12 Step sponsorship relationship



6- 12 Step Sponsorship Relationship


This page provides you with suggestions on how to establish a healthy and effective sponsorship relationship. When the sponsor and the sponsee come to an understanding of their expectations and responsibilities towards one another, there is a greater chance for this relationship to be focused on its primary purpose, which is recovery from addiction.


  • Establish mutual understanding
  • Sponsorship agreement


Establish mutual understanding

Perhaps the greatest source of disappointment between a sponsor and sponsee can be traced to a misunderstanding about the purpose of this potentially life-saving relationship. We may agree to sponsor someone for all the right reasons, but nevertheless see the relationship fall to pieces because we failed to establish ground rules or come to a clear understanding of our role and its limits.

As sponsors taking on new sponsees, it is best first to establish with each other:

1) An understanding of sponsorship – establish what each understands is the purpose of this relationship.

2) Expectations for sponsorship – discuss with each other what each needs and expects from the other and come to an agreement of your respective obligations and responsibilities.


Of course there are no rules or guidelines on sponsorship. Each of us — whether new to the program or already in recovery — is an individual with different experiences, styles, and characteristics. What may work with one sponsee may not with another. This is a matter of simple human nature and does not reflect badly on us as sponsors or on our program.

But when we establish ground rules and a mutual understanding of our role as a sponsor, there is a better chance for this relationship to be effective. By being clear about our role and its limits we stay true to our primary role as recovering members of our Fellowship, which is to carry its message of recovery so that others may have what we have been freely given.

Ultimately we are spelling out for our potential sponsee how we are going to be as a sponsor:  how I am going to take them through the Steps, how I will support them in recovery, when I will be available, etc. We make clear to our sponsee that if this is not what they are expecting from us, or do not want or cannot commit to, then we need to discuss whether we can work together.


Sponsorship agreement

The Sponsorship Agreement provides you with suggested guidelines that aim to help you start a solid working relationship with your sponsee, including establishing ground rules. At your first meeting with your sponsee it is a good idea to go over the points described below and discuss your respective understanding of each. Adapt these guidelines to fit your style, choosing what works best for both of you. Even if this process seems a bit formal, it serves a good purpose.  As is the case with any new relationship it is better to start off knowing what each party expects and what is expected of each party. This will help to ensure a long-lasting relationship and head off disappointments and hurt feelings. You will see how you will both benefit in terms of working the 12 Step and growing in recovery.


  • The following page, 12 Step Sponsorship Agreement provides you with a short version of this agreement in Word format that can be adapted according to what suits each party.
  • Reminder: please note that these points are merely suggestions based on what has worked for some of us and not rules on sponsorship.



1. Principles to establish

Discuss the points below with your potential sponsee so that you can come to a mutual understanding of the principles your relationship will be based upon before committing to work with each other.

12 Step sponsorship relationship - Principles to establish


1) Willing to go to any length

Before agreeing to sponsor someone it is a good idea to find out from that person how willing they are to recover from their disease of addiction. What measures are they willing to take and what are they willing to give up in order to recover. Knowing the answers to these questions will save you a lot of time and energy in your efforts to guide another through the 12 Steps. If your sponsee is unwilling to make recovery their number one priority or do the required work, then they may not yet be ready to work this spiritual program of action. This does not mean we do not help them. We can encourage and support them in various ways. We can introduce them to all tools and support available in the Fellowship and show them the benefits of living in recovery. Over time they will come out of denial and realize the necessity of working this program, if they hope to recover. Some sponsors ask their sponsee to attend a number of meetings before starting to take them through the Steps to get an indication of their willingness to go to any length. Some start them on the Steps right away. This is a matter of your personal choice and experience. But ultimately your sponsee has to want to want to work the Steps before we can guide them through them.

