No one dreams of seeking work after retirement, but sometimes a pension isn’t enough. West Virginian Henry Shinn, 61, found himself there last year as the COVID-19 pandemic wracked the nation.
With nothing but an unlikely product design brewing in his mind, he approached Crea Company—a faith-based organization that works with creators to bring their ideas to life.
Within months, Crea Company had helped him formulate a plan and secure the machines and materials necessary to launch West Virginia Trail Chips. The company produces durable wooden tokens in the form of unique, collection-worthy business cards. Shinn now earns a steady income from his part-time business, working from home and creating his products in the Crea workshop for an affordable monthly fee.
Crea’s mission-based framework to provide a “future that inspires hope” for West Virginians is one example of how Christians are helping one another through unsteady economic times and job difficulties.
Bonus? It comes with the perk of built-in coworkers. Fellow creators, who also believe in the Christian mission of the local “makerspace,” are there to ask questions, give advice, and offer direction.
“You are just more apt to be friendly and helpful in that kind of environment,” Shinn said in an interview with Christianity Today.
Crea cofounder Travis Lowe, who also pastors Crossroads Church in Bluefield, West Virginia, saw interest rise soon after the pandemic spawned. After starting Crea in 2019, its purpose shifted to meet the community’s needs as the pandemic hit.
“Our original model,” said Lowe, “was to offer community groups [the opportunity for] maker classes—like, come make a doormat or planter—and have memberships. But COVID made that almost impossible.”
In 2020, Lowe pivoted to a new model: making personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies to help local medical providers and offering the chance for others to create and sell their own products. Folks who lost work, such as “cleaners and restaurant workers,” were “looking for side gigs to make extra money,” Lowe said via email.
Now they’ve set up shop to repair lawn mower engines, design leather goods, fabricate metal signs, 3D-print materials, and print shirts, hats, and koozies.
One member, a disabled coal miner, made personalized masks and began selling them online; a popular version made wearers look like Hulk Hugan. An engineer seeking a side hustle used Crea’s 3D printers and recycled small engine parts to make props for student films at Liberty University. A local pastor used Crea’s lasers to custom engrave his woodwork, now displayed on each table in his son’s newly opened restaurant in town.
Employment struggles aren’t new to West Virginia, the sixth-poorest state in the nation with a 16 percent poverty rate. But things got tougher in 2020, as lockdowns demolished local economies.
Last year alone, the US lost 9.37 million jobs, the highest number in 80 years. And while the unemployment rate currently stands at 4.8 percent—and lower-level jobs are facing a worker shortage—many are still seeking jobs that will provide the same pay and benefits as pre-pandemic positions they lost. According to Pew, the vast majority of those people are pessimistic about their prospects and do not want to settle for unfulfilling, subordinate jobs.
That’s where churches and ministries like Crea can play a role, and many people are hoping they will continue to do so. Recently released Barna data finds that 1 in 5 US adults want the local church to address “vocational well-being.”
Larger churches have the capacity to do so more comprehensively. In 2013, Chicago-based Willow Creek Community Church launched the Willow Creek Care Center—a program developed in response to huge need within the church. The Care Center has played a pivotal role for church members in 2020 and 2021.
Though many of their popular in-person programs like counseling sessions, support groups, and job skills workshops were on hold in 2020, the center continued to facilitate outdoor job fairs and a variety of other online support opportunities.
“We are seeing unusually difficult cases [right now],” said Anne Rand, the center’s long-term solutions advocate. “It’s people who have been out of the workforce for many years, so they don’t have the computer skills or know-how to navigate a job search in today’s tech-savvy environment.”
Chicago resident Lisa Klavan sought help from Willow Creek this year. She appreciated that the center was willing to pray for her. “The level of concern and care was deeper than with a secular group,” said Klavan, who is still searching for a job.
Most churches don’t have a program as comprehensive as Willow Creek, but many do have job boards or partner with ministries invested in faith-based work endeavors.
Such partnerships are especially vital in this time of societal upheaval, said Andy Crouch, a partner at Praxis Labs, an organization dedicated to Christian entrepreneurs.
