Blessed Are the Jobless: How Ministries Aid the Unemployed
The U.S. unemployment rate dropped in late 2011, but the decrease was misleading. The U.S. Department of Labor didn't count more than 1.1 million jobless people who were classified as "discouraged workers": those who were willing and able to work but did not seek employment during the previous 30 days. Such discouragement has many roots. Their employers might have eliminated jobs due to belt-tightening or moved jobs overseas to cut labor costs.
Research shows that discouragement often grows the longer a worker is unemployed. Such individuals begin to spend less time each month looking for a new job. Dan Coffey, an outplacement expert who previously led the jobless ministry at Christ Church in Oakbrook, Illinois, said, "We fail to realize there is a grieving process involved—denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance. People who go through unemployment need to go through that." Job loss is considered one of the top 10 most stressful life events.
The needs of the discouraged worker are complex—which is where local churches can step in. "The church has a unique and wonderful role to play. The church provides spirituality and emotional support that can cut through the anxiety and the depression and give people hope," said Steve Murata, a leader of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church's Career Actions Ministry (CAM). Unlike secular agencies, the church can help people see their true worth in Christ, give them a new sense of purpose for their work lives, and re-energize them for the job search process.
Pastor Todd Augustine oversees College Church's career ministry in Wheaton, Illinois. He said that during long-term unemployment, people want to see immediate results after attending a job ministry or career fair, which makes it easy for them to become more discouraged.
"We try to keep our emphasis on a spiritual dimension rather than just a pragmatic dimension," he said. "The truths that we speak to are always applicable to life whether you're employed or unemployed, whether you've found the job or gotten the interview."
Designed for Work
In recent years, Christian scholars have reflected in fresh ways on a theology of work. It can be devastating when people are unable to engage in meaningful labor. "It's perfectly natural to be ill at ease about becoming unemployed and to be frustrated and anxious," Ben Witherington, author of Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, told Christianity Today. "I don't think that most Christians have thought seriously about what the Bible says about work."
When the vision of work is not rooted in Scripture, people fall back on a lesser notion: the perfect job. "Christians have associated vocation with job," said Gene Veith, author of the 2002 book God at Work, noting that job is a secular word, while the word vocation has rich theological meaning.
Vocation is defined as God calling us to serve and love our neighbors. This is something one never loses, Veith said. According to the Reformers, Veith said, there were three vocations: the family, the church, and the state. A paying job is only one aspect of the family vocation.
"We invest so much of the meaning of our lives in our jobs," said Veith, provost and professor at Patrick Henry College. "That's our identity, that's what gives our life reason, that's why we get up in the morning. When that is taken away, we feel purposeless. That mindset has led us to neglect our other vocations and callings."
At Menlo Park Presbyterian, the CAM program helps participants rebalance their lives and grasp the biblical perspective on work.