The program of recovery offered through the 12 Steps is fundamentally aimed at chronic addicts – those who have lost the power to control or stop their drug use by themselves.  This is because chronic addicts are more likely to hear the solution offered by the 12 Steps because they have probably tried every means to stop on their own and have failed. Having said this, the 12 Steps have proven successful for many addicts who have not hit rock bottom. Some of us became willing to work this program after seeing the devastating effects of addiction on others and realizing that we were heading for the same end. Whatever the circumstances, your sponsee has to be willing to go to any length if they wish to recover. They have to reach a place where they realize their willpower is of no use and that they need a power outside themselves and the support of others to recover from their addiction.

Ask your potential sponsee:

1) Are you willing to go to any length to recover from your disease of addiction?

2) What are the measures you are willing to take and what are you willing to give up in order to recover?

3) Describe what willingness to go to any length means to you.


2) Commitment to Recovery

It is a good idea to determine precisely why our sponsee wants to recover, because it’s important to know whether they are doing it for themselves or because of other pressures. Many of us enter the program half-heartedly. We may come to the Fellowship to placate a spouse, a family member, or because we are forced by court order, or we are in danger of losing our job.  If the decision to get clean is not our own we are more likely to return to using drugs. On the other hand, many who have been pressured by others into entering the Fellowship do go on to find recovery. However we come to the program, though, our sponsee has to want to recover and show a degree of commitment to put in the work required. Otherwise we will find ourselves frustrated as if our responsibility is to convince them of this program. Our role as sponsors is to support our sponsee through the 12 Steps based on their decision and commitment towards recovery.

One of our responsibilities as sponsors is to remind our sponsees of their commitment towards recovery. The disease of addiction is insidious and powerful, and it will do anything to convince us we don’t have a problem and don’t need to work this program. It will tell us that other problems are more important and need our attention; anything to take our focus away from recovery. We need to point out to our sponsee these mental features of the disease of addiction, and to establish how willing he or she is to work the Steps and make them the priority.

Ask your potential sponsee:

1) Are you willing to make a commitment to make recovery the number one priority in your life?

2) Are you willing to put in the work required to recover?

3) Describe what this commitment means to you.  For instance, to avoid entering into a new romantic relationship, not get that divorce right now, not move homes, not take that trip abroad, etc.


3) Work the 12 Steps 

Make sure your sponsee understands your role and its limitations. Make sure they realize we are not therapists, or legal, financial, or family advisors, and that we are not there to fix all their problems or carry them through the Steps. Our primary purpose as a sponsor is to guide them through the 12 Steps so that they may take responsibility for their disease and use the tools of the program to recover. This needs to be understood by our potential sponsee so that they do not get disappointed, resentful or blame us if they use drugs again. In addition, it is important that we also understand our role, which is that we are there to share our working experiences of the Steps and recovery. We do not have the power to control or make someone recover.  If you make clear your role and its limitations, there is a greater chance for an open and honest relationship to develop. As a sponsor you have kept humble by doing only what you can as an addict in recovery helping another addict through the program. The result will be that your sponsee will be encouraged to take responsibility for his or her disease and doing the necessary work to recover.

Explain to your potential sponsee that although a friendship may develop as a result of this relationship, and that you would support him or her to the best of your capacity as a member of a 12 Step Fellowship, your primary aim is a guide to the program. Let them know in keeping with your commitment as a sponsor, you will focus this relationship on recovery and not for social purposes. 

It’s also fine that our sponsee looks up to us for wisdom and guidance, but it’s important that they know we you are not a guru, nor perfect, nor have the solution to all life’s problems.  Above all remind your sponsee that the solution to recovery and a new way of life lies within the 12 Steps and not you.

A good sponsor is open-minded and therefore willing to accept that a sponsee may want to work the Steps differently than we did. Our sponsee may not be as “desperate” as we were when we entered the Fellowship or they may want to work the Steps at a slower pace. This does not mean they are not working the program. We need the humility to accept that our way is not the only way to work the Steps or to recover. Our sponsee is entitled to their own path in recovery, including making their own errors. Our job is to support them in their journey towards recovery and not force our opinions on them, including an understanding of a Higher Power. Some sponsees may have a sudden spiritual awakening and then commence to work the Steps with vigour. Others, though, may slowly realize the lifesaving feature of this spiritual program, and come to an understanding and develop their faith in a Higher Power only after some time. Whatever the case, it’s important that we respect and allow their understanding of God and their experiences of the Steps.

