Since we waited until a little later in the year to start doing a series on AA’s Twelve Concepts for World Service, the first few have been posted relatively close together. Now that it is March and we are on Concept III, we are finally caught up and able to continue our normal monthly schedule for each of our many twelve-part series. This particular series touches on something not all AA members even know to exist, yet it is a good chance to look at AA’s history and how some of its rules were devised.
Concept I and Concept II both touched upon how the individual AA groups may act as an ultimate authority for AA’s group conscience, primarily by following the principles and sending delegates to the General Service Conference. In Concept III, we talk largely about the concept of a “Right of Decision” that is granted to the groups, the General Service Board, and other service corporations and committees. This right exists at all levels of service, so it is incredibly important for anyone seeking a leadership position in AA to understand precisely what it means.
More than that, Concept III is one of the best we have encountered so far when it comes to the ability to take the Twelve Concepts and use them as metaphors for how we run our personal lives. We will get into that a little later, however, after beginning with some of its history. Given how long AA has continued to function under the Twelve Concepts, you can believe us when we say that the history of Concept III (and all others, for that matter) is an important part of the Third Concept itself.
The History of Concept III
Concept III, as it is written, states:
“As a traditional means of creating and maintaining a clearly defined working relation between the groups, the Conference, the A.A. General Service Board and its several service corporations, staffs, committees and executives, and of thus insuring their effective leadership, it is here suggested that we endow each of these elements of world service with a traditional ‘Right of Decision.’”
The Third Concept speaks to two main sections of The A.A. Service Manual, the first being the Conference Charter and the second being the Bylaws of the General Service Board. There are a few dictates in these writings, but anything else is left to the aforementioned “Right of Decision.” It is stated in the service manual that every AA entity has the freedom “to decide…how they will interpret and apply their own authority and responsibility to each particular problem or situation as it arises.” In other words, groups are not required to report every little problem to the General Service Board, nor is the General Service Board required to report every problem to the groups. They have the option to “decide which problems they will dispose of themselves and upon which matters they will report, consult, or ask specific directions.”
There is much sense in this. The General Service Board would be able to accomplish very little if not for Concept III, for they would essentially have to wait until the General Service Conference to run their problems by the groups. Similarly, the groups would not be able to have business meetings and group consciousness meetings on pressing matters as they arose. Some problems cannot wait until the next area assembly, and must be handled quickly. All service levels must use their best judgment in deciding whether or not they are able to wait to run a problem by other groups or authorities.
Of course, this requires some humility. When Bill W. devised Concept III, he warned that no one should use Concept III as an excuse for bucking the system. If a problem clearly required an outside perspective, then it must be run by other authorities. But these authorities would simply act as consultants, not governors. To act as anything more would violate the First Concept, and Bill was wary of how this might affect AA as a whole. And because of this balance, there is more than humility to Concept III—there is a need for mutual trust.
What This Concept Means
As stated in the Second Tradition, we in AA are but trusted servants. Concept III puts the emphasis on “trusted,” as no group can completely tell any of its service positions—let alone its General Service Representatives—how to operate. Everyone has the same Right of Decision, and GSRs must trust area delegates in the same fashion in which they were trusted. In the words of Bill W., “our Conference delegates are primarily the servants of A.A. as they should…cast their votes…according to the best dictates of their own judgment and conscience at that time.”
This applies to the General Service of Board as well. They cannot instruct the General Service Office nor the Grapevine magazine too completely. Were they to instruct them “in detail, then…the staff members…would quickly become demoralized; they would be turned into buck-passers and rubber stamps; their choice would be to rebel and resign, or to submit and rot.” Bill believed that turning any one entity into an absolute governing authority would cause AA to crumble, and Concept III therefore exists to ensure that every service level will have some choice in how they choose to operate.
Much as Concept I and Concept II, Concept III operates in the spirit of fellowship. Long before it was known how long AA would last, Dr. William Silkworth stated in “The Doctor’s Opinion” that this would be a long-lasting enterprise due to the mutual goals of AA’s members. Without this sense of teamwork and camaraderie—in other words, mutual trust—AA would not be the thriving fellowship that it has become today. You might even tie this mutual trust into the Third Tradition, which allows members of all creeds to join the ranks of AA. The Right of Decision is not dependent upon your personal background.
One of the best things about Concept III is that it very rarely fails. Every once in a while, you may have a group that will instruct its members in ways that violate the Third Concept to some degree. But for the most part, members of various groups and other service levels are able to trust each other. And why shouldn’t they? As per the First Tradition, we in AA are responsible for one another’s survival. If that doesn’t earn the trust of our fellows, what would? Even if Concept III had never been written, there’s a likely chance that its underlying principles would have been enacted by AA groups based upon the trust and unity that has driven this program since its very beginning.
Embracing the Third Concept
As stated above, you essentially need two things in order to embrace Concept III in the way you live—trust and humility. You must be able to overcome your own pride and accept that it is not your right to control or manipulate others. You may not always agree with someone, but that does not give you the authority to violate their Right of Decision. And this doesn’t just apply to other AA members. Most people in your life will at some point do something you’d rather not see them do, but everyone has their own Right of Decision. Do not treat your peers as if you were parenting a child. No one has the right to speak down to others in such fashion.
If you are to become a GSR or other service representative, then you must take Concept III to heart with even more gravity. Do not become the dictator of your group. Business meetings are a chance to give everyone a right to speak, and to vote on matters that affect the group as a whole. If one member attempts to run the group with an iron fist, they may soon find that their members will dwindle and they will be left alone. Control almost always results in isolation. No one wants to throw their lot in with someone who doesn’t respect their rights.
Mutual trust, however, isn’t always easy to gain. Some people will violate it, and this can be difficult to deal with. The first step should be to consult other members of the group, especially those holding service positions. The group must reach an agreement as to whether or not this issue can be handled internally, or whether it is worth reporting to the district and perhaps even the General Service Board. For instance, say a treasurer has been stealing money from the group’s donations. This issue must be reported, for there is no guarantee that they will not simply find another group and continue to perform the same criminal acts. Keeping the issue internal may seem best for that person’s reputation, but it potentially causes harm to other groups. This cannot be allowed.
Basically, those who wish to embrace Concept III in their lives must be able to use their best judgment. And in most cases, this will mean consulting with others. In order to truly embrace Concept III and the notion of mutual trust, we have to be willing to admit when we are uncertain as to how a certain situation must be approached. Even when it does not come to major decisions affecting AA, all addicts and alcoholics in recovery should learn to embrace the concept of asking for help when it is needed. Concept III gives us freedom to act as we decide, but it also gives us freedom from the burden of having to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. We should take advantage of that.