What a Sponsor Is in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), What They Do, and How to Get One
Alcoholics Anonymous isn't just about going to meetings and sharing — the most important part of AA is the 12 Steps. While it’s technically possible to take the 12 Steps on your own, it’s extremely rare to find someone who has actually done this, and it’s probably not a great idea.
That’s because the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the primary text that’s used in AA, has the instructions for how to work the 12 Steps embedded in a series of stories throughout the book. It’s pretty easy to miss an instruction here and there, and it’s not always clear exactly what you should be doing.
The 12 Steps also require intense self-appraisal and rigorous honesty, something that’s hard for anyone to do, let alone an alcoholic who may have spent many decades fooling themselves about who they are and what they’ve done. It’s easy to continue fooling yourself when you don’t have to answer to anyone else.
Finally, Step 5 requires another person to do your “confession” with, and Step 9 requires you to make amends (apologize) to people you’ve harmed, which has a lot of potential to go sideways — and can even be dangerous. This step in particular is best done with the guidance of someone who has worked Step 9 themselves and has a lot of experience.
All of these problems have a pretty simple solution in AA — a sponsor.
What is a Sponsor in AA?
A sponsor in AA is a person who has been in recovery longer than you have, has worked the 12 steps, and has the time necessary to help you work those same steps.
It’s generally a good idea to get a sponsor who has a significant amount of sobriety time, though what “significant” means will vary. Some people start sponsoring almost immediately into their sobriety, and there is evidence in that people in the early days of AA would start sponsoring before they had even entirely detoxed from alcohol.
However, it’s no longer the 1930s, and there are AA meetings on just about every street corner, so it’s not hard to find someone to sponsor you who has 6 months, a year, or multiple years. Having someone with experience is beneficial as they’ll have a better idea of how to help you, especially with Step 9.
It’s also generally a good idea to work with someone who also has a sponsor. That’s usually a good indication that they’re working a good program and can give you solid guidance.
The Role of a Sponsor in AA
A sponsor in AA is not a professional counselor or therapist — they’re a fellow recovering alcoholic who shares their personal experiences and insights while guiding you through the 12 Steps.
In fact, that’s their main job — showing you how to work the 12 Steps. Everything else is secondary.
If your sponsor becomes someone you call when you’re feeling like you might drink or use, that’s great — many sponsors do just that. They can also give you advice if you want them to, but that’s totally up to you.
They might be a great resource for helping you identify your triggers or someone to talk to when you’re struggling with the idea of staying sober or with working the 12 Steps, but again, that’s not their main job, just something the two of you can work out together.
Think of them like a teacher — they have a basic job of showing you how to do something, but their role isn’t supposed to go beyond that. It’s okay if it does — it might even turn into a friendship — but that’s not something you should expect.
You also shouldn’t expect your sponsor to listen to your complaints or other problems that are unrelated to working the 12 Steps. Some will, but this is more something you should discuss with a therapist. However, if you want a sponsor who is going to give you advice and listen to your complaints and problems, you can probably find one.
It’s also important to note that there’s nothing requiring you to work with your sponsor, or vice versa. If you want to fire them and get a new sponsor, you can. If you want to go to another group and stop going to the one you’re going to, you can. It’s completely up to you.
It’s also possible that your sponsor might fire you for one reason or another. For example, if you’re slacking on working the steps, outright refusing to work them, or not listening to their suggestions, they have the right to fire you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
If you do get fired, it’s up to you to find a new sponsor ASAP.
When choosing a sponsor, what matters most is that you find someone you feel comfortable with, someone you can trust. This is especially important for Step 5, where you confess your deepest, darkest secrets to someone, usually your sponsor.
If you don’t trust your sponsor, you’ll have trouble completing Step 5, though you can technically do it with anyone. A good sponsor is going to help you use Step 5 as preparation for Steps 6 and 7, which a random person, like a friend or a priest, isn’t going to really understand.
How to Become a Sponsor in AA
If you want to become a sponsor, the first requirement is to work all 12 Steps. You also want to make sure that your sponsor has signed off on you becoming a sponsor and thinks you’re ready — they’re going to have the best understanding of whether or not this is something you can do effectively.
It’s also a good idea to have some significant sobriety time under your belt if possible, though for many people, making themselves available to sponsor early can help them stay sober long-term.
That being said, there are other ways to work Step 12 without sponsoring, allowing you to stay sober without taking on the big job of sponsoring someone.
For example, you can go to detox centers, rehabs, or jails to carry the message, which is sometimes called a commitment or an H&I (Hospitals and Institutions). This means talking to other people in recovery about how the 12 Steps helped you get sober and stay that way.
If you do this for a few months — or even a year or two — you’ll get used to the idea of helping other alcoholics and addicts. You’ll have some experience staying sober and working a program, and you’ll have some confidence that you can be a good sponsor.
Don’t forget that you can also ask your sponsor for advice or assistance at any time while you’re sponsoring someone. If you run into a problem with a sponsee that you don’t know how to handle, they’ll help you figure it out.
Finally, if you start sponsoring and feel overwhelmed or out of your depth, it’s totally fine to let your sponsee know that it’s not working out and that they need to find another sponsor. In these cases, it’s good practice to refer them to another sponsor, even your own, so that they can get the help they need.
Getting a Sponsor Is the 1st Step Toward Long-term Sobriety
While a sponsor’s main job is to guide you through the 12 Steps, they will often serve as a guide, mentor, and friend. They’re integral to completing the 12 Steps, so the sooner you get one, the sooner you can get some relief from the obsession to drink and/or use.
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About the Author
Cristal Clark, LPC-S, is the Medical Reviewer for ASIC Recovery Services. She reviews all website content for quality and medical accuracy. She is a master’s level Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and graduated from Liberty University in 2011. She has worked in the behavioral and mental health field for over 12 years and has a passion for helping others. She has been clinical director and CEO of a 200 plus bed facility, PHP, and IOP, with experience managing a team of counselors, individual/group/and family therapy, and coordinating continuum of care. Cristal is trained in EMDR and certified in non-violent intervention. She is a member of American Counseling Association and American Association of Christian Counselors.