Bullying is a serious problem and it is wrong. I want to go on record with that statement because without making it explicit, you might think I believe otherwise.
A colleague of mine wrote a column in The Forward in which he discusses being bullied by his congregants. There was probably a sad smile of recognition on the part of every rabbi who read that essay because there are such people in every congregation.
(There are also devoted acolytes, sycophants, humble saints, deeply needy people, sociopaths, paragons of compassion and more in every congregation. Sometimes they are all the same person.)
Most rabbis, certainly this one, want to be loved. It comes as a shock when someone seems to be personally antagonistic or even downright cruel instead of appreciative and respectful. And when confronted by congregants who are aggressive or enraged, the dissonance a rabbi feels can be disabling.
Professional training and collective wisdom encourage conciliation and understanding. The rabbinic amygdala demands fight or flight. And even if the rabbi, certainly this one, could overcome the sense that “a rabbi ought to be wise enough to deal with these things alone,” there is never a guarantee that effective and reliable allies can be mustered.
I faced difficult congregants throughout my career. I came to two insights the hard way – that is, by ignoring the good counsel of others and taking much longer to come to the same conclusion myself. I actually wrote about this a little in a previous column, and the take-away is that my own inadequacies are always magnified by the history of previous rabbis (and other authority figures) with my challengers.
But it can be hard to remember that. A particularly forbidding member, used to getting her way with a predecessor of mine, sent me into a funk when she told me, “You are a cold person. Lots of people feel that way.” Another member accused me of “oppressing widows and orphans” (she was both) when the synagogue raised dues – and made a formal complaint to my professional organization that, ridiculous as it was, I had to answer. A third congregant kept track of how many lights were on in the (synagogue-owned) house we occupied for a few years, and reported it to the board. (By the way, all those people have been called to their eternal reward, so they are not you.)
So the first insight is that most people, seeing these interactions, recognize them for what they are: bad behavior. Synagogues are notoriously forgiving communities, accommodating difficult personalities and even enabling them out of love and compassion – no different than most religious institutions. If you need proof, compare the numbers of people who quit synagogues with the number who are disaffiliated. But just because you love someone does not mean you like them. I almost always discovered that lots and lots of people shared my frustration with these contentious folks.
And my second insight is that, except for the sociopaths (and there are a few), when bad behavior is pointed out to the offenders they are shocked at themselves. I should know it from personal experience, but when I am on the receiving end, it is hard to remember that my own excesses are usually unintentional. I remember speaking to a congregant about bad behavior and, after he shamefacedly owned it, hearing him say, “That’s not who I am.” I guess that’s what Yom Kippur and its preceding days of repentance are all about.
So I am not sure that clergy bullying per se is as prevalent as rabbis think it is. Sometimes we smack a label on something that helps us get a handle on it, but the complexities can disappear behind the generic category.
But to return to the beginning, bullying is a serious problem, and it is wrong. Even with all of the insight my decades in the pulpit inspired, there were times when I knew I was being pushed around by someone with personal animosities. The behavior was reprehensible; even so, I felt like a crybaby when I complained. And the gulf between the expectation that the rabbi will always be the adult in the room and the attempt by a bully to infantilize the rabbi can be impossible to straddle.
Any rabbi will also smile knowingly when you mention that there are friends of rabbis, too. They may have the best of motivations or some of the same pathologies, but they are quietly beloved by those of us deeply grateful for their support. It’s not all bad.
What is the solution to clergy bullying? Well, no different than on the playground or the campaign trail: good people need to stand up for what is right.