Ask your potential sponsee:

1) Do you have an understanding of my role and limitations as a sponsor?

2) Are you willing to work your 12 Steps with my guidance and support?


4) Confidentiality & Trust

Many of us addicts suffer from an inability to trust others.  But a safe sponsorship relationship can help build trust and give our sponsee the courage to open up to a new way of life. Keeping what a sponsee tells us confidential is a vital criterion for the sponsorship relationship. When working through the Steps, our sponsee is bound to discuss the most secret and shameful episodes of their lives. Through it, they can slowly let go of shame and accept the consequences of their disease. So there needs to be a understanding between sponsor and sponsee not to repeat anything they share with each other — whether related to our addiction or other aspect of our lives. Some sponsors go so far as to avoid mentioning whom they sponsor. There may be times where as a sponsor we need to talk to our own sponsor regarding what our sponsee has told us. On these occasions, it is best to first get our sponsee’s permission.

Breaking our sponsees confidentiality can cause a relapse, which, given the nature of our disease, can lead even to death. This principle is strongly stressed in every Fellowship meeting and it is a principle that has to be honoured empathically in a sponsorship relationship. We may also have to inform our sponsee that there are subjects we are unable to deal with, such as, for instance a highly disturbing account of violence in the sponsee’s past. As sponsors we have to know our limits and what we are able to deal with. For certain extreme subjects, we need to direct our sponsees to unburden themselves with a professional, such as a therapist, solicitor or priest.

Ask your potential sponsee:

1) Shall we make a pledge to each other that we shall keep each other’s confidence in this relationship?

2) Discuss any exceptions or limitations.


5) Mutual Honesty

Honesty is an essential principle for our recovery and also in our sponsorship relationship. So it is a good idea to discuss this concept with your potential sponsee to establish a healthy foundation for your new relationship. We recover based on our capacity to be honest. When we finally faced the truth about our condition and ourselves, when we accepted our powerlessness over our addiction, we were able to surrender and ask for help outside ourselves. Our ability to be honest is a determining factor that contributes greatly to the maintenance and growth of our recovery. Remind your potential sponsee of the importance of keeping this relationship honest. Let them know that you don’t expect perfection — which you yourself have learned honesty is a gradual process that grew as you worked your program. Let them know that you much prefer them to be honest with you, whatever the issue. That if, for example, they have relapsed to let you know, or if they have not been able to do some of the work you have agreed upon, best not to pretend for the sake of pleasing you.  Let your potential sponsee know that honesty works both ways, which you too will commit to being honest with him or her. Point out that this relationship is not about impressing one another or pretending how well we are working the program. Note that the program honours our imperfections and even celebrates them, for they got us into recovery!

But also remind your potential sponsee that your commitment to be honest with one another does not mean they have to reveal everything about themselves right away.  Let them know that they have a choice and it is their decision to share whatever personal information they want. If there is information they need to divulge as part of the cathartic process of recovery, but are unable to do so with us – out of shame or for whatever reason — they should do so with whoever they feel comfortable with.

Ask your potential sponsee:

1) Shall we make a commitment to be honest with one another in this relationship?

2) Discuss why the practise of this principle is important in the recovery process and how to handle cases when information is better shared with someone else.


6) Spirituality

Spirituality is the foundation of recovery in 12 Step programs. The fundamental way we recover is through belief and reliance on a Power greater than ourselves. Discuss with each other your understanding of your Higher Power and what spirituality means to you each. Make sure they understand that this program is open to all and that each of us chooses our concept of God, that this is personal and that it grows and develops as we work our Steps. Let them know that part of your role is to encourage and support them in their journey towards finding their God and that you will not force your belief system on them, nor have spiritual expectations of them. Make sure they understand that the fundamental goal of recovery in 12 Step programs is to replace self-reliance with a healthy dependance on a God of our understanding. 

