Many who have attended 12-Step meetings have heard about sponsorship, but beyond that basic awareness, the sponsor-sponsee relationship can seem mysterious. For instance, how does a newcomer get a sponsor and what do they actually do? Read on to find out more about how sponsorship works, and why it’s a vital component to 12-Step work.
Sponsors are members who have recovery [see below] and will work one-on-one with a sponsee to share their experience, strength, and hope. It’s often said: find someone who has what you want and ask them how they are achieving it. Sponsors are encouraged to be abstinent and to have worked the Steps with their own sponsor. Sponsors offer support and suggestions and can guide you through setting up and following your own program. They are not experts and should not direct how you work your program.
Sponsorship relationships can be long-term, even spanning decades, but it’s also common to have a temporary sponsor who might help you get started in the program. Since fellows are encouraged to sponsor up to the level of their own experience, a temporary sponsor might be someone who is still going through the Steps for the first time. Other members are newcomer sponsors who choose to only work with new members on the first three Steps.
Sometimes sponsors need to step back from being a sponsor because they’re struggling with their own program or for other personal reasons. It’s common for fellows to switch sponsors over time. Sometimes we need to meet and work with many people before finding the right person. That being said, the important thing is to start working the program with a sponsor and not to wait around for the perfect person (who doesn’t exist anyway!).
Note: When we talk about recovery, we don’t just mean a person with a “normal” body size. We mean someone who has emotional and spiritual recovery as well. (And spiritual recovery does not have to be religious!) Look for a fellow who seems honest, open, grounded, and knowledgeable about OA.
Recovery Research Institute, Benefits of 12-Step Sponsors
In Overeaters Anonymous (OA), the most common type of sponsor is a Step sponsor. This person can help guide us through the process of working the Steps. Other kinds of sponsors include food sponsors (people we “commit” or send our food to, often daily, in a text or email, to help with accountability) and gratitude sponsors (people who receive a list of daily gratitudes). Why would we have more than one? Sometimes sponsors have limited time, and we might need to seek someone else out.
Typically sponsors and sponsees set up regular check-ins. This can be daily, weekly, or monthly, and can be face-to-face, using Zoom or Facetime, on the phone, by text or email, or a combination of these methods.
Sometimes people can also co-sponsor each other. This often works best for members of the fellowship who have been in the program for a while and have made some changes that are working for them. Co-sponsoring for newcomers often works well for daily food accountability or gratitude buddies.
Working with an OA Step sponsor is based on studying and practicing the OA Steps. This usually involves reading the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Overeaters Anonymous and writing down the answers to the questions found in the book or accompanying workbook. For those who prefer a secular approach, it’s helpful to read a secular 12-Step book at the same time to help translate the God-component into secular language. If you’re interested in how to reframe the “God” questions in the OA workbook, go here to see what others have done and maybe add your own ideas.
When meeting with a sponsor, sponsees will often share what they’ve written. It’s a good time to ask questions or request feedback. The most important job a sponsor has is to listen, not to give advice.
Trusting a sponsor is essential. As we work the Steps, often our sponsor is the first person we’ve ever told our darkest secrets to. The act of sharing often brings great relief and aids in recovery, but also requires vulnerability. One of OA’s tools is anonymity, which means that what we share with a sponsor, stays with our sponsor.
Fellows who have strong recovery also use the Tools on a regular basis, so a sponsor may recommend figuring out a plan of eating, going to meetings, making calls, writing, reading 12-Step literature, making actions plans, and doing service at meetings (e.g., volunteer to be a Zoom host, the timer for shares, or the weekly caller). Members are not required to use all of these Tools (but some, like going to meetings or having a food plan, are close to essential!). We consult with our sponsors and fellows and find what works best for each of us as individuals.
When the 12 Steps are done (this can take years!), some fellows decide to study the 12 Traditions, read a book with their sponsor, share a daily inventory, or just meet to talk about how program is going. After a break, some fellows even decide to work the Steps again! We always have more to learn about ourselves.