“I think the fact that churches have found creative ways to guide people towards employment is exactly what we should be doing,” he said. “When the system is broken down, redemptive people step in.”
The fact only 1 in 5 Americans are seeking the church’s help for vocational matters, per Barna’s data, demonstrates how many people don’t know that help is “available or plausible,” Crouch said.
“That’s what the church should be providing—asking everyone, ‘What’s broken? Can we help you think about how you could be a part of repairing what’s broken?’”
The good news is that younger generations are more likely to look for vocational guidance from faith groups: According to Barna, 7 in 10 Gen Z (67%) and millennial (69%) adults were interested.
David Bell had these groups in mind when he founded Circle City Fellows, a Christian nonprofit intended to encourage and disciple Christians in a wide variety of careers to live out their work “on mission” for Jesus. He’s worked with everyone from financial planners and realtors to bartenders and a stay-at-home mom. The program includes weekly classes on spiritual formation, theology, and other culturally relevant topics that affect work life. The fellowship also holds regular in-person meetings for relational connection, idea exchange, and encouragement.
Though the program is only three years old, Bell continued to push forward and help those working through the pandemic, despite the difficulties.
“The pandemic gave a different angle to the types of questions people were asking,” Bell said, adding that participants are “reflecting on themselves and what steps they can take to contribute to the thriving and flourishing of the city” in a deeper way.
Flourishing is certainly the ultimate goal, but equipping those in survival mode this past year has been a central focus for many churches. This shouldn’t necessarily be a primary function in the long term, however, said Crouch.
He believes that when society is functioning as it should—with well-built structures to support job creation and sustainment—churches are more of a secondary resource for job acquisition.
“When those [structures] are in place,” he said, “it is the church’s job, then, to help people understand why it is such a good thing to do good work and find good work and contribute to society through good work.” Otherwise, the church should “fill in the gaps for the most vulnerable,” which is what we have seen from many folks since the pandemic began.
As life gravitates back to normal and base-level work is acquired, people can begin thinking about the deeper purpose to their work. For some, the pandemic was the jump-start they needed to finally leap into a more meaningful vocation.
Louisa Saylor is one of those. The 33-year-old mother, musician, and ministry leader did something she never expected last year: quit her teaching job. When the expectations and pressure became untenable, she sought an exit strategy.
“My first year of teaching, I cried every day,” she said. “But I cried more during COVID teaching than I did during a typical school year—and I’ve worked in some pretty rough inner-city schools.”
The politics, policies, and added work for teachers during the pandemic broke her, and she began praying about leaving just two months after it began. Ultimately, it was a church that came to her rescue, in the form of a job offer to work in teen ministry. After applying to dozens of jobs, Saylor considered it an answered prayer—and it restored her back to the purpose she and so many other Christians long for in their work lives.
According to the Barna report, churchgoing Christians are more likely to seek and find purpose in their jobs than others. Most say their local churches do help them understand how to live out their faith in the workplace, and there has been an uprising of parachurch ministries structured around work-life purpose in recent years.
WorkFaith in Texas provides faith-based training and coaching for those seeking long-term employment. Faith Driven Entrepreneur gathers creators for support and purpose building. Colorado’s Denver Institute for Faith and Work explores the connection and tension between “what it means to love God and our neighbors through our work.”
And in Indianapolis, Purposeful Design trains and equips formerly homeless and addicted individuals for woodworking positions, focusing on marketable physical and attitudinal skills. Most organizations did continue throughout the pandemic, though they may have been operating at lower capacity.
It’s clear that many leaders, in both churches and outside ministries, have a passion for helping others obtain substantive work and find God-given purpose within it. The pandemic upended work life—slashing jobs, closing offices, and forcing health risks for frontline workers—but the innate human desire to thrive remained.
Lowe, the cofounder of Crea, felt called to facilitate that for others. He aims to help vulnerable people overcome barriers like startup expenses, necessary tools, business coaching, mentorships, and relational connections. And he has done so, offering men like Henry Shinn a chance to create profit when few other opportunities existed.
“When you couple opportunity with the ability to back it up with faith,” said Shinn, “even those with very little direction are now flourishing and profitable.”