Life in the ministry is one of contrasts. There can be great joy, a sense of fulfillment and purpose, and also loneliness, frustration, and pain (Hileman, 2008, p. 121).
Clergy families experience stressors that are unique to their situation, including lack of privacy and heightened visibility, extra expectations and higher standards, significant time demands, frequent moves, and intrusiveness and boundary ambiguity (Cooper, 2013, p. 2).
I don’t think that most of us need academic articles to tell us how uniquely challenging it is to be a rabbi and, for many of us, to be part of a rabbi’s family. In ways large and small, those of us employed by organizations and congregations have experienced such “loneliness, frustration, and pain.” And now that we are living in Covid-world, these feelings are multiplied seven-fold.
All of this, of course, is exacerbated by the ongoing challenges, stresses, and too often injustices experienced by women, people of color, LGBTQIA colleagues, older rabbis, the unemployed, and the underemployed. The rabbinate can be the best of callings and the worst of jobs. We find ourselves having to navigate through the constantly changing landscape of working for/with bosses we are tasked with leading. Reflecting back on his career, one of our most respected and “successful” past-presidents once said, “The rabbinate is the perfect place to have your heart broken.”
Studies have shown (Kress, J.S., et al., 2007), and most of us can attest to the unique meaning and fulfillment that comes from serving communities as rabbis. I have felt so very blessed to be part of people’s lives in their most joyous and most tragic moments, playing a unique healing and transformative role unavailable to persons of other helping professions. And I would imagine that you have felt so blessed as well. For many, this balances out the unique challenges we face and the hurt we endure.
But there are moments in our lives when this is not enough. Many, like myself, have had difficult if not devastating experiences in our organizations and congregations. Many, like Joseph, have risen and transcended; many have not, framing themselves as failures and despairing of ever having a satisfying rabbinate again. And even in the absence of such, so many of us know the pervasive feeling of being alone.
Through surveys and conversations, CCAR has heard you.
I am honored and grateful to have been welcomed into the CCAR staff as a Special Advisor for Member Support and Counseling. I, along with our amazing colleague, Rex Perlmeter, am here for you. I bring to this position my thirty-nine years as a congregational rabbi, my experiences of advising and nurturing other rabbis and cantors, and my ongoing training as a marriage and family therapy intern. I am offering to walk with you–and, if desired, your family–as you cope with the emotional issues with which you are dealing in your professional and/or personal life. And of course, our conversations are totally confidential.
Final words (for now)–a story:
A man walked into a psychiatrist’s office, fell onto the couch and, with deep sadness, blurted out, “Doctor, I hope you can help me. There is no joy in my life. I constantly feel depressed, unworthy, and filled with despair. Nothing, but nothing lifts my spirits.” Said the psychiatrist, “Sir, I have just the remedy for you! Go to the theater tonight where Carlucci the Clown is performing. He brings laughter to every face and joy to every heart. I guarantee you that Carlucci will lift your spirits!” Said the man, “Doc, you don’t understand. I am Carlucci!”
Have you ever felt like Carlucci? I have. So often we have found ourselves fulfilling the needs of others while hiding and suppressing our own. Loneliness bears down as we feel unable to share our vulnerabilities and self-perceived failures with our peers and with others who understand, sometimes even with those closest to us.
And so, in the words of a great Jewish sage, “Can we talk?”
Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff, D.D., R.J.E, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey. He is certified as interim clergy by the national Interim Ministry Network, and he is currently pursuing an MS degree in Marriage and Family Therapy through Capella University.
Cooper, N. (2013). Resilience and clergy families (Order No. 3604924). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1477549275).
Hileman, L. (2008) The unique needs of Protestant clergy families: implications for marriage and family counseling.Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10(2), 119-144, DOI: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19349630802081152
Kress, J. S., Cohen, S. M., & Davidson, A. (2007). Perceptions and roles of conservative rabbis: Findings and implications related to identity and education. Journal of Jewish Education, 73(3), 191–207. https://doi-org.library.capella.edu/10.1080/15244110701653967