- Ward Ewing on Spirituality and Religion

Unity Day
Area 83 (Eastern Ontario) / Area 86 (Western Ontario) 
Bradford Ontario

September 17,2011

Rev. Ward Ewing Speech

Dean: I’d like to introduce the chairman of the board of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Very Reverend Ward B. Ewing.

Hi, my name is Ward Ewing and I’m a class A Trustee and privileged to serve this fellowship. Dean did throw in the title “Very Reverend.” I want to emphasize that that’s a title, not a description. I am an ordained Episcopal priest which is part of the Anglican Church of Canada. That’s the title for someone who’s the head of one of the theological schools, which for the last 10 years I was head of one of our theological schools that was located in Manhattan in New York City. I think they hired me as a trustee because it cost them a subway fare for me to go to all the meetings [audience laughter]. Instead of plane fare, you know. I am now retired and my wife and I live in East Tennessee in the mountains. You may have heard of the Smokey Mountains, which are gorgeous. 

I’m going to share a little bit about myself and then I will talk a little bit about General Service. I welcome questions at any time. Then if we have some time I’ll talk a little bit about spirituality and religion, which is an issue that as I’ve traveled to a variety of these functions in this fellowship I’ve found is of concern to many.

As I’ve said, I am an ordained Episcopal minister. I served for thirty years in congregations. In the early part of my ministry I would have to say I was as good of an enabler as you could find when it comes to alcoholism. One of the things that clergy train for is to be pastors, to be helpful to people. Do you know how destructive being helpful to people can be? Y’all know better than most groups I talk to do. We take a certain amount of pride in that. When clergy would get together, we would talk about all of the calls we’ve gotten. The 2 am calls and how we had to get up and go visit these folks. And I would get 2 am calls from women, (or 2 or 3 women, and they would have gotten together) and they were unhappy about their marriages and they would give me a call at 2 o’clock in the morning. I would get up and get dressed and go sit and listen to them. And provide them brilliant counsel. The next morning they wouldn’t even remember I’d been there 
[audience laughter]

We had moved, Ginny and I and the children, had moved to Louisville Kentucky. In a small parish I began to have a different view of this illness. I saw families that were coming apart. I was in my mid-thirties by that point. Somehow that’s a time when things, particularly with most of my peers, were changing. I would hear in the youth groups the children talking about problems in their family. The word alcohol seemed to crop up from time to time with that. My eyes were really opened. This wasn’t just something that happened occasionally. Alcoholism was a real illness. It was causing pain and destruction and even death ... within my congregation.

So I figured I needed to find out something about this illness. I went to the experts. I started attending A.A. meetings. Because you know. That would have been in the mid-70’s to late-70’s. I went to only open meetings.Those were pretty smoky. In fact if you sat in the back of the meeting you might not even be able to see the speaker. I would come home at night. I would say Ginny I’m home. She would say yes, I know, I can smell you. Take off your clothes. Leave them outside. Which was a very mixed message [audience laughter]. I began taking some courses as well. The University of Louisville had some incredible good work, conferences, weekend conferences for clergy - working in alcoholism. I took some courses.

About 1980, I remember a member of the congregation, who was also a member of A.A. whose name was Willie, walked into my office one day. He knew I’d been going to meetings and learning, and by that time I was kind of involved with you. Willie walks in and he says: “Ward, you’re the spiritual expert right?” I don’t think I answered him. “I’m out of touch with my Higher Power. The last time I was out of touch with my Higher Power I drank. If I drink again, I may die. I need you to put me back in touch with God.” I don’t need to say to you that you know he was truly deadly serious. So we talked and then we met again and talked. We decided that what we needed was a group of folks. Just he and I talking wasn’t going to be enough. We needed a group who could deal with the issues of spirituality and alcoholism. So we invited a half a dozen members of A.A. who had at least five years sobriety, who would like to talk about the spiritual issues in their lives. Every Tuesday afternoon we met for an hour, until I moved from that congregation, five years later when we moved away. 

The spiritual expert got transformed by that group. Today I would call it an 11th Step group. Part of what happened in my life in congregations was in fact to develop some 11th Step groups, to work with other groups. I never go to closed meetings; I only go to open meetings. That involvement in this fellowship changed my life. That small group that met every Tuesday afternoon was the group that taught me how to really live the 12 Steps. I’ve always considered Willie my first sponsor. We didn’t formalize that but he clearly was. It gave me a kind of strength and a spiritual program that I had never found in the church, which allowed me to function in some very difficult situations sometimes. Let go and let God. Take it a day at a time. How are we doing today? Not worry about the crisis that’s on the horizon except to deal with what you can today. It’s just a different way of living. I wrote it down because it was so good. I get these things. That today’s a gift not a given. To begin to live that. Really it’s incredibly wonderful the gifts I’ve received from this fellowship. Strengthened my marriage. Strengthened my ministry. Changed my life. 

