Keeping Faith in Rabbis. A Community Conversation about Rabbinical Education, will be published at the end of November. Every few weeks, I’ll be featuring guest bloggers who are a part of the online version of this project. We’re kicking off the conversation with a post from Rabbi Ellen Lewis, a congregational rabbi and therapist. Her post takes you inside the minds of some congregational rabbis and congregants this time of year, and offers helpful advice on how to distinguish between feelings of self-worth and financial compensation—issues that may begin to creep into conversations shortly after the holidays. A more comprehensive discussion of these issues that Ellen prepared will be available as a free download in October 2014.
Making Emotional Sense of Money
This time of year before the high holy days is a stressful one for rabbis. In a usually hopeless attempt to find time to work on sermons, many rabbis try not to answer the phone or make appointments. When the congregational president calls, however, the rabbi always takes he call. “Rabbi, how are you? Listen, I’d like to sit down with you and start talking about your next contract. What’s good for you?” The rabbi, feeling a clutching sensation in her gut, responds, ” I know we need to talk about this, but I was hoping it could wait until after the holidays.” The president, thinking aloud and practically, says, “Well, the thing is that we would need to be done by December in case it didn’t work out and we would have to put together a Search Committee. I don’t know if that would give us enough time.”
Thus begins the disconnect between rabbi and president. Whatever the resolution to the president’s initial request, the rabbi is now sure her job is in jeopardy. And she still has those High Holy Day sermons to write. What the president intends as a routine conversation, the rabbi experiences as a threat. The needs of the rabbi and the congregation seem to conflict even before a word has been uttered about salary, benefits or other contractual items.
This conversation gives us just a hint of the complexity of rabbinic contractual negotiations. Why is it so complicated? How can we make sure these conversations don’t go wrong? It is easy to forget that the contract talks don’t occur independently of the relationship between rabbi and congregation. They are a part of the relationship and therefore need to be conducted with the usual mutual consideration and sensitivity of any conversation. Having some psychological grasp of the emotional power of money can help keep these conversations on track. Here are just a few points to keep in mind:
• What starts as a seemingly simple phone call can quickly set an adversarial tone for future negotiations. How can you set the right tone in preparation for a complex interaction?
• The better you understand yourself, whether rabbi or congregant , the better equipped you will be to handle contract negotiations. Do whatever you can to increase your emotional insights around money and what it symbolizes.
• If you are a rabbi, keep yourself talking in therapy and supervision. It will do you good, and what’s good for the rabbi is good for the congregation.
• If you are a congregant negotiating the rabbi’s contract, be aware that you are in a different role. You are not the recipient of the rabbi’s pastoral attention so much as the rabbi is the recipient of yours. Start by telling the rabbi what you appreciate about him or her.
• Take the emotional temperature of the relationship before you begin to discuss specifics. Ask each other basic questions before you ever get to money; what would make this conversation go well? What do you want?
This is the time of year we take stock of our lives (heshbon hanefesh). If both rabbi and congregant take their relationship seriously, that personal awareness will benefit their relationship and elevate even the most challenging conversations.
Rabbi Ellen Lewis, rabbi emerita at the Jewish Center of Northwest, N.J., and a practicing clinical psychotherapist, has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals. In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision.