Tradition 4 of the 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous states that group freedom has brought with it the exhortation to protect the community as a whole. This means that meeting formats can vary from group to group, but it also warns against straying too far from the usual program.
“Tradition 4: Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.”
Tradition 4 grants AA group freedom with responsibility to the whole
Each 12-step group has complete freedom to determine the program content of its sessions and the topics to be discussed. The group can decide whether the meeting will be open or closed and when and where the meeting will take place. Each group can choose to change its meeting format and has full authority to spend its funds as needed.
The group can also decide how to begin and end their sessions. Some groups close with a prayer while others have a moment of silence. In all of these matters, each group has complete freedom. It is entirely up to membership in that particular group.
The second part of this tradition, however, reminds each group that they also have a responsibility to the global community and other groups. By following the traditions and principles of its program, each group can ensure that they do not stray too far from the principles of the program.
Limits to Freedom Granted by the Fourth Tradition
The autonomy provided for in Tradition 4 does not mean that a single group has the authority to reformulate the 12 steps or traditions, or to create their own literature. Also, groups should not present, discuss or sell external literature at their meeting points.
That being said, groups have complete freedom to customize their programs to suit the needs of their members, which can result in a variety of formats.
Many meetings have broken away from the appearance of their primary purpose by using unapproved literature, showing videos of popular self-help speakers, or allowing treatment professionals to discuss the latest therapy techniques in open meetings.
There is a saying that there is no right or wrong way to hold a meeting, but the group can stop delivering the message if it strays too far from its traditions and concepts.
How group autonomy creates different environments
One AA member described what it was like to encounter groups that did things differently. He says when he first came to AA he learned how it was going in his small group, and when he went to other groups in neighboring cities he thought, “They’re not getting their meetings right,” simply because they are it wasn’t. It’s not the same as the first group he went to.
Today, these little things that used to bother him make him realize that they make all these groups unique and different. He is now looking forward to the various meetings because they are unique in their own rights. As long as program guidelines are followed and the basic message is there for everyone, each group’s autonomy is another example of why Alcoholics Anonymous work.