To Prevent a Crisis of Clergy Burnout, Help Them Cultivate Their Inner Lives

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. In his recent piece in 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, 99% of alumni report that, because of their spiritual practice, they are able to be more fully present (56% of which report “to a great extent”) and 94% have greater emotional resilience (42% “to a great extent”). Amazingly, fully 87% 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 also learn to be more compassionate with 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.


[1] With gratitude to my teacher and friend Rabbi Dorothy Richman (a member of the IJS Rabbis 2 cohort) who offered this teaching on the IJS Daily Meditation on October 21, 2021.

Awareness in Activism: Jewish Spiritual Practice for Personal Change and Social Justice

Awareness in Activism: Jewish Spiritual Practice for Personal Change and Social Justice

During the COVID-19 pandemic and the current uprising for racial justice, I have been teaching an online program for the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) in mindfulness and character development, “Awareness in Action: Cultivating Character through Mindfulness and Middot.” Through this program, participants have applied tikkun middot practice — mindfully cultivating innate spiritual/ethical qualities — to personal challenges in their daily lives. This has helped them weather the pandemic without succumbing to fear and despair, while striving to remain true to their highest intentions.

Tikkun middot practice is particularly compelling for social justice activists — indeed, for anyone seeking to address the larger, systemic social inequities exposed by COVID-19 and the virus of racial injustice. This practice directly connects personal transformation with social change. It infuses both with a sense of higher purpose and deeper meaning, and grounds social justice activism in our innately sacred qualities. Most importantly: it addresses the deepest roots of the issues of our day, applying spiritual wisdom to the work of personal and social change.

Tikkun middot practice involves using mindfulness (focused attention on what is true in the present moment) to strengthen both our ability and willingness to open our eyes to reality. It helps us witness, without flinching, unflattering aspects of ourselves and our society, revealing our implicit, unrecognized biases and assumptions. This practice is an indispensable tool for promoting pragmatic social change initiatives and for courageously identifying our blind spots and rooting out — with love — the toxic racial and other biases lurking deep within us all.

The first step of tikkun middot practice is hitlamdut, literally “self-learning,” with which we adopt a mental stance of curiosity rather than judgment. We can associate this with the Biblical term hineini (“I am here”), connoting a state of consciousness in which one is fully present and attentive in the moment, open and receptive to what is revealing itself, and ready to act and speak in accordance with what the moment demands. The classic Biblical example is Moses, who turns aside to look at the burning bush, listens deeply to the hard truth from which he has fled, and who, despite powerful inner resistance, nevertheless heeds the call and acts upon it.

Through hineini practice we see more clearly, in real time, our subconscious judgments and biases — our habits of mind, emotion and body — which trigger unwise, reactive behaviors, patterns which have been engrained over time, and become embedded in our daily lives and society at large.  We notice and release our understandable inclination to deny or avoid these “inconvenient truths.” We see ourselves and the world through a wider and clearer lens.

The second step of this practice is noticing a (“choice”) point, a moment in which we become aware of the choices for responding wisely, instead of reacting out of fear-based habit. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” the psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl taught. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Heightened awareness of our base, reactive tendencies enables us to open additional spaciousness within us, and to respond with greater wisdom, guided by “the better angels of our nature.”

The third step of this practice is activating our “better angels” by accessing what Jewish tradition refers to as middot (literally “measures”), innate spiritual/ethical traits embedded within each of us: Chesed, recognizing the fundamental interconnectedness of all life; Gevurah, setting wise boundaries which honor differentiation and diversity; Anavah, balancing the needs of self and others; Zerizut, responding energetically, promptly, and resiliently to that which must be done; and Hodayah, accepting and appreciating life just as it is, with gratitude.

Through tikkun middot practice, we intentionally seek to channel these essential qualities into all of our actions and words, in service of promoting tzedek v’shalom, justice and wholeness, both in our daily lives and in our larger world. We “seal” this practice with the middah or quality of Emunah, Trustworthiness, which helps us be resolute and steadfast in creating a life and a society reflecting the infinite, equal worth of every human life.

Like many other schools of spirituality, IJS understands spiritual practice not as a prescription for retreating from the world, but as a springboard for actively engaging in it. Spiritual practice grounds both individual and social transformation in sacred qualities implanted within us as beings created in the Divine image, as well as in the wisdom of tradition and our own hearts. It enables us to address the deepest roots of the daunting social challenges we face, rather than the symptoms.

We each have an “inner tzadik,” an internal voice insistently calling us to do what is right, in a manner that is also right. This persistent inner signal reminds us of our connection to and responsibility for each other and, indeed, all of creation. It urges us to repair that which is broken within us and around us, promote healing for those who ail, protect the vulnerable, and pursue shalom, wholeness and reconciliation. Spiritual practice attunes us to this inner voice, helping us pursue that which is right and just from our highest instincts, guiding us to seek justice informed by a sense of loving connection with all beings — and with the earth.

This critical juncture in human history demands a response reflecting our most noble qualities, including courage, humility, empathy, generosity, and resilience. Jewish spiritual practice can help us rise to the occasion, individually and collectively. Cultivating our inner life (tikkun hanefesh) is inseparable from pursuing repair of the world (tikkun olam). By grounding personal and social transformation in sacred qualities implanted within us as beings created in the Divine image, as well as in the wisdom of tradition and our own hearts, spiritual practice can help us survive the current storm while also laying the foundation for a future in which our society might thrive for generations to come.