Even when the economy was booming in the 1990s, what was euphemistically known as "downsizing" left much of the U.S. workforce in a state of uncertainty. The recent economic slowdown has not helped matters. Large companies struggling with reduced demand have announced old-style layoffs in the tens of thousands, and the New Economy portends further reductions in traditional jobs. Englishman Richard Kew, an Episcopal priest, speaker, and author of Starting Over—But Not from Scratch (Abingdon), wrote for eight years for National Business Employment Weekly as a career counselor. Kew, who has lived in the United States since 1976, recently spoke with CT associate editor Jeff M. Sellers about how Christians can cope with unemployment.

How can the church help the newly unemployed?

Initially, just by being there for them. The uncertainty can almost be worse than unemployment itself—there is this sense of being exposed, insecure, of not knowing whether you are going to have the material resources to meet the challenges the future is going to throw at you. Pastoral care from clergy, and care within groups in congregations, is extremely important.

What groups are you referring to?

It's also important that those who are struggling with even the possibility of unemployment be willing to open themselves up, to share their discomfort so that others might reach out to them.

These issues first come up in the person's context, be it a handbell choir, a Bible-study group, a prayer group, or a ministry group of some kind. It's also important for congregations to form groups where the unemployed can come together and support one another—and not just those in the church, but anyone who is unemployed, much as Alcoholics Anonymous allows recovering alcoholics to support one another. Such groups can also help people network with one another and to work with one another in presenting and developing résumés.

Why do family and friends, let alone fellow church members, sometimes feel helpless about how to help someone who is unemployed?

To be unemployed is to be terribly on your own and incredibly lonely. The way forward for ministry and mission in the 21st century is going to be strongly related to community. Creating and providing community for those who are alone is in some way providing pastoral care for everyone. It also serves as pre-evangelism to those who find themselves unemployed and looking for support.

One reason is that they look at somebody else and say, "It might be me next!" It's like being at the bedside of a dying person, and you watch doctors coming in, and then they come in less frequently, and then they don't really come at all. Again, as communities of Christians, we need to face our own fears.

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We're afraid to go near the unemployed, which increases their loneliness.

That's right—they've become lepers. Therefore the community needs to reach out to them. At the same time, the unemployed are probably keeping their situation quiet so that no one knows, because they're ashamed of what's happened to them (even if they may not use that kind of language). But in fact, if you're looking for new employment, you should want the whole world to know that you're on the market.

What other emotional challenges have to be faced, and how can an unemployed person face them?

There is shame related to job loss, though in reality there may be no reasons for it. Rather, it's the great tsunami of the economy that goes lurching on, and you're caught up in the tidal wave. Sometimes it is your fault, but you're [still] caught up in it. And if you're caught up in it, then other people are going to be as well, and you can provide support for one another as well as being open in the way that you handle all this.

You're going to go through the whole cycle of grief, because when you lose your job, you're having to let go of what might have been. So there is some inner dying that goes on, and there is the anger that accompanies that—"Why me?" So you're going to deal with the whole array of questions that you deal with when you lose a loved one. To be ready for that is very important.

Some people, when thrown out of work, cave in spiritually on themselves—turn it all against themselves, rather than moving on to the next step. To be conscious of falling into that and looking for help is the first step.

The second step is to maintain a devotional discipline alongside maintaining a life discipline. When you are unemployed, your full-time job is to find work. Therefore, set up an office. There is a tendency for unemployed people to lose any sense of discipline, and for some folks that means endless hours of watching soap operas or looking at the bottom of an empty bottle. Others can't get up in the morning as a result of depression.

How does a person's spiritual identity fit into all this?

So if you set the alarm clock to go off at 7, make sure you are out of bed by 7:30 to dress for work, and set yourself a disciplined series of targets of what you are going to achieve today so you have some framework for your life.

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Men in particular relate their identity with their work. When a man loses his job, there is something of his identity taken away from him, and one of the things unemployment does is bring you face to face with the real you rather than the imagined you that you are hiding behind. That loss of self-identity that is job-related is in some instances a good thing.

The tendency is to say, "How can I find something as good if not better in terms of material things than the job that I've done?" rather than saying, "Is there an opportunity for me to totally reorder my life?" Maybe it has been that I have been working for Bear Stearns, and I've been making more money than is good for me, but that job is not where my heart is. That's not where God wants me to be. There's something better that God has in mind.

To the Reformers, vocation referred to a broad number of callings in everyday life; today it merely means one's occupation. How has that affected how we understand unemployment?

We can use this as a time to do some exploring: "What do I want to do with the rest of my life? What does God want me to do with the rest of my life?" And it may be that you end up your life as the stockbroker who gives up the six-figure salary in order to teach in a New York public school. Or there is a passion inside to start your own business. And that would then free you up to do certain other things in terms of your Christian witness.

I'm not sure most people understand that vocation is a much more holistic calling in the life of the church and the wider community, rather than being reduced to employment. So maybe one of the areas where clergy can be particularly helpful is to begin to do some preaching and teaching about what vocation truly is. Then we can step back and say, "How do I put my life together as a whole, as a servant of God, as a child of Christ? How do I live out what it is to be all of these things in balance?"

Related Elsewhere

The Russian Ministry Network site has a biographical sketch of Kew.

The Dallas Morning News also recently reported this week on spirituality during a weakening economy. The article, "Taking stock | Downturn prompts some to ask what really matters," appeared in the paper's March 31 edition.

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