Soul, Role and Context—a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

Nothing says Monday morning like an email from the Ethnic Schools Association with the subject line “new and updated policies.” This particular email included a 409-page attachment with updates to 25 existing policies and five new ones. My favourite new policy was the “criminal background check” policy, apparently necessary in addition to the fifteen or so existing policies that already mandated criminal background checks.

As the administrator of an accredited ethnic school, it is my responsibility to make sure that we are in compliance with the dozens of policies laid out on our website. I am thankful that this is a very small part of what I do as a rabbi, but I am quite aware that for professionals in many other fields, policies, compliance, and other bureaucratic paperwork are eating up a larger and larger part of their days. I’m sure that more than a few people find themselves trying to remember what happened to the career they thought they were entering.

In July, I participated in three days of workshops with master pastoral supervisor Michael Paterson from Scotland. Michael literally wrote the book for people who supervise spiritual professionals in various settings to assist them in working through the issues and challenges they encounter. He has ultimately shortened his definition of what pastoral supervision is to a very quick summary: it is the work of assisting the person being supervised to balance soul, role and context.

Soul is who we are. Depending on your theological bent, you may think of it as who God shaped you to be. Our souls encompass our strengths and weaknesses, our gifts and our learning edges. We have the ability to tweak who we are, especially at this time of the year, but at its essence our soul remains the same throughout our lives.

Role is how we fulfil the longings of our soul in our professional work. Some feel happiest doing work with their hands as builders, sculptors, landscapers. Others enjoy working with numbers as accountants, mathematicians or computer programmers. Some people love the idea of an ordered society and so may pursue a career in law or politics. Others have an enterprising streak and start businesses. And so on and so on through an almost infinite number of possibilities. There are people who are sure they will be happy in a certain role, but realise either early or late that they were wrong. I went to rabbinical school with quite a lot of people who had worked as lawyers, scientists or teachers before realising they really wanted to be rabbis. I also have colleagues who have ultimately decided they would be happier if they stopped working as rabbis. Some people, of course, may move through multiple roles in their lives, finding things to treasure in many different professions.

And finally comes context, which is where we find ourselves acting in our roles while trying to nourish our souls. If you are a doctor, the hospital or clinic where you work is your context. If you’re a teacher, it’s your school. If you’re a rabbi, it’s the synagogue, or possibly school, hospital, university campus, or community where you’re located. I have chosen to speak on this subject today because I am having more and more conversations with people who feel called to be in a certain role, but who are finding that their context is in danger of destroying their souls. I have a theory about why this happening, and I also believe it’s possible to make it all a bit better.

We live in a society where we are increasingly aware of the possible risks that lie all around us. Equipment can prove dangerous. Facilities can be dangerous. Even sitting in an office chair for too long turns out to be dangerous. Managing money comes with its own risks. Most terrifying of all, the people we work with and trust may turn out to be dangerous. Businesses and institutions are engaged in a battle to try to reduce those risks down to zero. Or, if they can’t make the risks go away entirely, they can at least document the steps they’ve taken to try to prevent the risks. The higher the risk associated with a certain institution, the more the paperwork load. Those same organisations may impose a large number of rules and structures to limit risk, even if the rules then sometimes prevent the employees from performing their jobs as they feel they should.

When the minutiae of bureaucracy and rules becomes more important than an organisation’s original mission, there is the possibility for the employees who are dedicated to their work to get lost. Employees who jump through the correct hoops in the right order are appreciated. Those who are more interested in the work itself may find themselves sidelined, marginalised, even bullied.

Now I appreciate that I may be exaggerating a bit, but I’m convinced there’s more than a kernel of truth here. I’m speaking for the teachers, health care providers, academics and government employees I’ve spoken with in recent years who feel that they’ve lost something precious in their work. The passion is gone, and all that is left is the dread. They no longer jump out of bed each morning, eager to race off and do the work their souls feel they were meant to do. Instead, they pull the covers tightly over their heads and try to hide from the world.

When the context comes into conflict with our soul and role, the route of least resistance has traditionally been to quit our jobs and even to switch careers. I’ve seen this happen many times over the years and have seen far too many gifted and loving people burned out in their chosen professions.

But what if there were another way? Michael Paterson had the opportunity to see if this was possible.

A number of years ago, he was approached by the Scottish National Health Service at a time of crisis: morale was way down, job dissatisfaction was low, burnout levels were high. People were miserable. Michael had developed a tool for chaplains with the unwieldy name VBRP–values-based reflective practice. The idea was simple: people from similar professional backgrounds would gather in small groups to reflect on their work in a non-judgmental, supportive environment. The hope was that this work would help everyone to draw closer together while providing a safe outlet for those who were struggling in some way with their work. Michael was given permission to expand his program out to work with everyone in the Scottish NHS. An analysis of this experiment conducted in 2014, only a few years into the program, showed dramatic results. VBRP was impacting positively on every aspect of people’s work and lives, from their professional practice to their engagement in their work to their communication and relationship with their co-workers. Amazing, inspiring, and deceptively simple!

The anecdotal stories were just as powerful. Michael shared the experience of rolling out his program to physicians at a local hospital. The dean of medicine greeted him with a surly look on her face. It was clear she saw what he was doing as a distraction from real work. Michael sat down with the doctors and began facilitating an introductory session of reflective process. Part of the way he dared to gaze over at the dean of medicine, who was watching at the side. She had tears streaming down her face. At the end of the hour, she approached Michael to tell him how she had lost touch with the reasons why she had gone into medicine in the first place. Now she felt safe to reclaim that part of herself.

It’s extraordinary to see how a broken system could be transformed by the introduction of such a simple tool. The experiment in Scotland suggests that when discontent is just beneath the surface, just a very gentle push may be required to make things better. The only question is who will be the one to do the pushing? For surely those who push must be prepared for there to be push-back. But if the ultimate result is a life-giving environment for all, it would surely be worth it.

Why speak about this topic on Rosh Hashanah? Because we spend at least 1/3 of our waking time at work, and for many it’s far more than that. Because this time of year is when we are meant to look both inward and outward–to reflect on what we’d like to change within ourselves, but also on what change we’d like to bring to the world. Because I see it as a terrible tragedy that people who feel in their hearts that they are called to do certain work see their circumstances are blocking them from doing so. How can the year ahead be completely sweet when the hope of fulfilling the work of the soul is extinguished?

When I heard Michael talking about his work, my first response was to exclaim, “You need to bring this to South Australia!” That probably won’t happen, but his model is freely available to adapt to workplaces here. So is the hope that lies behind it: the possibility that even the most difficult work environments can undergo tikkun—they can be healed and repaired.

I spoke last night about how important it is for each of us to find meaning and purpose in our lives. For so many of us, the primary place we live that out is at work. I dream of a day when all people are nourished by the work they do. I can only begin to imagine how our world might blossom as a result. Shana tova—may the year ahead be rich with meaning and possibilities!

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