Is the Clergy Life Unusually Stressful?

On the first of this month, just as my vacation was beginning, the New York Times published (on its front page!) an article about the phenomenon of “clergy burnout.” I was, of course, touched by the fact that they had timed the publishing of the article to coincide with the onset of my hard-earned time off…. most considerate. But kidding aside, as a going-on thirty-year veteran of the pulpit rabbinate, the subject of clergy burnout is a real subject to me, and a serious one.

I have heard it suggested- including by some of my colleagues-that pulpit clergy are under no more stress than most lawyers, surgeons, and even factory workers on a boring assembly line. To some degree, they are right. One thing I have learned through the years is that everyone who works hard experiences stress, and the measure of that stress is not necessarily quantifiable in terms of degree of severity. I have often thought to myself that associate lawyers who work fifteen or sixteen hour days with virtually no positive feedback- or no feedback at all- are in a much worse position in terms of job-related stress than I have ever been. One of my closest friends is a physician, and I see how having life and death decisions resting constantly on his shoulders weighs on him. He has an even harder time going on vacation than I do…

So no, I don’t think that rabbis are the only professionals who work in stressful situations. But I do think that there are certain components of the clergy life that are uniquely stressful, and I don’t think that they are often well understood by most people.

First of all, most people who work in stressful jobs get to go home. They work away from where they live, and when they go home, they are- at least in terms of physical space- “away” from where they work. They are unlikely to see the people from their work worlds in the gym or the supermarket, and their children and spouse, or significant other, are unlikely to have their parent’s employers observing what they wear, or how they spend their free time. Truth to tell, this situation is not as overbearing as it was a generation ago, when many rabbis actually put their families on display as some kind of model. But there are still those moments when the absence of true separation between work life and real life are wearing and unusually stressful.

Second, there are few jobs that come to mind that have quite the potential for powerful positive and negative reinforcement as the pulpit. The rabbi who effectively and wisely helps a family in a time of need- who meets their needs- will have earned their respect for a lifetime, and they will share that in ways that are precious. I save those letters that people write me when I’ve helped them in a serious way; they are written from the heart, and I treasure them. But failing in a moment of challenge- and the difference between failure and success is often a thin line at moments such as these- brings the equal and opposite results. We clergy are privileged to reap wonderful compliments when we live up to our members’ needs and expectations. But believe me, you don’t want to be there when we fail to meet the test, either
by our own failings or by circumstances beyond our control.

I could probably come up with a Letterman-like top ten list here, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll just add one more item.

One of the things that I love about synagogue communities is that they are, in terms of demographics, heterogeneous. There are older members who have been a part of the synagogue for decades and helped to build it, younger members whose needs and tastes in prayer services, programming and the like are the polar opposites of the older members, and then there are the folks in the middle whose needs and tastes are more eclectic. How exactly one is expected to bridge these divides without simply splitting the community up into its component parts- something that seems tome to be the opposite of the idea of community- is, to put it mildly, a stressful component part of my work. But somehow, through it all, being in synagogue on a Shabbat or holiday morning is still the part of my work I enjoy the most.

When the article in the Times was published, some of my good friends in the congregation e-mailed me to say that it had opened their eyes to the complexity of my work. I was grateful for their thoughtfulness. But now that I have been on vacation for a few days, I am reminded of just how good and vitally important it is to get away from the pressures of “the life” and relax a bit. My work is a blessing; my vacation is a gift.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.