Crisis of purpose

Is anyone ever coming back into the pews?

In Short

As the immediate crisis of COVID-19 diminishes, the social impact remains profound. We need to feel connected, valued and known.

In my work with clergy of various faiths, I hear a lot of complaints that people aren’t returning to worship services. There is fear that this will hasten the decline of organized religion, destabilize the finances of institutions, lead to job losses and diminished morale. I think this behavior is important, complex and worthy of deeper thought. The issues raised by declining in-person attendance should make us ask the question: What are they telling us?

As a psychologist, I know that behavior is a form of communication. Whether it is a smile or a tantrum, people tell us so much through their behavior. But much of the time, we aren’t sure what the communication means.

In many congregations this year, there were huge crowds for congregational seders. Why do people come to the seder and not to services? Do they show up for social events, but eschew Kabbalat Shabbat? How can we understand the meaning behind the behavior? And can we adapt?

Data tell us that Americans are increasingly uninterested in organized religion, often seen through the triple lens of belief, behavior and belonging. We can respond by doubling down on our habits and behaviors of old, or we can adapt. It is time for us to embrace the challenge of change. 

Many clergy are now facing a crisis of purpose. They ask themselves who and what they are, as congregants ask themselves what function religion plays in their lives. This doesn’t surprise me – the crisis of COVID and its concomitant losses have made many of us evaluate our lives. Purpose changes over our lifetimes, in response to loss, age, opportunity. What purpose is served by our shuls, our JCCs, our legacy institutions today?

Our clergy are trained for belief and behavior. They know how to teach Judaism to the unlearned. They can instruct us on how to hang a mezuzah or kasher a kitchen or read Hebrew. They can lead classes on Talmud and congregational seders. They can convert new Jews and name babies. But can they create spaces of belonging? Can they help us to connect, with others and with ourselves? Obviously, these are important life skills that can be learned even if they are not taught. And it is clear that these skills are essential now. 

Early in COVID lockdown, we went to services. A lot. Those services were clergy centric, often streamed. Liturgy took up the screen. They were not opportunities for belonging and connection. We learned that we could be together, such as it was, from our homes, in PJs, with wine. If chat was closed or limited, we were passive. A virtual community, for all it provided us, doesn’t create easy spaces for connection, thoughts, yearning. And isn’t this the core value of religious behavior?

I believe that the psychological task of our adult lives is self-knowledge. Who am I, both as an individual and in relationship with others? What do I learn about myself through social action, through study, through community? 

As the immediate crisis of COVID-19 diminishes, the social impact remains profound. We need to feel connected, valued and known. Do our traditional Shabbat gatherings provide these opportunities? Does the liturgy give you access to your deeper self, or does it distract you with its repetition? Is the God of the siddur a God you recognize or would even worship?

These are the questions that confront our institutions today. 

The ways to create connection are often, maybe always, personal. I feel valued when I am seen as more than a body in a pew, when there is space for my personal experience. We tell stories in our deeper relationships. We explore our ideas with others. Belonging happens when we feel that each of us matters, which may be antithetical to the passivity of liturgical prayer. Because ultimately belonging must involve deep questions, challenging discussions, opportunities for self-knowledge.

What will bring worshippers back to shul?  Experimentation, growth, challenge and change. Belonging, welcoming, awareness of our uniqueness. Co-creation of a future that we all crave. Partnership between lay and professionals. All of these are the best of Jewish life. 

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.