As a teenager, at the height of the so-called “youth culture,” I accepted the notion that the older you get, the more inauthentic you become. A cautious and conventional kid, I might not have been the one you would expect to embrace primal authenticity quite so fervently. Yet precisely because I was such a Goody Two-Shoes, I knew all about hiding unseemly truths. From my teenage perspective, affectation and artifice worsened with age, so it was easy to buy into the claims of the youth culture. Today, at age 48, I don’t feel nearly as phony and decrepit as members of the youth culture would have predicted. In many ways, I feel less inhibited and more open than at any time in the past.
You don’t have to be a member of the clergy, as I am, to experience this shift of attitude. Nevertheless, research suggests that clergy have a characteristic developmental path. It is not inevitable, and it does not follow a single script. Yet broadly speaking, clergy lurch toward maturity driven by a deep hunger for connection with others. This movement is balanced by a strong aversion to uncomfortable intimacies rooted in our earliest experiences. The tension between these two eventually finds expression in our attraction to a clergy career that requires an enormous capacity for intimacy as well as a tolerance for being different and set apart. At the start of midlife the contradiction between these impulses grows especially burdensome. Then a shift occurs, and we achieve a new balance. We find ourselves open to more direct, gratifying, and authentic relationships.
To illustrate the terrain that many clergy negotiate, I offer here some of the themes and tensions of my own transition from adolescence to midlife. While the details are particular to me, I hope that the story of my work as a rabbi and my personal life will bring to mind your own struggles, hopes, and yearnings.
As a teenager I built my social life around a synagogue youth group and a high school newspaper. By taking leadership roles in these activities, I felt more at ease in handling social situations and making friends. One summer night I felt incredibly happy as these friends crowded into my backyard for a party. True, we weren’t part of the “in-group,” but I imagined that we were far more interesting and fun than the jocks and cheerleaders of the high school’s elite.
Despite the pleasure and comfort I took in my circle of friends, I also felt somewhat wary of them. Many of my friendships followed a formula. From the safety of a leadership role, I reached out, careful to remain self-contained, avoiding the appearance of needing others too much.
I had a couple of girlfriends during my high school years, but I enjoyed their company far more after we had broken up and could be “just friends.” Self-sufficiency and a bit of distance from my peers were the keys to my comfort level.
I also took comfort in the approval of “important” adults. When I was 17, attending a summer camp for youth group leaders, I met a rabbi and a rabbinic student who fit the bill. The appearance of these two couldn’t have been more different. The rabbi, a southerner, dressed in clothes appropriate for a round of golf at the country club. He was clean-cut, young, and handsome. The rabbinic student, on the other hand, had long hair and a beard, and he wore ratty jeans—the signature of student radicals and “hippies.” His long hair—and the radicalism and sexual freedom it signaled in those days—accounted for a large part of his appeal.
I vividly remember discussions led by the student rabbi in which he managed to make Sabbath observance sound like a revolutionary activity. What really caught my eye, however, was this detail: When he was at his charismatic best, his partner, the clean-cut rabbi, stood in a corner beaming. The rabbi’s smile registered somewhere deep in my consciousness. It told me that if it was OK for the rabbinic student to be less uptight, more emotionally expressive, and even more sexual, then it was OK for me too.
Although in my fantasies this hippie type was at the opposite end of the sexual-liberation continuum from me, it is possible that he shared some of my wariness. Perhaps instead of capitulating to caution as I did, he rebelled against it. He performed an emotional tour de force, captivating his audience. His charisma drove others into the role of spectator.
Onlookers felt the illusion of intimacy as a result of his intensity, but in reality they remained at a distance. His was only one of many ways to express the underlying clergy dynamic.