When I was interviewing to be invited as a class A trustee I remember the question that was asked. Why would you want to do this? I apparently gave the right answer. I said, out of gratitude. Thanks for the gifts you have given to me. I am so grateful to be a part of this fellowship. I’m also grateful that I didn’t have to pay the dues to get in. [audience laughter] You know this is a tough entrance. It’s not just a matter of life and death for those who are blessed with this illness of alcoholism – it’s a matter of life and death. What kind of quality of life one wants to live. To live out and work this spiritual program of the 12 Steps. 

Let me talk a little bit about the General Service. The General Service Conference I think most of you know, I hope you know, has 21 trustees. 14 of those are boozers, class B. And 7 of us are amateurs, class A. One of the advantages, or one of the differences, that class A trustees have is we don’t have to worry about anonymity. Our picture can appear in the paper with our name under it and that’s not a violation of any tradition. That is one of the gifts that we can bring to this fellowship. In San Antonio, I interfaced with the press in San Antonio; as did other class A trustees. That’s part of what we can do, to be a part of public information that the press finds a little more acceptable. You know, they have a hard time honoring anonymity. Sometimes there are anonymity breaks that are not the fault of the person in A.A. at all. The press went behind the scene, got the name, took a picture. I mean it’s just difficult. So that’s one of the things that we are able to do. I know I can speak for all of the class A trustees when I say we get more out of our service on this board than we give. There’s no question about it. The class A’s were chosen because they represent a particular professional field. I’m obviously out of the field of the religious. We have a judge from drug court, we have those who are involved in treatment, we have a doctor whose work is with impaired physicians. Let me tell you his stories are really something. Makes you a little scared – a doctor. And so on. They represent a variety of the professional fields that through the election process of trustees might not serve on the board. 

The other trustees – we have the at large Canada and at large U.S. We have General Service trustees whose job is particularly to work with our two corporations – the AA Grapevine and A.A. World Services. World Services publishes the Big Book and the pamphlets and the other books. Largely, it’s the publishing arm of A.A. And of course the Grapevine, which also oversees La Vina. Then there are regional trustees. The trustees, particularly the Class B trustees spend hours at work. The regional trustees like Dean ... Dean, no you’re our delegate… delegates spend a lot of time … but the regional trustees will attend meetings throughout the region, throughout the year. Kind of looking at their schedules, I‘d say they probably give 500 hours a year. It’s really an amazing gift to this fellowship that your trustees do.

I’ve been involved in this fellowship for 30 some years and knew nothing about the service structure. Suddenly I’m a trustee and I still knew nothing about the service structure. I don’t think I really understood how A.A. works at all until I went to the first conference. I’d been a trustee, your elected trustee before the conference. Your term begins after the conference so I’d been a trustee for a year before I went to my first conference. The conference begins by the trustee committees, which are the same as the conference committees, meeting with the conference committees and reporting back. Here’s what you asked us to do, here’s what we got done, here’s what we’re bringing back to you, we think needs some tweaking or some change, and that’s our report. For the first time I suddenly realized the conference really does run this fellowship. The conference comes from you. Through your district, through your area, to the region, to the delegate. You are the head. 

As most of you know our organization chart is an inverted triangle. At the top of the triangle are the groups. At the bottom of the triangle is the general service board. At the bottom of that is the chair. So I am either the bottom of the bottom or, I prefer, the servant of the servants. The trustees, who meet four times a year have committees that are parallel to the conference committees, are the grunts who try to stand between the conference and the staff and together do the work the conference gives us to do. The other function of the trustees is to oversee the two corporations, A.A. Grapevine and A.A. World Service. You know, every once in a while there gets to be, in spite of the fact that we believe in principles and not personalities, every once in a while there get to be conflicts in this fellowship [audience laughter]. You’re aware of that? I mean, I don’t want to disillusion anybody.

I think one thing that the Class A’s may bring is one foot in and one foot out. What happens is, it gives me a little different way of looking at my job than a class B. I don’t have a dog in almost any race that’s happening, any battle that’s happening in this fellowship. I don’t have a dog in that race. My history in the service structure began when I was elected a trustee. The issues are often new to me. I’m interested in finding out about them. But I’m not on one side or the other. I really am neutral. That lets me define my role as the chair of the board. My role is very simple. It is not to have the answer. I don’t have to have the answer. That’s very relieving. I don’t need to have the vision of what this fellowship should be. My role is to help the board develop its group conscious and to do that in a substantial way. That’s the only job I’ve really got. That lets me be in a more neutral position than if this were an issue where I deeply cared about one side or the other winning. I think that can be helpful for the class A’s as well. One of the things that I’ve learned is that there are no emergencies in A.A. That’s been helpful to me in a leadership position, or servant, servant of the servants. 

