At the very beginning of my rabbinical studies, one of my teachers gave me a sage piece of advice: “Don’t let your congregants put you on a pedestal. Then they’ll spend all their time trying to knock you off of it.” The point is that clergy are often held up to unrealistic expectations–the “perfect” rabbi is supposed to make only $20,000 a year and give away $30,000 of it to tzedakah!–and then are faulted when they fail to live up to them.
The key, as my teacher was telling me, was not to get caught up in this dynamic in the first place. Don’t let your congregation start believing you’re superhuman (flawless) and don’t let yourself start believing it either.
Clergy are very human, with human strengths and weaknesses. Certainly we should be aspiring to the highest levels of ethical behavior that we can, but we also need to be honest and open about issues that we are struggling with. A rabbi who is “perfect” has nothing to teach his or her congregants, who aren’t. But a rabbi who confronts difficult issues with honesty and integrity can offer congregants a model of how to do the same in their own lives.
As Gayle Haggard, wife of disgraced evangelical minister Ted Haggard, acknowledged in a letter to her former congregation, “For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties, know that this will never again be the case.”
Ted Haggard, like so many other religious leaders, seemed to believe that he always had to project an image of ‘perfection’ at all costs. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is Rabbi Fred Neulander, who hired a hit man to murder his wife rather than suffer the humiliation of a divorce.
Clergy need to acknowledge that we are not perfect and reach out for help when we need it, rather than trying to maintain a perfect façade that does both us and our congregants a real disservice. Worst of all, we can begin to believe about ourselves what others wish to believe about us, and then we are doomed.
Instead of holding ourselves above the congregation, we must lead from within–showing that even a flawed, imperfect, everyday person has the possibility–and obligation–to strive for honesty, holiness, and the highest of ethical standards.