Program Burnout … a Plea to Sponsors & Members

Throughout my over two decades in recovery programs, I have seen people leave due to program overwhelm. Most notably, I have seen sponsors push sponsees, as well as sponsees push themselves, to do more service than they can handle.

We walk a tightrope. Yes, we do these programs to have a life, but how do we find time to both live our new life and stay true to our program, giving back what we have so generously been given?

Bill W. never conceived of people working multiple 12 step programs, much less making and receiving daily 15 minute calls. On the other hand, not too many of us take strangers into our homes and dedicate 24 hours a day to recovery work. Many of us have jobs, families, partners, life commitments, health issues.

How Much Service is Too Much?

Surely a different level of service is acceptable for someone who has a full-time job and family with young children than a single person who is retired and has lots of time on her hands.

Further, I know many people who work multiple H.O.W. programs, which require a certain number of phone calls as part of their abstinence. If each phone call is 15 minutes and you call a sponsor, have one sponsee, and make one outreach call, that is already 45 minutes in just one H.O.W. program!

In some H.O.W. programs, you must call three people a day! Add to that time to do your writing, attend meetings, receive and give PRGs, and manage your numbers, and you can see that working your program is a full-time job, or at the least, an intensive part-time job. With screaming children or work deadlines, it is often hard to juggle it all.

Further, some people are urged to take on too many sponsees or feel compelled to do so because they truly want to help. Really, in my opinion, two sponsees is the MAX anyone should have to be an effective sponsor.

Taking On Optional Service

Then, there are people who take on additional service for meetings, such as being a speaker seeker, being newcomer greeter, and answering emails. These are important services, but they do take time outside of the meeting. If you have a full-time job and/or a family to care for, you may want to consider whether you can reasonably do such service in addition to the requirements of your program.

Finding Balance with Our Program

I know we must be grateful and give back what we have so generously been given. And I’m not talking about watering down the program or making excuses for why we can’t do our program. All I’m suggesting is that we not burn out members with cookie-cutter requirements that may be impossible to achieve within their current lifestyle.

Of course, at first, recovery work takes a lot of time regardless. And everyone, no matter what the circumstances, feels weighed down when they begin. That is the price of withdrawal from disease.

I’m not talking about the agony of beginners here. I think every newcomer has to work this program exactly as required. But there is a difference between getting sober and staying sober long-term.

I’m talking about people who are dedicated to their recovery. They want to maintain recovery with all their heart and soul. They are not trying to “get over” on anything or anyone. The H.O.W. program has saved my life. But maybe if a member truly needs multiple H.O.W. programs, there is a way to help them meld some parts of the service portion of their program together.

What I’m talking about is finding a way long-term to make our recovery work in our life once we are fully committed to our recovery program. Not the first month or two or four. But after months or years of abstinence.

We come into these programs for relief from our pain and to function more fully in the world. So as we recover, we receive the gifts of this program and our life gets fuller.

While we want to give back, there has to be a balance between recovery (which, of course, comes first) and living that new life with which we are now blessed.

Because of my health issues, I have had to put restrictions on my service. I do one outreach call a day and no more, unless I am up to it. Unfortunately, that means people may not get called back if they leave me a message on that day. I have one permanent sponsee and a temp spot that I give out for five days at a time when I am up to it. I do PRGs for two people regularly. And, most importantly, I am abstinent.

The Importance of Giving Service at Meetings

There is a tremendous amount of service you can do at DA H.O.W. meetings. Since you are there anyway, it is an exceptional way to increase the amount of service you do without impacting your schedule.

I’ve discovered a great joy in being the timekeeper, a service that was anathema to me. But recently, I found that it keeps me present and helps keep the meeting moving so no one goes on and on. It’s a vital service.

You may not realize how much it is appreciated when you do readings on the meeting. On the DA H.O.W. phone meetings, it is often like pulling teeth to get volunteers to read. So getting a copy of the format and readings is a great service to enable you to participate.

Finally, staying abstinent so you can lead one of the DA H.O.W. meetings is the ultimate service. Just think how great it would be to have so many sponsors that we could easily and effortlessly rotate between them, how smooth meetings would run.

In the End…

I’m just making a pitch for doing service that fits your lifestyle and for sponsors to be more open to helping sponsees find balance with service. We can’t afford to keep losing members because there aren’t enough hours in the day based on their schedules and family commitments.

