be realistic

Boundaries and burnout

In Short

COVID has illuminated the need for change and creativity. Our values have changed, our relationships have changed and our congregations and institutions need to change.

Last month I went to Europe to teach a group of Jewish professionals who work with Ukrainian refugees. We talked about trauma, secondary trauma and post-traumatic growth – for their clients and for themselves. It became clear that every one of them was also struggling to set and maintain boundaries and to avoid burnout. How do I say no to someone who has so much less than I do? Am I allowed to stop working? Do I even have time to be here, learning?

What are boundaries, anyway? The American Psychological Association defines them as “a psychological demarcation that protects the integrity of an individual or group or that helps the person or group set realistic limits on participation in a relationship or activity.”

Notice the word realistic. 

Are the expectations we have of our professionals realistic? Do people call them on their days off? Do you expect a brilliant sermon, endless pastoral work, innovative and creative plans? The job expanded in COVID. Has it reset? Is it realistic?

I’m sure these jobs weren’t realistic before COVID. Many of these professionals already worked six days. Is the goal to reset to the previous level of expectation, or might it be to set a more reasonable level of demand? Does your rabbi or cantor routinely do multiple b’nai mitzvah over any given weekend? Do you email the staff after 6 in the evening? Can you tell the difference between an emergency and an urgency? Can you wait, respecting that people need downtime, or do you choose to be reactive?

In many careers, we see what’s called the “great reshuffling” — people looking for new jobs, hoping that the grass will be greener elsewhere. They want a reset that isn’t just a return to the pre-COVID norm. I know many Jewish professionals in the job marketplace, and data tells us that there are fewer and fewer people entering Jewish professional life. Others are leaving or retiring. There are not enough educators, clergy, fundraisers and other professionals to fill the openings we currently have. This is a crisis on our horizon, and we must address it now.

When I returned from Europe, I began teaching sessions on boundaries to clergy. What emerged was striking, and consistent with the issues I’ve heard in my clergy groups over the past three years. Our clergy – your clergy – often feel that their jobs are dependent on pleasing everyone. They do not feel they have the right to say no – not to the board, to the pushy parent, to the bullying congregant. They are fearful. 

Fearful clergy are not imaginative. They do not give sermons from their hearts. They cannot be expected to lead, because leading involves risk. Fearful professionals do not set profound goals. They look to reset and survive, without thinking about what could be, what should be.

So many within the professional community understand that we are truly at a pivot point. COVID has illuminated the need for change and creativity. Our values have changed, our relationships have changed and our congregations and institutions need to change. Millennials are not boomers. Rabbis Josh Stanton and Ben Spratt teach us that this is a moment of Awakening, in their book of that title, the subtitle of which is American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership and Belonging. If we mean that, and I hope we do, we need to take better care of those who care for us. 

Our lay leadership and professionals could use this moment to re-envision each of their roles. We could prioritize the ways we build and grow strong and healthy Jewish communities and institutions. What is truly important and promotes our goals, and what can we do without? And how can we set and maintain the healthy, realistic boundaries that will better enable all of us to carry out the holy work of Judaism?

I wish that I could lead sessions on boundaries for lay leaders and Jewish professionals, and that the lay leadership could hear the level of burnout I hear. I wish we had the strength to work aggressively to avoid the coming crisis of empty pulpits. May we be blessed with the foresight to build a future that is challenging and safe for all.

Betsy Stone is a retired psychologist who consults with camps, synagogues, clergy and Jewish institutions. She is the author of Refuah Shlema, a compilation of her previous eJP articles, recently published by Amazon.