Types of A.A. meetings

Descriptions of speaker meetings, Big Book study vs. step studies, and topic/discussion meetings. Plus, a description of specific A.A. groups and their functions here.

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Alcoholics Anonymous, or A.A., exists to help people live a life of abstinence from alcohol. But what can you expect when you go to an A.A. meeting? And what kinds of different meetings exist?

We explore types of A.A. meetings and the general meeting format here. Then, we invite your questions or discussion about relationships in A.A., or the effectiveness of A.A. in the comments section at the end.

A.A. meeting formats

Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are voluntary meetings for people who identify as alcoholics (closed meetings) or people that are interested in alcoholism (open meetings). These meetings usually follow a similar format and last for 60 minutes. Each A.A. group consists of a core of voluntary members and different meetings take on different flavors. However, each group is committed to the anonymity of A.A. members as an underlying principle.

Generally, A.A. meetings may begin and end with a prayer, and consist of any of the following:

  • A Welcome
  • A Preamble
  • Introductions (first time or new members can raise their hands and introduce themselves)
  • Reading aloud “How it works”
  • Reading aloud the 12 steps
  • Reading aloud the 12 traditions
  • The topic/speaker/discussion
  • Reading aloud the Promises
  • Closing
  • Invitation for socializing

Despite their differences, almost all meetings are structured around the reading of some selection of Alcoholics Anonymous literature, an acknowledgement of sobriety anniversaries, a request for newcomers to identify (if they want to), the main body of the meeting (speaker, leader plus participation, etc.), and a closing prayer. Here are some of the choices of types of meetings available to a member of Alcoholics Anonymous:

1. The topic/discussion meeting

This type of meeting usually ranges in size from five to fifty or sixty, and is structured around a leader, often chosen from within the group, who picks a topic and shares about it for five to fifteen minutes before opening the meeting for general discussion. Some group formats ask the leader to read from AA literature and share in context; others leave the topic to the leader’s discretion. Discussion meetings tend to lie somewhere along a spectrum of “anything goes” to solution-oriented.

2. The speaker meeting

These are often big meetings (100-300 people), and are usually open meetings, meaning that one does not have to identify as an alcoholic in order to attend. Speaker meetings are generally structured with little to no time for sharing. Speaker meetings are generally upbeat. Greeters at the door welcome attendees, there’s laughter and applause, and newcomers are not required to participate beyond the voluntary raising of their hands when the leader asks if anyone is in their first thirty days.

The larger speaker meetings feature speakers who have established track records for delivering “pitches” that contain some combination of entertainment value (wild story, humor, style of delivery), inspiration (describing a seemingly impossible transformation, thus transmitting the possibility of hope for the newcomer), and instruction (describing the actions they took to bring about the transformation).

3. The Big Book study

The main text in A.A. is also called Alcoholics Anonymous, but is affectionately known as The Big Book. Groups often organize in order to read and discuss the book, hoping to give the newcomer an understanding of what the alcoholic’s problem is and what solution is being presented. Usually, each member reads a paragraph in turn, and the book gets read sequentially for several pages — perhaps a half chapter at a time. After a reading, members share their experience or thoughts on the material just read. Within the world of Big Book studies, there are some groups that differentiate themselves as hardcore, intent on preserving the process of the Steps as the original members intended.

4. 12 Step studies

Like the Big Book study, but using the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

Other groups in A.A.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of meeting types, but it does give a general sense of the choices available. Additionally, there are specific group meetings which spring up to meet community needs. These groups include:

Men’s groups and women’s groups

Many Alcoholics Anonymous members find it easier to focus on their recovery without the distraction of the opposite sex. There are feelings expressed, stories told, and even jokes made that would probably be withheld in mixed company. These are usually discussion groups.

Gay and lesbian groups, young people’s groups, old-timer groups

These are not so much special interest groups as groups that find comfort and freedom to express themselves in their commonality.

Special interest groups

There are musicians’ meetings (open), celebrities’ meetings (usually closed and in someone’s home), doctors’ meetings and lawyers’ meetings (again, usually closed and in a private home). The private meetings usually are private in order to maintain professional anonymity as well as to minimize distraction by hangers-on whose interest in attending has more to do with celebrity than with sobriety.

Agnostics’ and atheists’ meetings

For those who want to remain sober and use the tools of Alcoholics Anonymous but are put off by what they perceive as the overt religiosity of the Big Book and many A.A. members, groups that offer recovery without referring to a traditional deity can mean the difference between sobriety and another drink.

A.A. Meetings Come in All Different Flavors

Most areas throughout the country offer multiple versions of each type of meeting, and the newcomer is encouraged to try several different flavors of Alcoholics Anonymous in order to find a set of meetings that resonate for him or her and that generate a sense of hope that recovery is attainable.

One thing that has been heard for years in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is that, “I always imagined a bunch of old men in raincoats, chain smoking under a bare bulb and telling sad stories.” And while there might be a meeting here or there that looks like that, the truth is that A.A. meetings come in a variety of flavors, organizing into new types and subgroups all the time. Some would call this splintering, while others see it as organic growth.

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About the author
Tracy Smith covers topics within the drug addiction niche being a recovering addict herself. She is thankful to have found treatment for her substance abuse that helped her become sober.
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