Doing more than you can reasonably handle for an extended period of time might lead to burnout with all the destructiveness that entails. There is no shame in setting boundaries and saying no when saying yes will cause you harm and possibly lead you back to debting.

3 thoughts on “Program Burnout … a Plea to Sponsors & Members

  1. Thanks for giving me permission to ease up. I love my programs but my family feels neglected. I’m new in two programs……but it’s good to know at some point when I’ve got strong abstinence I won’t need to spend 3 hours and 25 minutes a day of phone calls, writing and a meeting 🙂 For now it’s saving my life and I’m grateful!

  2. Thank you for this. I am feeling exhausted. On the one hand, I am responsible… On the other hand, I have to trust in the groups’ HP that I if I step down / back, others will step up. Still, it is hard not to get resentments, as I am one of those pushing others to do more. Right now, I feel overwhelmed- I have one person I’m working with that seems to be a bottomless pit of need and due to confounding factors of mental illness I have not been terribly successful at redirection. The more they ask, the less I can give….

    • Hi Ari,

      I’m so glad you wrote. This is something I feel strongly about and it has taken me a long time to get comfortable with it. It is really important that you get clear on your boundaries and limits. If you aren’t clear within yourself, you will find yourself run ragged trying to give everything to everyone.

      Service is so important in this program, but there are many ways to give service. Here are some suggestions that I hope are helpful:

      1. Set time limits for sponsees. And stick to them. Many people use 15 minutes if they speak to sponsees daily. Others might give one hour a week. You are not doing the sponsee any favors by always being available to them. They won’t develop a network of support if you do that. And then, they mistake you for their Higher Power. And when you inevitably disappoint them or if you can no longer sponsor them, there could be a lot of drama around it. I lovingly tell my sponsees about my limits and urge them to develop a network for a crisis and additional support. Put a timer on if you must. If they tend to keep going, let them know a few minutes before the time is up that they need to wrap up. (This is also a great suggestion when you get outreach calls.)

      2. If your solvency is at risk – which is what will happen if you are too drained and burnt out – you can let a sponsee go with love. If they react with anger, remember that, as you wrote, “if you step down/back, others will step up.” Even if you lose the relationship, your solvency must come first. If you lose that, you will not be able to help anyone.

      3. We are not therapists. And even therapists put limits on their time. We are guiding people along the path we have walked, sharing our experience, strength, and hope with others toward solvency and a sober relationship with money. You CAN set boundaries around the subjects you talk about with sponsees. I have definitely had to set limits with sponsees and encouraged them to go to other fellowships, like Al-Anon, when I thought they might find support for outside issues. I’m not saying that you can’t talk about such things, but the main focus of our sponsorship is the 12 steps and sobriety around our spending (and not debting, of course).

      4. It is ok to take a break from sponsoring. There is always a need for temporary sponsorship. So you can help someone for a week or two (or a day or two) and then recharge your batteries. When you aren’t sponsoring, you can lead a meeting, be the timekeeper, make newcomer calls, be on a PRG team or give an ad hoc PRG.

      5. Maintain balance in the amount of service that you give. It is not your responsibility to take on everyone who asks. I know we want to help everyone, but there is only so much each person can do. I have seen people burn out from giving too much service and leaving the program. That is the saddest thing to me. We need each other to keep this fellowship going. Better to limit your service than burn out.

      6. Determine the times you can take calls from sponsees … and stick to that.

      7. Make a rule that you will not take on any other service without talking to your sponsor first. Did you know there are people who actually have service sponsors? That’s right. So when someone asks you to sponsor them, lovingly tell them you have committed to not taking on any service without first talking to your sponsor.

      8. Test the waters with a new sponsee before committing. You might agree to sponsor them for two weeks and let them know that you both will make a decision after that time whether it will work to continue.

      9. Be kind when you let a sponsee go. If there is a problem that could be resolved, maybe find the courage to talk to them about it before it gets to the point where you have to let them go. I try to do that so it isn’t a sudden shock where I have been building up to it but the sponsee has no idea. It’s possible that if you talk about what you need to continue the relationship when there is a small problem, it might keep from becoming a big problem that you can no longer handle.

      10. Finally, remember, you are no one’s Higher Power. There is someone else who can help them besides you.

      I hope these thoughts were helpful, and I wish you the best.

      Susan B.

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