In twelve step fellowships, this is a tool of recovery for both the sponsor and the sponsee. A group member with a year or more of continuous recovery agrees to sponsor another member. This typically involves listening, offering feedback, and guiding the sponsee through the Twelve Steps, but each sponsoring relationship is unique. The arrangement is strictly voluntary and can be ended by either party at any time.

Sponsorship is a magical thing. In twelve-step programs, it is the process by which one person helps another work the steps.

At least, that is the most basic summary of what it involves. Part of the magic, for me, lies in the fact that everyone in twelve-step programs is equal. It's in the rules! My sponsor is not the boss of me. She doesn't give me advice or tell me what to do. She shares her experience, strength, and hope with me when I have a problem or a question. She shows me how she has done things, and helps me figure out what will work for me.

Sponsors are different things to different people. They model healthy recovery in whatever way they can. They may be the person you can call at 4:05 in the morning when you are totally freaking out, or the person that sets clear boundaries about when they are available so you know that you will be leaving them a message after 10 pm. They might have tons of knowledge of other 12-step programs or other resources for your health, and insist that you go get some recovery in Survivors of Incest Anonymous so those issues can stop keeping you from quitting smoking. Or they might only have knowledge of the issue you share and what they did to be free from it. Some of them are stern about the program, insisting that their sponsees show up on time or do their stepwork assiduously; others let their sponsees take their own path and learn for themselves what works for them.

The great thing about sponsorship is that our higher powers always give us exactly what we need - which is not always what we think we need. Sometimes people get practice asking lots of people, which is a great exercise in trust and courage and not isolating. Sometimes people get the opportunity to reject or leave a sponsor or sponsee relationship that doesn't work for them, and choose things that are better all around. Sometimes it is simple and people just get the right sponsor the first time they ask someone, which is what happened to me. No matter what, it is part of a process that will keep leading you to more things that you need if you stick with it. It's also always okay to "fire" a sponsor. If something about what your sponsor is doing does not work for you, you don't have to keep working with them! You can talk to them about it, and you can also find a new sponsor. Basically, it is a relationship where we have a safe place to experiment with how relationships work for us.

Some programs keep lists of people who are available to act as sponsors. Some individual meetings or local intergroups do. It's always possible to just find such a list and pick someone off of it, or to go to a meeting that has people announce their availability to sponsor others. Better than that though, I think, is asking someone directly. What I always learned in different programs is that to find a sponsor, you just look for someone who has something that you want (serenity, a healthy marriage, great ideas about the steps, whatever) and ask them! And it's always okay to ask because it's always okay for people to say no. If they do, you just ask the next person. (I've also heard people say that they just turn to whoever is sitting on their right - tough in an online meeting - and ask them, till they find someone.)

Being a sponsor is really, really awesome. And easy! You don't have to have finished all the steps - you just have to be ahead of whoever you're sponsoring. In fact, it can be a great motivator to keep working the program - you don't want your sponsee to get ahead of you! All it really is is listening to what's going on with someone, reflecting back to them what you notice, sharing your own experiences, and cheering them on. Not giving advice, or controlling them, or fixing them. Just showing up consistently, and sharing your own experience, strength, and hope along the way. Both parties are allowed to mess up and make amends whenever necessary - it's good for everyone's growth! There are even programs where people are very strongly encouraged to become sponsors as soon as they finish the 3rd step - so you know that perfectionism is not the goal there!

There is also co-sponsorship. That's when two people work together to sponsor each other. Often they will get books that help them work the steps - either from their program, or another one, or one of the many non-program-related 12-step books out there. There's even a guide to sponsorship that has been published, "Twelve Step Sponsorship: How it Works," that people can use in sponsorship or co-sponsorship. In co-sponsorship, people hear each other's steps, and share their own wisdom, and support each other. There are pros and cons either way; I think that co-sponsorship can be good for building trust, but sometimes risky in that you're not always working with someone who has already worked the step you're on. It can be a way to avoid the risks of trusting someone that you might perceive as an authority figure, but then you also miss out on the benefits of taking that risk with someone who is trustworthy. But it can be a good alternative or prelude to sponsorship for many people.

Last but not at all least, there are also temporary sponsors. I think temporary sponsorship is awesome, because it is a nice test drive where both people can see if the relationship will work for them. It is also great because some people are afraid to be (or have) sponsors full-time but are willing to try it out short-term. There is no rule about how long a temporary sponsorship lasts - it is something both parties can agree on ahead of time, or it can just be something you play by ear. If I feel like I'm too busy to take on another sponsee, I can often still commit to sponsoring them for a month or two while they look for a permanent sponsor; or, I can take someone as a temporary sponsee with the intention (or hope) that after a month we will both want to commit to working together permanently. It's good for flexibility.

The magic of sponsorship is that no matter what, it goes both ways. It is easy, as a sponsee, to think that this other person is overgenerous, giving all their time and energy to help another person with no thought of reward. But in fact the rewards of being a sponsor are tremendous. My sponsees remind me of how far I have come, and show me what I still need to work on. They inspire me to new understandings of the steps, and of my own experiences, and exciting realizations about how all of this works in our lives. They often come up with ideas that I had never thought of before, because they bring their own perceptions and understandings to the program. I get to see again and again how incredible each of us is even in our scariest and most difficult moments.

The magic, too, is that just the two of us sharing our experiences with this program is enough to transform both of our lives tremendously. It goes way beyond just going to meetings. I remember, early on, hearing someone say that working the steps turbo-charges recovery, so of course I tried it. And what I learned was that it doesn't turbo-charge my recovery, it is my recovery. Everything else just supports the step work that I do with my sponsor. It goes way beyond anything that I've experienced in therapy, too, because working one on one with someone who has plenty of letters after their name but who doesn't have a deep understanding of abuse, addiction, and their personal recovery from both, can really only offer me emotional support as I try to work through this on my own. Someone who has already done this, though, and who has in their hands the tools that changed their lives - that changes everything.

Spon"sor*ship (?), n.

State of being a sponsor.


© Webster 1913.

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