Tag Archives: burnout

The Rabbi’s Holiday

Thanksgiving, of course.  A day when you actually might not have to  work, when you can stay at home with your family, make pancakes, read the paper, leisurely sip your morning coffee, watch some football later in the day, drink a beer in the middle of the afternoon.  You know, like normal people, normal families, do on weekends.  Those days are few and far between in the rabbinate.

People often say to me after the fall holidays “I hope you are resting up after the holidays, rabbi!”  But I’ve learned that one of the busiest times of my year is from the END of the holidays to Thanksgiving.  Suddenly the weddings begin (I’ve had one every Saturday night for the last month, another one Wednesday night before Thanksgiving).  Unveilings, people trying to get them in before the real cold arrives.  Meetings, delayed by the yom tov days, begin in earnest.  All of the email you couldn’t keep up with during the holiday season you try to wade through.  This year for me funerals as well (nine since Simhat Torah).  Every year through the holiday season an extended stretch of working many days in a row.  This year for me that stretch reached 42.  But who is counting?

I worry about it, I really do.  I worry first and foremost that my children’s main memory of their father as they grew up will be me walking down the stairs, leaving the house, saying ‘see you later,’ and the kids responding ‘bye, dad.’  And that is it.  No games of catch.  No kicking the soccer ball around.  No watching football together on Sundays, or brunches making omelettes together, or raking leaves, or just getting in the car and going for a ride. Zip. Zero. Zilch.  These experiences make up many of the fond memories I have of time spent with my dad while I was growing up, and I just wasn’t able to provide them for my own children.  Deep regret there, no doubt about it.

I worry also about burnout.  Heavy phrase, that.  Sounds almost violent, destructive.  But it also has a sense of hollowing, like what is done to a giant tree trunk to make a canoe.  What you have left in the end from the outside looks good, strong, and stable.  It even floats!  Performs its mission with competence, as intended.  But the inside is gone, nothing there but emptiness.  A literal shell of its original form.  I am often reminded of these lines from one of my favorite Hunter/Garcia compositions, called ‘Comes a Time’:

From day to day just letting it ride
You get so far away from how it feels inside
You can’t let go ’cause you’re afraid to fall
But the day may come when you can’t feel at all

I understand everything is a trade off.  There are many professions where people work hard, long hours, high pressure jobs, no question about it.  And I’ve been blessed professionally in many ways, serving a fabulous congregation, working with talented and caring people (fun people as well!).  Making a good living (not to be underestimated!).  My children have been able to grow up in one community, something that rabbi’s children rarely do, and I am enormously grateful for that.  But a trade off is exactly what it implies – something gained, something lost.  The question is, what is the price of that loss?

So thank goodness for Thanksgiving!  An actual break in the never ending flow of dedicated time.  A day to spend with people we love.  A day to walk the dog under a fall sky, to watch the last leaves gently fall from the trees, to browse the paper, sip some coffee, watch some football, live life, and just think and be.  Yes, a day like that.  Even for a rabbi.

This the chorus of that Hunter/Garcia song:

Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand
Says, “Don’t you see?
Gotta make it somehow on the dreams you still believe
Don’t give it up, you got an empty cup
That only love can fill, only love can fill, only love can fill”

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54 Days

Been going back and forth a bit about this one and whether to post, and if so what to say. In part I worry that any comments about the topic (which I realize I haven’t identified yet) will be perceived of as some kind of kvetching. And maybe I am kvetching (is that cathartic?). But an article that appeared this week in the Forward about the stress and strain of rabbinic service, along with my own recent experience of working 54 straight days, leads me to believe that this is an issue those who care about the Jewish community should be talking about more often and more openly. Perhaps this post will become part of that conversation.

I know a fair number of people who work hard. Many hours, much pressure, expected to manage unmanageable responsibilities. The rabbinate often has all of this. But two things distinguish rabbinic work from other professions. One is that the vast majority of professionals have defined days off. The rabbi may have a designated day off (only one day, mind you!), but she often has to work on that day. Funerals and Brises come up. You can’t say to a family ‘sorry I can’t do your father’s funeral that day, I can’t make it to your newborn’s bris – it is my day off.’ Sometimes meetings happen on that day that you need to be at. Other times you’ve been so busy that you need your ‘off day’ to catch up on your work! Looking through my calendar I figure I end up working about half of my days off (my wife will tell you more). Not always the entire day, not 8 hours (or 10 or 12, which I often work on regular days), but still working. Have to put on a suit and tie. Take time that you expected to spend on something else – family perhaps? – and use it for work. The fact that I just worked 54 consecutive days means by definition that I worked 7 straight days off (one per week) in that stretch.

This piece is connected to the other thing that is unique about rabbi’s schedules, namely, in large part we do not have control over them. Obviously this is not entirely true. But not uncommonly we receive a call that requires us to change around our entire day’s schedule, or possibly even our week’s schedule. Cancel appointments, work on an evening when we had planned to be home with our families, even take time that we hoped to use to prepare a sermon or a class and use that time to meet an immediate, pressing need. And of course every canceled appointment has to be rescheduled. The sermon has to be written. The class has to be prepped. The problem is I am already booked tomorrow, and the day after, and next week, schedule full. Well, I have time on the afternoon of my off day because I haven’t scheduled anything … See how this works?

Last spring my wife had a big birthday that coincided with Mother’s Day. A year or so before I blocked the day, determined to do something nice with my wife. As the months went by, I was pressed to officiate at two different weddings and multiple unveilings on that day, and I refused, keeping the day clear. It was a great day. In the end, we took two of our kids with us on a day trip (our oldest was away at college.) We walked, we talked, we shopped a bit, saw some sights, ate out together. What families do on their Sundays, I guess. I loved every minute of it. But I also remember at some point in the afternoon that it all felt so strange. Why? Because it was the first time I had done something like that with my family (when not on vacation and out of town) in years. Many years – in fact I can’t remember the last time.

Another anecdote. Our son (our middle child) is off to college this year. He had a fall break of a full week in October (something more schools seem to be doing). I was looking forward to having him home, to spending a bit of time with him and catching up. But it was a particularly busy week. A couple of funerals, a Saturday night wedding, shiva minyanim that of course were not planned. I was out of the house early, home late every night. All of a sudden I realized that he was leaving the next day. I had literally barely seen him. You probably know the Harry Chapin song Cats in the Cradle. I felt like I was living it.

These are my personal regrets, the things I wonder and worry about, the doubts creeping in about whether I should have done it differently. At the end of the day every thing is a trade off, but not every trade off is worth it. The bottom line is this dynamic is shared by many rabbis (many clergy folk in general), and it is not healthy. It isn’t good for the rabbi, it isn’t good for the congregation, and it isn’t good for the community. I am not sure what to do about it, but I intend to spend some time wrestling with it in the coming months. Thank goodness I have wonderful lay leadership and supportive and talented colleagues. I’ll come back to this topic off and on as I navigate it a bit. And I will keep you ‘posted.’

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