Let me take just a few minutes to introduce an issue that I have found is running throughout our fellowship, throughout the countries – U.S. and Canada. That’s the concerns about spirituality and religion. I heard it referred to earlier that we’re not a religious sect. We’re not a religious sect. I want to make that so clear that you can’t even conceive of that possibility. You know religion, and I’m a part of it. I prefer to call it institutional religion because I don’t think we’re very well organized [audience laughter]. I don’t call it organized religion, but institutional religion. Institutional religion has a theology, we have a set liturgy, we have professionals who are running the organization, we have theological schools to train those professionals to do that liturgy and teach that theology. Belief and faith are somehow connected. Too many of the churches, frankly, think they have the answers, and that their job is to get everybody to agree with them and believe as they believe. That’s all in the head. 

Spirituality is something quite different. Spirituality is something that absolutely everyone who gets up in the morning has. Spirituality is any of those factors in our life that we cannot see that affect our life. That’s a huge area. Spirituality is things like hate and love, anger and joy, peace, serenity, caring, helping. All of those kinds of things that go on between people. That affect who I am, who I will be and how I will act. Everyone, however they may describe it, has a spiritual component in their lives. A part of their lives is spiritual. We are spiritual beings because we are affected by whether people love us and care for us or ignore us, whatever happens. All of those things affect us.

We do not in a spiritual program like this have a creed. We do not have an official theology. We do not have a ritual. Now there are some rituals that sometimes develop in groups. I think we need to be a little careful of some of those. In the southern portion of the United States, in the southwest region and the southeast region they nearly always end A.A. meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. When we did that at the International Convention in San Antonio, I was surprised and frankly a little shocked. Because that feels awfully close to mixing those together. I think we have to be very careful. I think that line between religion and spirituality needs to be maintained strongly in this fellowship. That doesn’t mean I don’t think you can’t be religious. I’m glad for you to be religious. Just don’t try to make A.A. religious. I would consider myself reasonably religious. I’m one of those professionals paid and all of that. But I’ve worked very hard at not bringing any of that into this fellowship. While religion is often taught at the head level of theology – here’s the book, here’s the prayer book – spirituality is shared through story. That’s dramatically different. 

The sharing of spirituality moves the other person at the level of the heart. It’s not about communicating something intellectual. I think if we don’t keep this line clear then we’re going to end up confusing head and heart. That’s not going to help us in carrying the message. What changes people’s life is when they hear their stories on another alcoholic’s lips. That story is a story of hope, not of despair. That’s when suddenly someone can get that first vision that there can be another way, and can become a part of this fellowship.

It gets dangerous sometimes. You know, when newcomers come in, there are very few people in A.A. with a healthy conscious contact with God 
[audience laughter]. It just doesn’t happen a lot. Too much talk about God in the group I think can be a barrier. I think we have to be very careful about that. 

We’re all on a spiritual journey because we’re all spiritual beings. We’re all in different places in that journey. When someone comes in who has enough faith to be an atheist, which I could never have, that takes a lot of faith. Agnostic, I could do that. Atheist, I would have a hard time. But if someone comes in and that’s where they are in their spiritual journey I think that is fine. Our job is to help them understand where they are in their spiritual journey. To help them see where their strengths for them are and to help them see where they can grow. That’s all the job we have. It’s not our job to convince them that our way is a better way and they ought to take our way. Which we will end up doing if we are not very very careful.

We have a pamphlet that is presently being developed – I don’t think it has a working title yet -- but it’s going to be on various spiritual experiences within A.A. It will include stories from atheists and agnostics. A lot of people are upset by that. I’m really excited about it. Because I think one of the things that those of us who have a theistic faith miss is the real spiritual qualities of those who do not have that kind of faith. But they’re still a spiritual person. They’ve still found spiritual support in this fellowship and they have a story to tell. The way we communicate spirituality is in the stories. That’s why this pamphlet will be mostly stories. It’s not going to have any theology about what you should or shouldn’t believe. It will have one of the widest diversities of spiritual stories. Because they are all spiritual. I’m very excited about it. I haven’t seen them yet, but I know we’ve gotten a lot of stories in. I’m looking forward to seeing this when it comes out. 

