I remember when I was thinking about becoming a rabbi, I was constantly on the lookout for different types of rabbis, priests and pastors. I was trying to figure out what made the ideal clergy person and who I wanted to be when I grew up. Looking back on it, I was incredibly judgmental and dismissive of the variety of skills and personal attributes that are required for different jobs, different communities, and different religious denominations.
I have also heard similar complaints from countless people that I've worked with over the years. It comes in all variations. I have heard people complain that their rabbi is not scholarly enough, or that she is too scholarly. I have heard people complain that their clergy person is neglecting the administrative aspects of running a congregation, while others cannot imagine a spiritual leader ever being involved in such mundane matters.
For me, these questions were just speculation about what type of rabbi I wanted to be.
For the others, however, the stakes are much higher. Many of us have limited experience with our religious organizations and a handful of personal interactions with our pastor. This means that one or two negative experiences can be enough to turn us off from religion altogether.
The stakes here are too high and the capacity for damaging a person's relationship with their faith tradition is too great. Given these risks, I would like to offer a reframed perspective on this question.
Rather than imagining that there is one ideal set of skills and passions for a clergy person, let's apply the same model we use for doctors and lawyers.
In these professions, we assume that there are different areas of specialty. You wouldn't go to a shoulder surgeon to treat your ear infection just like you wouldn't go to a personal injury lawyer to deal with a tax issue. Yet, when it comes to religion, we expect that one size fits all.
While it is true that clergy are different, it is also true that people are people and no one can do everything. There are brilliant scholars who are terrible with interpersonal matters and there are inspiring social activists who do not know how to help people through death and mourning.
I believe that this variety of interests and talents is actually a good thing for our religious traditions. We need both well-rounded clergy and experts in more narrow areas of religious life. In the long run, this diversity of skill actually builds a stronger and more multifaceted religious community.
Given that so many people are hurt or turned off when their religious leaders don't meet their expectations, I have two suggestions to help alleviate this tension: 1) Let's not be so quick to judge our clergy against a set of impossible expectations, and 2) Let's not make the mistake of assuming that the strengths or weaknesses of one particular member of the clergy can be a basis to judge an entire religious tradition.
If you go to see a doctor you don't like, most of us don't give up on the entire medical system; we just find a better doctor.
We have to do the same thing when it comes to rabbis, imams, pastors, and the like.
If we care about religion and we want it to work in our lives, each of us needs to keep looking to find that right person who may not be able to do it all, but who can be the inspiring religious leader we need.