Retiring General Service Board Chair, Ward Ewing reflects on his time with Alcoholics Anonymous 

At the 63rd General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous, April 21 to 27, 2013, after 11 years as a nonalcoholic Trustee, Ward Ewing stepped down as AA’s Chair of the Board. Taking over for Ewing, fellow non-alcoholic Trustee, Terry Bedient is a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives, Vice-President of the Medical Society of New York and is a trustee of the New York Lawyer Assistance Trust, which oversees substance abuse programs for attorneys and judges.

Reverend Ward Ewing, in his role as Chair Emeritus for the General Service Board will be only a phone call away, should AA World Service need to consult him. “Before I worked for AA,” Ward tells us, “I was the head of a theological school in Manhattan. I am an ordained Episcopalian minister (Anglican Church in Canada and UK).”

Bill Wilson formed the original A.A. Board of Directors with 21 Trustees. Class A (nonalcoholic) Trustees made up 14 of the positions and seven were Class B (alcoholic). As Alcoholics Anonymous matured, the mix of Trustees reversed to 2/3 Alcoholic Trustees. Nonalcoholic Trustees bring leadership, connections and expertise in areas such as corrections, medicine, media or, in Ward Ewing’s case, spiritual/religious acumen.

No matter what fellowship we call home, as we transition from recovery to service, we appreciate that the Steps and Traditions of every fellowship were adopted from, or in reaction to, Alcoholics Anonymous. Rebellion Dogsspoke with Ward about his tenure as AA’s Chair, some of the accomplishments on his watch and some of the rough waters that face the next Board of Directors.

What are the advantages to Chairing the A.A. World Services Board for a non-alcoholic Trustee?

“Class A trustees have one foot in—one foot out. The Board has faced a couple of really tough conversations over the last few years. Alcoholic Trustees and Delegates line up pretty quickly on one side or the other of issues. I really don’t have a commitment to one outcome or another, as a Class A Trustee. I have come to understand that my job as the Chair is to facilitate group consciences, not to present and push an agenda. By the end of the first year I learned that the authority comes from the group conscience. To facilitate that consensus, I think it is to my advantage that I am not predisposed to any particular outcome.

“Jim Estelle is a Chair Emeritus for the General Service Board (Chairman of the Board 1993 to 1997). Recently we spoke on another topic and he was reflecting on how people assume that, because he isn’t an alcoholic, he doesn’t really understand the Traditions and the Concepts so he can talk about them, shooting from the hip and if people don’t agree with him, they just dismiss him.” Ward laughs. “That’s a lot of freedom.”

“I do believe that the Board exists to serve the fellowship; the fellowship really does make the major decisions and the board sees these decisions through. At the Board I often heard that there are no emergencies in AA. When urgency creeps in, there is a feeling that we have to get this or that done. The system of building a substantial majority is compromised. Anxiety violates our democratic process. The program is happening at the local level, and, with respect to what is going on in New York, there’s time to get it right. Being a nonalcoholic helps me to help the Board and/or the Conference take the time to find its substantial majority.

The press has a hard time honoring anonymity. A nonalcoholic face of A.A. is acceptable to the press and doesn’t violate our Tradition of anonymity. That’s another gift Class As can bring to the fellowship.”

Ward, do you think you were brought in for your religious prowess?

“One concern on both sides of the Canada/USA border is the issue of religion and spirituality. I am part of institutionalized religion—I wouldn’t call it organized religion because we aren’t very well organized—but I am a part of that world and AA is clearly not a religion. Religion has a set theology and liturgy and there are professionals who run the organization. These professionals have the answers and their job is to persuade others to accept and believe what they believe. Frankly, it’s all in the head. That’s religion and I am not against religion; I am one of these professionals paid to encourage people to be religious and I hope some are, but it doesn’t belong in AA.

“Spirituality is something everyone has. We wake up with it in the morning. It is love and hate, anger and joy; we are spiritual beings because we are affected if people love us or hate us or ignore us. In a spiritual program we have no creed or specific theology or rituals. Now there are some rituals in AA and I think we have to be careful about these. In the South they almost always end meetings with the Lord’s Prayer but when they did that at the world conference in San Antonio in 2010, I was surprised and frankly I was a little shocked. Again, I consider myself reasonably religious and I want you to be religious but don’t try to make A.A. religious. The line between religion and spirituality has to be maintained strongly in this fellowship.

“Religion is taught at the head level, ‘Here’s the book and here’s what it means and this is what we do here.’ Spirituality is shared, not intellectually but at the level of the heart. What changes people’s lives is one suffering alcoholic hearing their story coming from another alcoholic’s lips and a story of despair becomes a story of hope. Too much talk of God in the group can be a barrier. We are all spiritual beings on a spiritual journey but we all in different places. Our job is to help each other see where we are in their spiritual journey and to help see where our strengths are on this journey and how we each can grow. It is not our job to tell another that our way is the better way. God doesn’t need my protection and I am not here to tell you or anyone how to manage your spiritual journey—I have a hard enough time managing my own.”

