Tradition of the Month: Controversy

8. Overeaters Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.


Tradition 8 ain’t sexy. It seems like a throw-in. “Hey, guys, by the way, don’t hire anyone to carry the message or run the joint.” But Tradition 8 is vitally important to OA for reasons that become clear when we think about how controversies play out in the fellowship.

One such controversy that pops up from time to time is who is allowed to share during an OA meeting. Some meetings may create restrictions on sharing based on presumptions about a member’s quality of recovery. These restrictions may violate OA’s Traditions and bylaws, and that’s where things get testy—and where Tradition 8 saves us.

Unlike most organizations where all the power rests in the hands of a few (a CEO, a board, or a presiding committee), in OA, the power rests with the many. Our service structure looks like an upside down triangle, with meetings at the top, intergroups serving them, the regions serving the intergroups, and the World Service serving the regions. This structure is counterintuitive to a hierarchical society like ours that often opts for centralization as a means of creating economies of scale. But OA would have withered and died were that the case.

That said, those who take on increasing responsibility in our service structure are asked to deal with controversies like the example above. A member complains to the Intergroup about the situation. The Intergroup appeals to its Region trustee for guidance, and that trustee may well consult with World Service for expertise on interpreting whether the situation demands action. And when it does demand action, things get dicey. The Region trustee may tell the local Intergroup that this represents a violation of Traditions. The Intergroup can then inform the meeting that its practices are not sanctioned by OA. To be considered part of OA, a meeting must agree to abide by OA’s Traditions and bylaws, and if it is out of compliance, it’s reckoning time.

In the business, government, and non-profit worlds, showdowns like this are filled with game playing, leverage taking, and personal agendas. Professionals typically have competing incentives as they negotiate a situation: Is what’s best for the organization in my team’s best interests or my own? Will I get noticed for promotion if this thing comes out in our favor? How can I gain power of a rival in this situation? How can I avoid being fired?

Because OA is nonprofessional, we don’t have those kinds of worries. Wherever in the service structure we may find ourselves, from a meeting to the World Service, we are still just another bozo on the bus. We pray for the right answers, we seek common ground in the OA principles represented by the Steps and Traditions, and we leave aside petty questions of pride, position, and power.

In fact, nonprofessionalism allows us to take a more kindly view in our example situation. If we carry anger over the World, Region, or Intergroup-level service person asking us to consider changing our meeting format, we can ask ourselves whether we honestly believe they are trying to harm us or our meeting. Could they instead be trying to safeguard OA’s Traditions? Is it possible that we have a difference of opinion over which Tradition supersedes another? Are we all working toward the same goal of helping others? When we ask ourselves Who are they to tell us what to do?!, could the answer be that they are OA members just like us?

Is it possible that they have ulterior motives? Of course. Pride gets in everyone’s way. But when it comes to OA, what’s there to be gained by exercising power over an anarchic organization?

If those in the service structure were professionals, we’d be questioning their motivations constantly. We’d wonder what power game they were playing. We’d ask ourselves if they put OA principles after personal gain. When we asked ourselves Who are they to…?!, our answer would be someone from outside who doesn’t really get OA. But because OA service is done by us, without compensation, we can perhaps take a more charitable view of the matter and consider the other party’s perspective with an easier mind.