Church Programs offer Spiritual, Career Help to Jobless

Jan 08, 2003 12:58 PM EST

David Casteel never believed he still would be without a job more than a year after deciding to give up his Houston law practice.

Newly married with plans for children, Casteel was confident he could easily find a job with the steady salary and benefits his new family would need. But soon his confidence – and savings – was running out, and he sought a boost to his networking skills and his spirits.

Casteel is among a growing number of job seekers who are finding what they need at church, in programs mixing resume help with the reassurance that although the U.S. economy might make it appear the odds are against them, their faith is working for them.

"It’s given me the confidence of not feeling ashamed of being unemployed," says Casteel, 41, who rarely misses a job search session at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. "It helps to make us feel like ... it’s not our fault, that we’re not bad people for not having a job."

Across the country, more churches are organizing support groups and seminars teaching the basics of finding a job, from how to present yourself in an interview to how to scan the want ads. Some churches provide a place for the unemployed to use a phone or computer. A few United Methodist churches have helped families pay their bills.

Some of the new ministries have started in response to recent layoffs. Others have been around for years and are swamped. The 7,500-member St. Luke’s was ready to scrap its job search sessions two years ago for lack of interest. The sessions now draw up to 70 job seekers weekly.

The skills these programs teach are important, says John Challenger of the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, but the emotional support they provide is crucial to someone struggling to find a job.

"When someone becomes discouraged, it makes it very hard to go out and be positive and upbeat and put up enough energy to find possibilities," he says. "So a person’s state of mind ... is critical to keeping the duration of unemployment down."

Crossroads Career Network, a nonprofit organization based outside Atlanta, helps churches organize such programs. It has worked with 27 congregations in recent years and expects to expand to 75 by the end of 2003. Executive director Jane Fadgen says the organization has been flooded with requests for help from pastors intrigued by this new way to reach out to their communities and get more church members involved.

In Oregon, where unemployment rates have been among the nation’s worst, United Methodist leaders in Portland have agreed to offer $500 grants to help their churches assist the jobless. The state’s unemployment rate was at 7 percent in October, down from 8.1 percent in January and February.

"The purpose for this thing is to get churches to sit down and ask, ‘What can we do?’" says grant committee chairman Al Rieki. "People are leaving Oregon to find jobs. People are accepting much lower-paying jobs than they had before. Our food banks are having an increased demand for emergency food and clothing services. We have more people now who don’t have medical insurance."

The 5,000-member Brentwood United Methodist Church in the Nashville, Tenn., area advertises its program in local newspapers, hoping to attract the unemployed who might not attend church regularly. The church aims to change that by nurturing jobless people through this difficult time, says Ross Rainwater, who got involved in the program while looking for a job in the early 1990s.

At St. Luke’s, the Rev. Linda Christians includes in each session a promise that she will pray for everyone in attendance. Some are so moved by that sort of support they keep coming back, even after finding a job, to support others who are still looking, she says.

"It gives them hope," she says. "And when they’re discouraged and down, they still can cling to the knowledge that they are not alone, that God will see them through."

Yet many job seekers, embarrassed of their predicament, turn to the church only as a last option, frets Mark Harrison, a United Methodist Board of Church and Society executive who staffs the Concern for Workers Task Force. That puts even more pressure on pastors to reach out as the economy continues to sag.

Pastors needing support for such ministries can apply for grants through the denomination’s Peace with Justice program at either the board or annual conference level. Information about the program is available at the Board of Church and Society’s Web site,

The nation’s unemployment rate remained virtually unchanged at 6 percent in November, according to the U.S. Labor Department, but the number of those without jobs for six months or more hit 1.7 million – up 56 percent from a year ago. Corporate malfeasance concerns, weak stock prices and rising international tensions have prevented economic recovery.

"It feels like the economy is kind of stuck in neutral gear right now, which is going to mean downsizing will be heavy," Challenger says.

That is of no comfort to job seekers like Casteel. But he has been so encouraged by St. Luke’s job search sessions that he will take over as the group’s lay chairman in January.

He appreciates the networking help he has received and, as a longtime attorney, enjoys helping others. He believes mixing faith with job search assistance makes sense.

Says Casteel: "Helping people in need is what church is all about."

By Albert H. Lee
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