As sponsors we cannot be a Higher Power to our sponsee. Such a misuse of our role has the potential to harm their recovery process. If we create a relationship where we demand that our sponsee relies on us for recovery — as opposed to guiding them towards developing an understanding of their God — then we are at odds with the program. We are also doing an immense disservice to our sponsee. Playing god puts us on dangerous ground — and we are bound to fail, with the final consequence being that our sponsee relapses. This, surely, is a burden of guilt we want to avoid. Many sponsees make their Fellowship group their Higher Power. Although this may be a good way to start the practise of not relying on themselves, it is important, if they want to benefit from all the spiritual gifts of this program that they develop and grow in a relationship with a God of their understanding.

1) Discuss with your potential sponsee the spiritual aspect of 12 Step recovery programs and any misunderstanding they may have about the concept of God.

2) Discuss your role and limitations as a sponsor and your commitment to support them in their journey towards recovery and their God.



2. Practicalities to establish

Apart from coming to an understanding of the principles discussed above with your potential sponsee, it may also be a good idea to cover some ground rules on the practical aspects of sponsorship. These can be:

Practicalities to establish in sponsorship


1) Trial Period

The fact is, as with any relationship, sometimes the sponsorship relationship simply does not work between a particular sponsor and sponsee. There can be many reasons we are unable to continue sponsoring another; or maybe our sponsee wants to let us go there may be differences in working styles, or the chemistry may not be right. In some cases, the sponsee may find someone else they can better relate to. A life crisis or recovery issue may require our primary time and attention. As sponsors we need to be humble and accept the fact that everyone cannot like us, nor does being in recovery mean that we have to be of service to everyone. The truth is we are all addicts filled with faults and defects, doing the best we can to work our program on a daily basis. So as a wise and prudent measure it is a good idea to set a trial period with our potential sponsee, to agree for example to work Steps One, Two, and Three, and then decide if you both want to continue the relationship. This will allow time for both of you to get to know each other, work with each other and see if you like and trust each other. Deciding by Step 3 is a good idea, for after that the Action Steps start, which require more time, work and sharing of personal information. It is also easier to embark on a sponsorship relationship when both parties are agreed at the beginning that either can opt out after a trial period.

Of course, either of you can decide to end the sponsorship relationship whenever you want, but setting a trial period also gives your potential sponsee the opportunity to express their personal freedom and power of choice — something he or she may not have experienced for a long time. As sponsors, this shows we are working on our defects of grandiosity and practising humility, along with respect of other people’s needs and wants. Establishing a trial period can also serve as an amicable exit strategy, without either feeling resentful or rejected.

Ask your potential sponsee:

1) Shall we agree on a trail period and then decide if we are compatible and like working with each other?

2) Decide how long your trial period should be or how many Steps you will work on as part of the trial period.


2) Sponsor Contact

It is important to establish with your potential sponsee when and where it is appropriate for them to call you on a non-emergency basis. Establish a convenient time in the day when you will be available to speak — when you are not at work for example. You can point out, though, that your sponsee should get in contact any time they feel in danger of picking up drugs — that in fact it is crucial they call at such times.

Some of us want our new sponsee — especially if they are newcomers to the program — to call us every day for the first 90 days. We may ask them to focus their share with us on recovery issues as opposed to just talking about life in general. This not only underscores the purpose of our relationship but it will also help them keep their focus on recovery. When they talk specifically about tools they have learned to apply to recovery, how they have been able to relate and find identification in a meeting or what difficulties they are experiencing, we can better serve our purpose as sponsors as opposed to being just another member of the Fellowship or a friend. When we encourage our sponsee to keep their focus on the positive, we help them get out of the habit of thinking negatively, which can lead to getting distracted from the goal of recovery a day at a time.