As someone who is an ordained minister it took me a long time, even longer than it took me to find A.A, - I mean I found y’all after about ten years, after ten years of enabling -- I finally started to become a part of the help, rather than the hindrance. It took me even longer than that I think to realize that God doesn’t need my protection. God is so much bigger than my understanding, beyond that understanding. If a person is open to spiritual realities that surround us, then let God work that. I don’t need to manage another person’s spirituality. I have a hard enough time managing my own. God doesn’t need our protection. Let’s let each person find their own way with the God of their understanding, wherever they are in the journey. Guess what? They will grow.

Our focus is on powerlessness. We are powerless over this illness. We need to find a higher power. I think that always begins with the group. For some it can go beyond that. For all of us it means staying in the group. That’s where the power is met, experienced and transforms lives. That’s why Willie and I had to start a group. We couldn’t do it together, just the two of us. That’s why that group changed my life. Anyone who shows up for a meeting is on a spiritual journey. We don’t need to do anything more for them than that; then invite them here. They’re here because they want to stop drinking. That’s all we need. And that’s the only requirement for entrance into this fellowship. 

One of the things I learned and I’m sorry to say I learned the hard way is I cannot intervene. I had a car. I’m driving down the road. This car is coming right at me. It kind of swerved a little bit and went off into the ditch and turned over. I helped the guy out of the car and he really reeked. I mean, this guy really…. And he said “did you see that car try to run me off of the road?” [audience laughter] And I said no, I didn’t see the car but I can smell your breath and I know why you ran off the road. So here’s a real opportunity for an intervention, right? I blew it. Because I thought I could explain to him what Alcoholic Anonymous was about. I even got his address. I went by his house. He may be in the fellowship today or he may be dead, but he didn’t get here because of my words to him. What brings hope is when the active alcoholic hears their story on the lips of a recovering alcoholic. I don’t think there is any other way to bring hope at that point. 

What I learned, that as a professional who often – and you know I’m one of the few professionals who can go and knock on the door of any member of my parish’s house and say I’d like to come in and talk to you – and I’m welcome. That’s a real opportunity. When there are homes and families that were in trouble, or if there was an arrest or something, that produced a crisis, I learned that what I needed to do was to get a member of the fellowship and we would go visit. Not me. The two of us together. I could talk to the family about the family aspects of this illness but it was the member of A.A. who could talk to the person who had just been arrested or who was in crisis. Bringing a message of hope I knew I could never do. 

When professionals want to be involved in some way of supporting and helping this fellowship, we need you. One of the ways that you can help is to talk to the professionals you have a relationship with. The lawyers. I’m sure you don’t have a relationship with a lawyer….You might have a relationship with a lawyer. Doctors. Clergy. Judges. Any professional that you have a personal relationship with. Let them know that you’re a member of this fellowship. You’ll know in about 30 seconds if they are receptive to hear a little bit more. Then you can share some of your story. You can even say that Ward Ewing, who is a non-alcoholic trustee, said I should talk to you because you need my help. Or however you want to say that. It was Willie walking into my office that changed my life. There’s a message of hope and a message of strength in this fellowship that needs to be shared with so many others. I understand there are 30 active alcoholics for every member of A.A. The professional community can be helpful but we can’t do it on our own. We can only do it with you and with your help. 

Unity Day. It is the first tradition. Personal recovery depends on A.A. unity. This [Unity Day] is an example of that happening and strengthening that. It’s just been fabulous. I think Barb said it most directly. Without you I would not be sober today. That’s a deep, deep truth. If you look at the 12 & 12 it’s a pretty short chapter on the first tradition. I think it’s like two and a half pages, which probably the shortest Bill ever wrote. It’s an important chapter because it’s very clear that it’s the group that brings the power that keeps you sober today. It’s not the steps. It’s not the great wisdom and insight. It’s the group. That’s where the power is. 

A few years ago I wrote a book on power and powerlessness. I talked about A.A. in that book. I talked about the fact that without the group, the steps can do almost nothing. There’s great power in the steps. But that power is experienced in the fellowship. Imagine trying to take the steps and work them without talking to anyone else. Other than the fifth step – you have to talk to somebody on that one -- just imagine trying to do that. That doesn’t work. It gets phony. In fact, I’ve had people wanting to try to do that with me. They wanted me to try to be their counselor, where we would talk about each step and they would work each one and it would change their life. I said baloney. Actually, that’s not exactly what I said. 

You can’t do it as an individual. The real power is in the unity of the fellowship. There are lots of ways we experience that. I know all of you have had that experience of someone sharing their story and you’re not getting anything out of it. Then the next person that shares, you suddenly connect. There’s a real heart to heart, gut to gut kind of connection - that means so much. It’s the diversity in the community that helps to make that clear. Sooner or later, if we stay in this fellowship, we will find people who speak to us, like they lived inside my own head. That’s incredibly powerful.

