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Our Primary Purpose and the Special-Purpose Group
by John L. Norris, MD
Class A (nonalcoholic) trustee and longtime chairperson of AA's General Service Board

Copyright The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., October 1977

In recent years, no subject seems to have been discussed more often, in more detail, for longer hours, and with more heat than the question of special-purpose groups. Both the advocates and the adversaries of special purpose groups hold very strong opinions on the subject, and those of us who have tried to occupy the middle ground can see the logic on both sides.

Our Third Tradition says, "The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking." In general, we have inclined to this view: When other requirements are added that might seem to exclude some alcoholics, these should be considered AA meetings and not AA groups. We have never discouraged AAs from forming special-purpose meetings of any or all kinds to meet the needs of interested individuals, but we have been hesitant to consider as groups those that might seem to exclude any alcoholic, for whatever reason.

Many members feel that no AA group is special and, therefore, that no group should be labeled as such or even give the impression that it is "special." However, the fact is that such groups do exist - in the United States and Canada, at least. There are women's groups, stag groups, young people's groups, and groups for priests, doctors, lawyers, and homosexual members. These groups feel that the "labels" serve the purpose of attraction (double identification) and are not intended to imply exclusion of other alcoholics.

Probably the earliest of the so-called special-purpose groups were women's groups, and it is very easy to understand how they came about. In the early days of the Fellowship, before AA was well-known and when its membership was made up largely of male alcoholics, many women felt very timid about attending such groups, and their husbands felt even more strongly about having them attend. The solution seemed to be daytime meetings made up of women, and many of these began to spring up all over our country. Beyond any doubt, they served (and probably still do serve) a very useful purpose, and many of the women who started in these groups went on to become extremely active members of regular, mixed groups of alcoholics.

The adversaries of the special-purpose group would say that this is an instance where the good became the enemy of the best, to use co-founder Bill W.'s phrase. Once AA had accepted one kind of special-purpose group, it became difficult, if not almost impossible, not to accept others.

We have no difficulty in understanding the kind of communication and understanding that can exist among groups of people who share other interests in addition to their alcoholism. It has always been hoped that doctors, priests, policemen, young people, women, etc. who meet together in special groups will also participate in the activities of regular, mixed AA groups. We live in a world made up of all kinds of people, who function in a variety of professions, and it is in this world that we have to function as individuals. If AA is a preparation and support for normal living, then it would seem that the most meaningful AA activity would occur in groups made up of all kinds of people who follow all kinds of professions.

The proliferation of so many kinds of special groups has been a matter of concern, and we sometimes wonder where this will end. Will we soon be having Catholic groups, Protestant groups, Jewish groups, atheist groups, agnostic groups, groups made up of members of one political party or another? Certainly, we hope not, and we don't anticipate any such thing. However, we do feel that we should be aware of a possible trend and perhaps bend every effort to encourage our similarities and not our particularities.

I mentioned earlier that we have never discouraged special-purpose meetings but have been hesitant to list as groups those that might seem to preclude other alcoholics' attending. Perhaps we might talk a little bit about the differences between an AA meeting and an AA group. Our directories state: "Traditionally, two or more alcoholics meeting together for purposes of sobriety may consider themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they are self-supporting and have no outside affiliation." And in the beginning of our Fellowship in countries outside the United States and Canada, we agreed on six points that describe what an AA group is. They are:

"(1) All members of a group are alcoholics, and all alcoholics are eligible for membership. (2) As a group, they are fully self-supporting. (3) A group's primary purpose is to help alcoholics recover through the Twelve Steps. (4) As a group, they have no outside affiliation. (5) As a group, they have no opinion on outside issues. (6) As a group, their public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion, and they maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio-TV, and film."

Without a doubt, meetings are the primary activity of each AA group and the most common way of carrying the message to newcomers and to other members who want to maintain recovery. When we make a distinction between AA groups and AA meetings, we are emphasizing a concept rather than the format of what actually happens when AAs get together. We think of an AA group as something that continues to exist even when there is no meeting taking place, because a group does many other things besides hold meetings. On the other hand, special-purpose meetings, which take care of the needs of interested individuals, are usually informal gatherings with no particular structure.

At the 1973 General Service Conference, workshops on "The AA Group" were held and went into overtime because of lengthy discussion on the subject of special-purpose groups. By request of this Conference, the subject was scheduled for full-scale discussion at the 1974 Conference. The time allotted for it again proved to be insufficient and a special session - lasting four hours - was called. The final action was that the AA General Service Office should list all groups in accordance with the definition of an AA group listed in the front of all our directories.

In the final analysis, perhaps, what we are really dealing with in special purpose groups is communication among AA members and how to improve it so that we can do a better job of carrying the AA message to alcoholics of all kinds.

Copyright The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., October 1977

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