As I entered adulthood and began exploring career options, I couldn’t conceive of taking a nine-to-five job. What would I do with myself after five o’clock? From this perspective the rabbinate looked ideal to me, an opportunity to immerse myself totally in a role. Clergy are always on the job, whether shopping for groceries, mowing the front lawn, or attending a kids’ soccer game. Although many clergy complain about the relentless job demands, at some point they probably found this element appealing. We’re attracted to a role that mediates and buffers our interactions with others. Bear in mind that this impulse can take surprising forms. Shortly after ordination, I told my congregants to call me “Jim” instead of “Rabbi.” I thought this step demonstrated that I wasn’t hiding behind my role. But my informality, at least in my own mind, also identified me as a really “cool” rabbi.
Our role imposes itself in all our relationships, even with a spouse. For example, I was delighted to be the rabbi at my own wedding. Here is how I pulled off this feat: The synagogue to which my fiancée’s family belonged was literally across the street from the one where I served as an assistant rabbi. After we had announced our engagement, the president of my congregation asked if the wedding ceremony could be performed at “our” synagogue rather than at the one across the street. He wanted the congregation to send out printed invitations to the entire membership and host a fancy reception. I persuaded my future in-laws to accept this generous offer because it would be “good for my career.” But career advancement was hardly a factor in my decision. Far more important to me were the personal validation and acceptance that I would feel as my entire congregation celebrated my wedding.
As a newly minted rabbi, I often felt like an imposter. A sense of inadequacy rudely disturbed the composure I tried to project as I bluffed my way through hospital visits, weddings, and funerals. My rabbinic identity was still a work in progress, although I hated having this truth pointed out. To take the edge off the stress, I soothed myself with a sort of fantasy. I told myself that if I worked hard at caring for my congregants, they would shower me with love in return. This thought process, which usually took place just outside my conscious awareness, calmed me down and got me through the most stressful times. An inner voice told me:
I can make them love me with this eulogy.
I can make them love me with this hospital visit.
I can make them love me with this youth program.
Our congregants sometimes feel gratitude and even a form of love for us. But implicit in my fantasy was a sense of entitlement: They had to love me, no matter what. Of course, congregants may respond to us with anger, disappointment, and hurt. When this occurred, I often became engrossed with my own feelings of disillusionment and distress. I rarely considered whether I might help my congregants with their disenchantment.
Our assumption that congregants will nourish and replenish us through their love makes self-care seem superfluous or even gluttonous. At times such thinking kept me bouncing back and forth between two poles. Fir
st, I would overextend myself, trying to make everyone happy, neglecting myself and clandestinely waiting for others to take care of me. Then, exhausted or confronted by congregants’ dissatisfaction, I would perform my work halfheartedly and look for every opportunity to stay out of the office. Later, guilt-stricken for letting my congregants down, I would throw myself back into the fray, determined to win their love again. Over time, this pattern became demoralizing.
Parts of my work continued to give me pleasure or a sense of accomplishment, but increasingly these gratifying activities were remote islands that I rarely visited. I knew I couldn’t continue in this fashion for long, but I couldn’t find an escape from the cycle.
With the help of a good clinical psychologist and the support of my wife, I began easing some of the emotional distance that I had imposed in my relationships. My wife and I attended marriage-enrichment retreats and joined a marriage support group. At the synagogue, I began experimenting with innovative worship services and small-group activities that fostered greater intimacy. I became more available as a pastoral counselor—an aspect of the rabbinate that I had previously avoided.
Important as these steps were, burnout was still licking at my heels. I felt trapped in the role that had formerly been my refuge. Things came to a head one sleepless night about 10 years ago. Although I usually fall asleep within seconds of putting my head on the pillow, that night I wrestled with decisions about my future and got no sleep at all. Early in the morning, I woke up my wife. We began a conversation that led me eventually to leave congregational work to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology. I wanted to find a new way to be a rabbi, and graduate school became my means to this end.
Perhaps the scariest part of this move was that it raised doubts as to whether I would remain a rabbi at all. When I allowed myself to think about it, stepping off my pedestal to become a graduate student was terrifying. I didn’t know what parts of my rabbinic identity would survive and how to get along without my old role.