When my children were young, my wife and I decided that loving is a tag team sport. You know, I came home one day and as I drove in the driveway I heard the door slam, the front door slam, and I met her on the walk. She said, “He’s YOURS.” [audience laughter] Loving is a tag team sport. Part of wh
at we need as human beings is to be loved and accepted. Frankly there are very few of us who are so loving and so wonderful that everybody just loves us all the time. In a community of people there is nearly always somebody there that day who can respond to our needs and help us understand that we are a valuable human being. It takes a group to be able to do that. To love us into health. It is the unity of the fellowship that provides the power that transforms lives, that brings healing and hope and new life. Now I’ve got to get to the spiritual. The understanding spiritual principle behind that, the reality that makes that possible is trust. 

A.A. is a very different kind of organization, you know. This is not a corporate structure or a business. We don’t have a lot of rules and your leaders are elected not to govern but to serve. We don’t have a lot of rules that say if you don’t do this right you’re going to be out or we’re going to cut your salary. Or anything like that. This is not a business that operates under legal structure. But rather this is a fellowship that I hadn’t quite figured out yet how it operates. It’s the most democratic organization I’ve ever been a part of. 

I remember my first board meeting. I know many of you know Bob Pilow. He had just come back from the northern area of Canada, dealing with the native people there. The debate was whether A.A. could accept, the General Service could accept, payment that the government of Canada was willing to make for people who were providing service to the first nations peoples. That was a two and a half hour conversation. I will confess because I think honesty is so important in this fellowship, that I didn’t stay awake through all of it. I got a couple of little cat naps in there. But I was moved by the conversation. The care about the seventh tradition and what that meant. Whether we could accept that. Finally, the conclusion ultimately was that if this is provided for everyone who goes to the first nations to provide service then we could accept that. It wasn’t a contribution to A.A. as such. That may or may not be right but that’s where we ended up. We took two and a half hours to do that. I’ve never been in a group that did that before. 

So it’s a very different kind of organization. We’re a fellowship. Not a business. Critical to that fellowship is your participation. When we talk about the importance of service, that’s critical to our very nature. to being a fellowship. Trust is the foundation that allows that kind of fellowship to function. Without trust A.A. simply could not function. Imagine if every time someone got up to speak, if at every business meeting, if at every level of the structure, at the district level, at the area level, at the region, at the general service conference, if we were automatically suspicious that everyone who spoke had an agenda. They were out to manipulate something for themselves and we couldn’t really trust them. Just imagine that. What an awful situation we would be in.

So we begin by trusting. It’s a kind of trust not only in the individuals, but a trust in the process. I think that is why the minority voice is so important. That’s why we take the time it needs to hear every voice because every voice is important. Even when an individual is convinced that the fellowship is moving in the wrong direction, there’s a trust that we’re a self-correcting fellowship. We can go in the wrong direction. It’s not the end of the world because we can always correct it. This level of trust that I’ve experienced in this fellowship I find quite amazing actually. It’s what allows us to function. What I want to share is to say that is a gift.

When you talk about gratitude I think one of the things we need to have gratitude for is the trust that every member of this fellowship has in the fellowship and in one another. Despite the common phrase, you cannot earn a person’s trust. If someone distrusts me, it doesn’t matter what I do, they will continue to assume motives, assume other reasons for my doing it. And continue to distrust me. You can violate trust. You can destroy trust. I consider acting in a trustworthy manner the most sacred obligation of anyone who is a servant leader in this fellowship, including myself. Being trustworthy is the single most important thing we must do. Even then you can’t earn the trust. The trust is always a gift. It’s like love in that sense. You can’t earn love. Do you know the difference, for example, between being laid back and lazy? The person who thinks you’re laid back loves you. The person who thinks you’re lazy doesn’t. Same person. Trust is like that. We have to choose to trust. If I trust you it’s a gift I’ve given you. If you trust me it’s a gift you’ve given me. 

It’s about choice. It’s that mutual trust that allows the kind of conversations that run on too long. It allows the honoring of the minority voice. It’s that mutual trust that allows us, with all of our mutual differences, all of our different experiences, to come to common solutions to the issues we face as a fellowship. And so it is, as part of this incredibly remarkable fellowship that doesn’t run on rules – it runs on serving and on trust – that out of some kind of mutuality that we developed, we will go to any length to reach out to the still suffering alcoholic. It is remarkable. I have to say I am absolutely, truly privileged to be able to serve you and to be a part of you. I thank you.