Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rabbi! Your job should not be fulfilling

NOTE: If you arrived here from my Beit Midrash email of February 4, the article you want is here; I apologize.

A few different people have emailed me a link to the New York Times' recent article on Clergy Burnout... gotta wonder if it's only because I'm finally taking a vacation...

The article gives me a chance to hold forth on an important issue within Rabbinic Burnout. I've talked about Burnout before, in posts you can access here. I've talked a bit about Rabbinic Vacations, as they do in that NYT article. But I think the Times article fails to drill down on a key question: Why don't clergy take vacations?

The article assumes that clergy don't take vacations because they are overworked, or because they feel it's irresponsible to take a vacation when congregants are in need. Those are part of it, certainly, but there is another, more scary reason why clergy have a hard time taking vacations: It's because we sometimes fall into the trap of looking to our jobs for the bulk of our sippuk hanefesh [fulfillment].

If I depend on a given activity for all or most of my fulfillment, then other activities become unattractive, empty, devoid of satisfaction. Rabbis who depend on "rabbi-ing" for their satisfaction will have a hard time spending time with family or friends, or travelling, or even learning Torah for the sake of their own growth. Those activities don't provide the reward - only being the Rabbi does.

Aside from the danger this poses to the rabbi's family life, it also poses a risk to his health, as noted in the New York Times article. And it poses a risk to his rabbinic performance, too, because your job, no matter what it is, cannot provide that type of satisfaction.

Why can't a job fill my constant need for sippuk? A job has natural stresses and tensions that come with its oblgations. A job has failures (gasp!) that come with its challenges. So it can't provide satisfaction all the time. Try to use it that way, and the job burns out.

A decade ago, I heard a talk on the topic from Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski on Clergy Burnout. The audio is on the RCA website, but for RCA members only; sorry. Here, though, is a transcript of a key section on why clergy should not look to their jobs for satisfaction:

We all need emotional sippuk… What are our sources? I’m going on record as saying that more than 50%, or perhaps 75% of our emotional input, should come from non-work-related sources, such as family, friends, learning Torah, mitzvos, whatever. Some of us have hobbies, some of us have kinds of things that we like to do for relaxation, whatever. But the work should not be expected to provide – we have a job to do, we have a tafkid to do, fine. But we should not be dependent on our work for the lion’s share of our emotional input, because if we do then we are going to reach burnout… Don’t expect the job to give you the greater part of your sippuk. The greater part of your sippuk should come from other sources…

Here Rabbi Dr. Twerski compared the job which is expected to provide fulfillment to a flat iron that is expected to double as a griddle and a space heater. Use an iron as an iron, and the filament will last for ten or twelve years of occasional operation. Use it for these constant purposes, and it will burn out immediately.

Sometimes we go so heavily into our jobs that we neglect the other sources. We don’t spend enough time with the family, we don’t spend enough time with friends, we may even find that we’re compromised on the time that we’ll spend learning, and there is a justification for it, sometimes מצוה שאי אפשר לעשות על ידי אחרים is דוחה תלמוד תורה, so there’s kinds of things we have to do that may take legitimate halachadik [his word, not mine] priority over learning, so what happens is – let alone that we don’t take enough time for relaxation except maybe we can get away for two weeks – and what happens is that we don’t get enough sippuk from other sources, which means that it’s going to depend totally on the work we do.

The title of this post is an exaggeration, obviously. All of us should find some fulfillment in our jobs, and this is certainly true for rabbis, who help people meet their own spiritual needs. But if a rabbi finds he can't take a vacation, he should ask himself: Is it because I feel empty when I take time away from the job? If so, it's time for some serious re-balancing. Don't take it from me, take it from Rabbi Dr. Twerski.


  1. As I see it, this problem is not unique to rabbi-ing. It's common to all professions - the computer programmer who gets so much fulfillment from the fun of writing code that he gets driven to depression when his job becomes more meeting-centered and less code-centered; the doctor who gets so much fulfillment from treating patients that she gets burned out from having to deal with administrivia; the person who loves his job but gets burned out from dealing with a troublesome colleague.

    Anyone should have multiple sources of fulfillment - it's not only "Don't rely exclusively on your job", but also "Don't rely exclusively on your family" or "Don't rely exclusively on your hobbies".

    Perhaps the reason this afflicts rabbis more than others is that they are more likely to see their job as part of their identity. The computer programmer can say that he is a father, a husband, and a Jew who happens to make his living writing code, but it's not so easy for a rabbi to say that.

  2. Hi Michael,
    Thanks for commenting. 100% agreed (hence "your job, no matter what it is, cannot provide that type of satisfaction.")

    Another possible reason why this afflicts rabbis in particular is the community expectation that rabbis will see their job as a "calling."

  3. This is a wonderful article and so true. We are just going through this exact issue and it came just in time for me to show it to my husband! Thanks for the courage of putting it out there...

  4. Anonymous 6:52 PM-
    Thank you very much; b'hatzlachah.