Few jobs are more demanding than that of the pulpit rabbi. It essentially requires being at the congregation’s beck and call all year-long, 24 hours a day. If pulpit rabbis were allowed to bill by the hour, then there likely would be a marked increase in applications to rabbinical school.
Being a pulpit rabbi also means being available around the clock and calendar for life cycle events, such as births, b’nai mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. It means knowing exactly what to say at each event, so that everyone is satisfied and no one is insulted. Of course, that is usually impossible, just like it is impossible to cater a kiddush that leaves no Jew saying: “It was very nice, but ...”
Being a pulpit rabbi also means always being perfect or at least trying to set a perfect example for others to follow. In other words, being a pulpit rabbi means you almost always have to be “on.” The moment you let your guard down, there will be an annoying paparazzi-like congregant with a smartphone ready to blast even your smallest misstep to the masses on social media and beyond, e.g., “Hey folks, check this out. Here is a photo of our rabbi at the supermarket express checkout line with way more than 10 items. What a shanda.”
For decades, pulpit rabbis accepted this reality for two primary reasons. First, the role of a rabbi is incredibly fulfilling with loads of positive and incomparable experiences. Second, rabbis used to receive lifetime contracts. That was a game-changer because the ironclad job security of a lifetime contract made all of the nonsense tolerable.
Today, lifetime contracts for pulpit rabbis are a rarity. Nowadays, rabbis typically receive a contract for a certain number of years and then at term’s end they must negotiate for a renewal. Yes, rabbis can become free agents and test the market, but no matter how you slice it, the process can be a trying and stressful ordeal. It can be even more stressful than when a pulpit rabbi tries to disband a mid-davening kiddush club.
So, the question is: when should a synagogue renew a rabbi’s contract? That is a tricky question and the answer varies depending on the particular circumstances. It would be far easier to answer the opposite question, i.e., when should a synagogue not renew a rabbi’s contract? While there are many potentially valid reasons for non-renewal, here are a few completely fictional hypotheticals for consideration:
• On shabbos morning, the rabbi takes all seven aliyot, the haftorah and gelilah, and then deliberately assigns hagbah to the weakest congregant.
• The rabbi delivers three-hour sermons on hypocritical topics like the importance of brevity.
• For every wedding, the rabbi creates a rabbi’s registry.
• The rabbi strong arms every bar mitzvah boy and bat mitzvah girl into giving a speech on the same topic: Why the rabbi deserves a lifetime contract?
• The rabbi exhausts the rabbi’s discretionary fund to fund an unending and self-destructive shawarma addiction.
• The rabbi has office hours from only 10:30 a.m. to 10:31 a.m. and when congregants ask, “Hey rabbi, do you have a minute for me,” the response is “Yes, I literally do.”
• When congregants say “good shabbos” to the rabbi, the rabbi responds, “What’s so good about it?”
• The rabbi decrees going away to a hotel or resort for Passover is forbidden unless the rabbi and his family are included and fully comped.
Final thought: A pulpit rabbi’s contract should have a fair compensation package, a realistic vacation arrangement and, of course, a no-trade clause.