To prevent a crisis of clergy burnout, help them cultivate their inner lives

As a spate of recent articles have proclaimed, clergy face a crisis. Here at eJewishPhilanthropy, Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), warned of the real possibility of an exodus of rabbis from congregational life, due to the extreme additional emotional and professional burdens imposed upon them by the pandemic. He urges congregational lay leaders to mitigate this trend by acknowledging these additional burdens, expressing appreciation, increasing compensation, offering scheduling flexibility and time off and being forgiving and generous towards clergy.

All of these are excellent, tangible steps institutions can take to address the symptoms of “clergy burnout” — a constant vocational hazard for rabbis across the denominational spectrum  which is greatly exacerbated by the extraordinary demands placed upon clergy in these pandemic times. External expression of empathy, gratitude, and tangible support from congregational leaders can, to some extent, ameliorate the heavy load clergy are bearing.  But by themselves, these are band aids which can cover, but not heal, the underlying source of the problem.

To address the root causes of burnout, Jewish clergy themselves—liberal, Orthodox and of every stripe—need spiritual practices and resources to help them navigate periods of “full catastrophe living” (in the phrase popularized by mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn) with grace, resilience and wisdom. This has, in fact, been our approach to working with over 500 clergy across denominations over the last two decades at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. As part of our Clergy Leadership Program, we bring rabbis and cantors on retreat and engage them in spiritual practices including mindfulness meditation, contemplative study and prayer. We do this not so that they “take time out” or gulp down some oxygen in order to then get “back in the race,” but rather that they become more able to experience all moments of their work and life as opportunities for witnessing and lifting up awareness of the divine. 

This approach is analogous to the ritual of inhaling the sweetness of the spices at the conclusion of each Shabbat. The aroma of the spices reminds us (among other things) to infuse the six days of the week with the restorative quality of Shabbat. The rhythm of Jewish living is not sprinting for six days, catching our breath on the seventh day, and then returning to the track. Rather, we immerse in practices which help us cultivate a sense of divine presence on Shabbat, so that we might be better able to infuse all of our moments during the week with an awareness of that presence. 

Using this far more sustainable model, we immerse clergy in spiritual practice on retreats every six months, and in the interim periods between retreats, so they can learn skills for infusing their daily lives with breath and with a sense of Presence. We seek to help them experience their professional challenges not simply as burdens to be borne until they can set them down and breathe again, but as opportunities to engage in — and to model for others — spiritual practice and cultivate awareness of the sacred dimension of life.

The results of this approach are striking. Even years after their participation in our Clergy Leadership Program, alumni report that, because of their spiritual practice, they are able to be more fully present (99 percent, of which 56 percent report to a great extent) and have greater emotional resilience (94 percent, 42 percent to a great extent). Amazingly, fully 87 percent of participants report that developing a spiritual practice increased their connection to their Jewishness. 

This approach to Jewish mindfulness practices empowers clergy so that in times of stress they are better able to remain present in body, mind and spirit — present for their congregants, themselves and the divine. Through their practice, clergy learn to exercise self-compassion rather than berating themselves for not being able to “do it all” and do it “perfectly.” By becoming more tender and compassionate towards themselves, they learn to be more compassionate as well to those they serve. 

It is easy in this period for clergy to imagine they need to be heroic figures, that they are being “tested.” But here we might learn from a 19th century Hasidic commentator, the Tiferet Shlomo (R. Shlomo Hakohen Rabinowitz of Radomsk, 1803-1866) who taught that the Hebrew word for the verb “test” — “nisa” — can be understood as a reverse acronym for the Hebrew expression “someikh noflim,” “uplifting the fallen,” a descriptor of God found in our liturgy. On the basis of this approach, that which appears to us as a “test” may actually be an opportunity instead to simply be present, to respond hineini, “I am here,” and notice a divine source of strength buoying and uplifting us, rather than waiting to see if we will “pass” or “fail.” 

Rabbi Kamrass is correct: particularly in these times, Jewish clergy need empathy and material support from their lay partners in congregational life and from the community at large. At the same time, more than ever they need spiritual tools, resources and community which can serve as somkhei noflim, supporting them in the midst of their efforts “in the field.” If we are to stem the tide of burnout and an exodus from the pulpit, we must support Jewish clergy to help them transform the “test” of these times into ongoing moments of spiritual uplift and awareness of the divine presence. 

Rabbi Marc Margolius is a senior program director at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.