Some lucky newcomers are approached by a member who offers to be their sponsor. There is no pressure to say yes to this kind offer. Feel free to thank them and tell them you need more time.
Generally, it’s up to the individual to find a sponsor, and the most common place is at meetings. For those drawn to a secular approach to the Steps, then it makes sense to attend secular meetings to find a sponsor. Sometimes people will indicate they’re available by raising their hands or making a note on the sign-in sheet or in the Zoom Chat. However, if you’ve met someone you like and who has recovery, it’s appropriate to ask them if they’d be willing to sponsor, even if they don’t indicate they’re available.
Attend different meetings. Even if you decide that a particular meeting is not a good fit for you, it doesn’t mean you won’t find a sponsor there. Also, some seculars find sponsors in conventional OA meetings. The next time you go out of town attend a face-to-face meeting. Keep your ears attuned for shares that refer to “inner resource” or “higher self” or people who identify as atheist/agnostic/secular.
Make connections while you are looking for your first sponsor. Don’t know what to say? Ask a general question like, “What’s your food plan” or “How do you define your abstinence.” Ask the same question of several members. Explore alternatives, such as an accountability buddy, co-sponsor, workbook group, or recovery circle. Even after you have a sponsor, you will still need a community of support. So, start building!
Other avenues to try include joining our:
Facebook group: Secular Overeaters and Friends (in Overeaters Anonymous)
Google group: Secular Overeaters Community, email firstname.lastname@example.org
While you are looking for a sponsor or co-sponsor, make a list of what you’d like in a sponsor, and the questions you’d like to ask a prospective sponsor (see the accordion Sponsor interview questions, below, for ideas). It can be difficult to find someone who is available, and who is a good fit. We might find that we have to be willing to ask someone who is not our “first choice.”
You are responsible for your program. Your sponsor will have expectations of you and may make suggestions. However, sponsors do not make decisions for you. If discomfort arises for you, consider talking it over with your sponsor. This may strengthen your relationship or help you decide whether it is a good match.
Sponsor-sponsee relationships between people who could be sexually attracted to each other are not recommended. It can also get complicated to have a friend sponsor since it makes it harder to be honest and objective.
Here are some things members have to say about their sponsors.
“Working with a sponsor affirms that I’m dedicated to my recovery.”
“My sponsor reminds me to just fucking breathe!!!”
“My sponsor helps guide me through the program.”
“Don’t give up if you haven’t found the right sponsor yet.”
“I don’t expect my sponsor to have all the answers.”
“My sponsor had clear boundaries, and I needed to find other ways to get everything I needed.”
When we’ve found someone we might want to work with, we start by sharing a little about ourselves. This could include being atheist (or Buddhist, pagan, etc.), the nature of our compulsive food behavior (e.g., binger, restrictor, bulimic) or medical issues that might affect our food (e.g., diabetic, C. diff). We might also let them know why we’re interested in working with them (e.g., “I’m queer and atheist, too” or “I’m also a diabetic”). Sometimes it’s good to work with someone not like us, as they can provide a different perspective.
1. How long have you been in OA?
2. What’s your style of sponsorship?
3. How do you usually start working with new fellows
4. Have you worked with atheist or agnostic fellows before?
Your sponsor does not need to be secular, but they should be secular-friendly.
5. Are you open to me using outside literature and alternative Steps?
6. How often do you usually meet with your sponsees?
7. Do you have any requirements?
Expectations like showing up on time for your meetings and doing your homework are reasonable. Sponsors should not issue orders, be controlling, give advice (especially regarding medications) or tell you the only way to recover is to behave in certain ways or follow certain food practices (they may, however, recommend you see a professional, like a nutritionist).
8. Do you have any questions for me?
Sponsors and sponsees might want to set a future time to reassess the relationship (like after a month in or when finishing the first three Steps). This will give both an out if there is not a cohesive bond.