The advantages of asking our sponsee to call us every day in the early days are:

  • It allows us to get know each other quicker and develop confidence and trust.
  • It’s an acknowledgment of the support we have committed to give our sponsee, which in turn encourages them to work the program towards recovery.
  • It allows us to monitor their daily progress and support them more effectively.
  • It demonstrates our sponsee’s willingness to hand their will over and work the principles of this program.
  • It acts as a tool to draw our sponsee out of their usual comfort zone of isolation by talking to us about themselves and their issues.
  • It establishes a habit of regular contact that will continue throughout the relationship. In addition, this habit makes it easier for them to pick up the phone if they are about to relapse.

Ask your potential sponsee:

1) Shall we agree on a convenient time for you to call me on a regular basis to talk about recovery issues?

2) Will you make a commitment to call me anytime if you are about to relapse?


3) Sponsor Availability

It is a good idea to establish when and where you will meet to work the Steps. Some sponsors like to meet once a week on a regular basis until the end of Step 5 and thereafter slow it down to fortnightly intervals. The frequency of your meetings with your sponsee is up to you. It may be dependent on the number of sponsees you have or how busy you are. But it is a good idea to set a regular meeting time specifically allocated to working the Steps. This will keep the sponsorship relationship focused on its primary purpose in addition to bringing some structure to your sponsee’s life in the early days. When they know they will be meeting you specifically to work through a Step, they will be more focused on working the program despite their life problems and the tendency to become distracted from recovery.

Ask your potential sponsee:

1) Shall we agree on a regular time and place to meet to specifically work on the Steps?



3. 12 Steps working schedule

To increase your effectiveness as a sponsor and keep the focus of this relationship on its primary purpose, it may be a good idea to create a rough schedule of which Step or activity you will work on with your sponsee at your face-to-face meetings.  The schedule is adaptable, of course, and each Fellowship has its own suggestions on how to work the 12 Steps. Some Fellowships have workbooks, which systematically guide you through the Steps, with questions and answers that you can use to help you work with your sponsee.

12 Steps working schedule


The benefits of working with your sponsee in an organized and systematic way are:

1) Incentive to work 12 Steps

Provides them with an incentive to work the Steps, knowing that within a certain timeframe they will complete them.


2) Focused on recovery

Help them stay focused on working the 12 Steps by putting recovery as the number one priority.


3) Hope in recovery process

Gives them a sense of hope in the knowledge that you are serious and committed to their recovery process.


4) Responsibility to recover

Encourages them to take responsibility for their recovery in the knowledge that there is work they must do and that you have certain expectations of them.


5) Life order and structure

Bring about some sense of responsibility and structure into their life, knowing they are expected to be somewhere at a specific time, to meet certain goals, and that they will be supported in their efforts. 


Agree with your potential sponsee:

1) Depending on the Fellowship and the 12 Step program you will be working with your sponsee, create a rough schedule of the activities and the Steps you would like to work through in a systematic order.

2) Provide a copy of this to your sponsee so that they will know what is expected of them in terms of work and as a way of keeping them focused on their recovery.


For example if meeting with your sponsee on a weekly basis to work the 12 Steps of Narcotics Anonymous from “The Narcotics Anonymous Step Working Guide”, you can create a 12 Steps working schedule based on the example below:


Week 1:

  • Read chapter 1: Step 1
  • Answers questions on page…. for next week

Week 2: 

  • Discuss understanding of Step 1
  • Go over the questions and answers
  • Share experience, strength, and hope

Week 3: 

  • Read chapter 2: Step 2
  • Answers questions on page…. for next week

Week 4: 

  • Discuss understanding of Step 2
  • Go over the questions and answers
  • Share experience, strength, and hope

Week 5: 

  • Read chapter 3: Step 3
  • Answers questions on page…. for next week

Week 6: 

  • Discuss understanding of Step 3
  • Go over the questions and answers
  • Share experience, strength, and hope
  • Do Step 3 prayer together

 So on…

Question or Comment

Hamrah welcomes any questions or comments you may have. We will reply back to the email address provided.

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