Ward pauses for a moment and continues, “A new pamphlet is coming out about the spiritual journey including stories of atheists and agnostics. Some people are very upset about that but I am very excited. What some of us miss, who have theistic faith, is the spiritual qualities of those with no such faith. They have a story to tell and spirituality is communicated through stories. That’s why this pamphlet isn’t about what to believe or not believe. It will be people sharing their stories.”

These are stressful, challenging times for any organization. What lies ahead for A.A?

“According to printers, A.A. is one of the USA’s largest publishing companies. I can’t see that being the case 20 years out or even ten years from now. We sell one million Big Books each year. Then there’s the Grapevine. Is it really AA’s meeting in print if less than 10% of the fellowship subscribes to it? We are enthusiastically marketing the digital version and features of Grapevine.

“I am someone who has many years of congregation leadership. I think AA does a fabulous job in regards to dealing with the whole spiritual relationship to self-support. In this age of wealth becoming so concentrated, A.A. continues to limit personal contributions or bequests.

“When I was first interviewing as a Class A Trustee I got my first surprise. In the interview process I was asked if I had any questions and I said yes I do. ‘With any board I have ever been on there is an expectation to make contributions (financial) which I am willing to do but I am curious to what extent I would be expected to contribute. Can you tell me how much you would expect me to contribute financially to AA?’ ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘we can tell you how much—zero. We don’t accept contributions from nonalcoholics.’ That blew me away. They explained that the Seventh Tradition is an expression of thanksgiving for the health and new life that one has received from the fellowship.

“With the goodwill we have in A.A. we could go gang-busters if we wanted to start building endowments. AA isn’t about making money. We would absolutely destroy the connection between spirituality and the financial end of this fellowship.

“I am getting ready to give a talk to a church about what the church can learn from AA. I can’t wait to tell them, ‘Limit contributions.’” Ward laughs. “They are going to shake their heads, ‘How can you even talk about something like this?’ But if they want to treat contributions as an act of gratitude then you don’t fund-raise in the same way.

“Of any organization I know, AA does the best in connecting the spirituality aspect of the program with the financial aspect. The challenge now is that currently only 40 to 45% of our income comes from group contributions. The rest is from literature sales. We have people studying this and talking about it right now. In an era of electronic Big Books and so on, no one is predicting that revenue will increase instead of decrease. But I have a sense that if the fellowship is well informed the money will be there. We’ve been talking about it at Regional Forums and in this economic downturn our reserve fund is increasing. This year we’ll be at about 11 or 12 months of operating expenses and that’s our prudent reserve. If we hit our target we will be reducing literature prices. The fellowship has always been supported by its members but I must say we also enjoy very competent management. Looking forward, money isn’t an area I have a lot of concerns with.”

As Ward Ewing handed over the reins of the lowest job on A.A.’s inverted triangle of service, he reminds us that it is the groups, not the General Service Office that runs A.A. GSO serves the will of A.A.—never dictating to the groups or members. Ward cautions us to avoid being dogmatic in our rituals and not to fear whatever the future holds in store.

At the time Ward Ewing talked with Rebellion Dogs his final duty of Chairing the 63rd General Service Conference, unfortunately, the spirituality pamphlet which includes stories of atheists and agnostics was not approved by AA’s trusted servants.

Sadly, the idea of officially saying to the world that our Godless brothers and sisters are welcome equals among us isn’t a change that 21st Alcoholics Anonymous is ready for. Bill Wilson, when A.A. was only 25 years old, said to us in the July 1965 Grapevine, “Let us never fear needed change. Certainly we have to discriminate between changes for the worse and changes for the better. But once a need becomes clearly apparent in an individual, in a a group, or in A.A. as a whole, it has long since been found out that we cannot stand still and look the other way. The essence of all growth is a willingness to change for the better and then an unremitting willingness to shoulder whatever responsibility this entails.”

Hear Ward Ewing talking at Unity Day in 2011
 

2 comments

  • Joe C.

    Joe C. Toronto, Canada

    Just announced from We Agnostics Conference coming to Santa Monica November 6 to 8, 2014: We are very pleased to announce the selection of Rev. Ward Ewing as We Agnostics & Freethinkers International AA Conference keynote speaker! Rev. Ewing is a non-alcoholic who has been involved with AA for 33 years and, having served as a Class A Trustee of the General Service Board for 11 years and as Chair for 4 years, is now a Chair Emeritus. He is also an ordained Episcopal priest, theological scholar, and recently retired as the Dean and President of the General Theological Seminary in New York. Register or follow @ http://waftiaac.org/

    Just announced from We Agnostics Conference coming to Santa Monica November 6 to 8, 2014: We are very pleased to announce the selection of Rev. Ward Ewing as We Agnostics & Freethinkers International AA Conference keynote speaker! Rev. Ewing is a non-alcoholic who has been involved with AA for 33 years and, having served as a Class A Trustee of the General Service Board for 11 years and as Chair for 4 years, is now a Chair Emeritus. He is also an ordained Episcopal priest, theological scholar, and recently retired as the Dean and President of the General Theological Seminary in New York.
    Register or follow @ http://waftiaac.org/

  • Christopher G

    Christopher G Idyllwild, Ca

    Awesome message!! Looking forward to the convention in November!

    Awesome message!! Looking forward to the convention in November!

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