Many people in recovery have found community and solace in the 12-Step philosophy to continuing recovery from substance abuse. The foundation for such groups as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can be traced back to the 1930s, and today there are groups that meet all around the world.
Center to many people’s continued sobriety through a 12-Step approach is the guidance of a sponsor—someone who has familiarity with the recovery process and is willing to be a resource to those learning about recovery.
Keep reading to learn more about:
- How sponsor and sponsee relationships work.
- What it takes to be a sponsor.
- How to find a support group.
Sponsor and Sponsee Relationship
While the entire 12-Step group claims responsibility for helping keep its members on a path towards recovery and continued sobriety, sponsor/sponsee relationships can be extra resources, help, and comfort for those who believe they need it.
An important tenant to the 12-Step program is the understanding that there is no hierarchy to addiction and recovery, so there is no hierarchy among members who attend these meetings. The approach to the sponsor/sponsee relationship is informal, with no written rules about how often they should communicate or how the sponsor should help.
That being said, there are some general approaches to the sponsor/sponsee relationship that 12-step organizations like AA encourage, such as:1
- Encouraging social interactions in the group, including attending and participating in group activities and a variety of meetings.
- Sharing and discussing the 12-Step organization’s literature and teachings.
- Being available to answer questions, share anecdotes from their past experiences with addiction, and connect and guide a sponsee with tough situations and decisions.
What Is a Sponsor?
A person who familiarizes themselves with the 12-Step approach and works their way through the steps may be able and willing to help guide newcomers and those looking for extra support.
A sponsor, then, does what they can with their knowledge and experience to help the newcomer, or “sponsee” get sober and stay sober through the 12-Step program.
“A sponsor is ‘An alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through A.A.’”1
A study from 2009 found that sponsors had attended meetings, on average, for 9.5 years. They felt they had three very distinct jobs to perform as sponsors:2
- They needed to encourage sponsees to work the 12 Steps of sobriety.
- they felt obligated to provide ongoing support to sponsees.
- They felt that they should share their own personal experiences of AA, to help boost the chances of a sponsee’s recovery.
This may seem like a short to-do list, but there is quite a bit involved. A sponsor might be required to provide around-the-clock crisis support for sponsees, so those people have someone to call when they are in the midst of a sobriety challenge. A sponsor might also feel compelled to understand and work the steps even harder on a personal level, so it will be easier to provide instruction for someone in need.
How Often Do Sponsors Meet with Their Sponsees?
Because there are no hard and fast rules to sponsoring someone in a 12-step program, there is no requirement for the amount of time a sponsor must spend with a sponsee.
Some sponsors speak with their sponsees every single day. Some speak with them just once or twice per week. Some make themselves available around the clock for questions and support. Others have “working hours” in which they will accept calls. Some hold reading sessions for sponsees during off hours; some do not.
In general, the time involved should not be burdensome. After all, sponsors are also in recovery, and they need to attend to their own health and healing. They may not be able to support their own recovery if they are devoting excessive amounts of time to the healing process of others. That being said, it’s reasonable to assume that the time involved is measured in hours, not minutes.
How to Be an AA Sponsor
There are no tests to complete and pass, no licenses to apply for, nor any fees to pay to become a sponsor in a 12-Step program. Anyone with a personal connection to the recovery process who is willing to share with someone else can be a sponsor. However, despite there being no rulebook for it, it can be a big responsibility for someone who is also still struggling with their own recovery and sobriety.
It comes down to whether the person wanting to be a sponsor is ready to do so.
What Is a Sponsee?
Most participants of 12-Step programs are strongly encouraged to become a sponsee and find a sponsor.3
Anyone who is moving along a journey of recovery from an addiction could be a sponsee. Sometimes, a sponsee is new to sobriety and the 12-Step movement and needs a little guidance from a mentor in order to understand the challenges and expectations of the recovery process.
Sometimes, a sponsee is an experienced member of the 12-Step movement who would like to brush up on lessons with someone else. Anyone who spends time in the movement can be a sponsee.
Finding a 12-Step Program for You
Support group meetings are not hard to find, and anyone who wants to attend a meeting can. You can find more information about meetings from a couple of the common 12-Step groups below:
Those who want to take on a sponsee or become a sponsee need to do little more than ask. These communities are open, welcoming, and made for everyone. Most people who attend really want to help others, and they are willing to work with anyone who asks for help. People who want to get involved can simply state that preference, and the group is likely to help make the right match.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2019). Questions and answers on sponsorship.
- Whelan, P.J.P., Marshall, E.J., Ball, D.M., & Humphreys, K. (2009). The role of AA sponsors: a pilot study. Alcohol and Alcoholism 44(4), 416-422.
- Tonigan, J.S. & Rice, S.L. (2010). Is it beneficial to have an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor? Psychology of Additive Behaviors 24(3), 397-403.