But fear was not all that I felt. The word ecstasy originally denoted a state in which you are flung out of your usual self. Telling my congregants how much I wanted to make these changes, I felt an ecstatic relief. To my surprise, some congregants responded by telling me about similar upheavals in their lives. They talked about career changes, financial risks, breakups, and reconciliations. I listened in my role as their rabbi, recognizing how much they wanted me to understand the meaning of their decisions. But I also responded as their peer, deeply affected by the intimate and perceptive ways in which they reacted to my self-disclosure. I felt deeply understood and took comfort in the fact that I was not alone.
In many ways, I was already a different kind of rabbi, although I was less clear about the shift then than I am now. I served that congregation for eight more months before entering a graduate program. During that time, I gave the best sermons I had ever written, developed the programs of which I am most proud, and became a better pastor than ever before. I tapped an inner wellspring that left me feeling full of initiative, less guarded, and more creative.
Another version of the clergy midlife crisis is far more extreme than my own. These clergy also feel drawn to more authentic relationships, but a fear of intimacy overpowers this impulse. To guard against the allure of closeness, some retreat into aloofness and rigidity. Others become doormats, yielding to every demand. Both strategies serve the same purpose—to avoid engaging others directly and personally. With time, the burden of isolation becomes intolerable. In a desperate attempt to salve their pain, they impulsively become sexually involved with congregants. They may abandon the field or find themselves forced out. For the most part, clergy who transgress sexual boundaries are not sociopaths. Rather, they are lonely and lost individuals who do not know how to get the help they need. Clergy have a special responsibility to curb such colleagues and to protect congregants from their misconduct. But we kid ourselves if we think that there are no circumstances in which we would go down that same road. A lifetime of isolation can become a black hole. With sufficient stress, we are sucked in by its powerful gravity, and our sense of right and wrong is overwhelmed until it is too late.
For the majority of colleagues, however, the restiveness of midlife is far less tumultuous. Many become disenchanted with aspects of their work that formerly gave them satisfaction. They may feel an inexplicable fatigue and become bored, irritable, or depressed. They may brood on their failures or simply clarify the direction they want to take. For some, this time is an ordeal; for others, it is far less painful. Ultimately, however, clergy in midlife come to see the big picture more easily. As a result, they discover increased energy, patience, and humor. They feel less vulnerable to criticism and therefore become more open to others.
For many this shift grows out of a willingness to see themselves as one part of the congregation rather than the center. These clergy collaborate rather than operate as lone cowboys. At the same time, they see more clearly their own unique gifts and become more effective in offering them. Instead of their gritting their teeth and muddling through day after day, they become more willing to engage in routine self-care. They settle in for the long haul, invigorated and revitalized.
Memory and Wisdom
As a teenager I failed to appreciate the enormous value of memories that accumulate over the years. With the passage of time, I have a new relationship with my past, especially my memories of adolescence and early adulthood. Sometimes they sting or embarrass. But more often they are a comfort, a source of entertainment, and the storehouse of any wisdom I have acquired. Increasingly, I am able to accept—buried within the fair measure of heartache I have experienced—a meaning and value that I never anticipated. Jewish mystics labeled this idea “the sweetness in evil,” a concept that I once considered a travesty but that now stirs me deeply. If offered the choice between a pain-free life and the life I have led, I would take the painless option. But given that we all suffer and cannot trade suffering away, I would rather try to redeem my pain with the wisdom it can teach me.
As a rabbi and a clinical psychologist, I think of myself as a “wounded healer.” Given the advantages I have enjoyed and the love I have known, I wonder if I’ve suffered enough to deserve this appellation. In any case, my history of isolation and pain provides valuable reference points when I try to help others who are suffering. My own injuries help me to understand the anomie and isolation that afflict so many today. My history allows me to be more respectful and less condescending.
I used to fear that my awkwardness with others disqualified me from being a rabbi. Now I see it as a resource. I still feel a familiar urge to retreat from intimacy, even when it benefits me to remain connected. Such a fundamental aspect of personality never disappears entirely, no matter how well we learn to redirect it. It stays with us forever, tripping us up and offering us a pathway to wisdom.