth Tradition violations should be few and far between.

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