This is my favorite of the twelve traditions of twelve-step programs.

"For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority - a higher power as expressed in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern."

At its most basic, this is a fancy way of saying "We decide things by taking a vote!" That is what a "group conscience" is: majority vote, barring special cases where Robert's Rules of Order or the meeting's own decision calls for, say, a two-thirds vote. But it also holds some other concepts that are crucial to twelve-step recovery.

There is that second sentence: Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern. That is to say, the person running the meeting (the secretary) is not the boss of anyone. The secretary can't make unilateral decisions about how the meeting will be run; the treasurer can't decide that the meeting's prudent reserve should all go to buy more literature, or to pay their own personal rent; the literature person can't decide that literature should be free to newcomers who forgot their wallets or don't yet have the ten dollars for a Big Book. Sure, that doesn't mean that they don't; I've seen many of these things happen myself. But there is a big difference between an environment where people sometimes do the wrong thing, and one in which this kind of power-over dynamic is routine. The beauty of twelve-step programs is that no one is above anyone else, that everyone gets to experience really being equal. The second tradition cements that.

And then there is the idea that a higher power is involved in the group conscience. They could have just said "There is but one ultimate authority, a vote of all the members present." That would be simpler and clearer. But what they did agree upon is deep and mysterious. It suggests that the reason that everyone is equal and gets an equal vote is that this concept of a higher power - whatever any one of us may think that means - is expressed through our equality. The idea is that whatever we decide, when we listen to our hearts and our own higher power and the principles of the program, or even when we don't, whatever we decide as a group is the right thing for us right then. It means that this higher power is present in everything we are doing as a group. One of the reasons that it is my favorite tradition is that this simple set of statements is at once eminently practical and deeply spiritual: we can explore it for years and not finish discovering new subtleties in how it works and what it means.

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