Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What Do Unemployed People Need from Churches?

It struck me the other day that pastors right now are in a strange position: many churches are struggling to meet their financial obligations, since giving has gone down, and needs have gone up. A lot of churches have hiring freezes or staff cutbacks: even famed Willow Creek went through a round of layoffs. At the same time, worshipers are losing jobs, investment income, and sometimes large chunks of their pensions.

Meanwhile, the unemployed population is often a transient population: folks are downsizing from large house to small, from small house to apartment, or are joining together to share housing with friends or extended family.

When a pastor stands up to preach on Sunday morning, how does she or he reach a guy who is uncertain if he'll be in the area six months from now? Job uncertainty keeps folks in the pews from making commitments to local church service since they might score an interview 2,000 miles away.

Church budgets are groaning, people have deep needs, staffing is frozen or cut, and faithful parishioners are abstaining from service commitments: what does church leadership do with that?

Here are some ways, Dear Church, that you can take a sticky situation and infuse it with grace:

Resurrect the church van. Why? Because families are downsizing, including their vehicles. Church vans can provide transportation to weeknight and weekend activities that doesn't cut into family gas budgets, and that compensates for busy parents who are working strange schedules due to the economy. It's "mass transit" for the church family.
-Act: Circulate a discreet sign-up sheet. If you're feeling frisky, announce it as "environmentally friendly church transportation" - that'll give dignity to those who are using it because they don't have an extra vehicle or are short on gas money.
-Note: Make sure drivers are properly licensed/insured. Always follow "Safe Sanctuary" practices when transporting children by having two adults present.

Start a job board. Resources may be scarce, but every church has an abundance of bulletin boards. Use one as a place for employers and laid-off folks to post their vacancies and skills on 3x5 cards. It's startling how easily church members pass each other like ships in the night. Provide a centralized location for people to connect.
-Act: Arrange a semi-permanent display in two columns for employers and job seekers. Frequently announce it in services and in bulletins. Have church office assist in keeping it updated.
-Note: Although some congregations use their websites for the same purpose, not all people have easy internet access; additionally, it's helpful for visitors to have an easily accessed bulletin board, and not to have to go online.

Offer one-time service or group activities. Men and women who are job-hunting are often working part-time, juggling childcare, or are in the midst of significant life transitions like moving. With a lot of stress comes hesitancy to commit to weekly studies or volunteer needs. Much more accessible, though, are one-time opportunities or monthly activities that require little commitment but offer fuel for the soul. Re-thinking activity planning can help keep people on the fringes engaged as much as they're able to be. With staff cuts and parishioner stress at a high, it can also be a way to plan successful activities without requiring too much from a bare-bones staff or overly-taxed volunteer leaders.
-Act: Work monthly or one-time events in to your calendar for the next six months. Explicitly communicate that they are "schedule-friendly" ways to be involved in the life of the church. 
-Note: Use one-time service events to help fill gaps from staff shortages - organize church spring cleaning or lawn care, plan a fix-it one-day blitz for senior citizens' homes, etc. Offer one-time creative activities as a relaxed environment for stressed families to enjoy. Another benefit: you're able to try things as a one-time activity that you wouldn't normally risk a six-month investment for.

Preach a Few Sermons on Vocation, Identity, and Spiritual Exhaustion.
When the economy is bad, sometimes God uses career uncertainty to call people into full-time service. While desperation should never be a motivator to enter ministry, sometimes shut doors funnel people towards the Church. A lot of discernment is needed in these times, and folks benefit from hearing sermons on calling and vocation. The psychological side of it is identity: parishioners all around the country are struggling to keep who they are separate from what they do. Do you lose yourself when you lose your job? Men and women who have been unemployed for longer than six weeks are apt to be unemployed a lot longer, even a year or two. Even if the federal government extends unemployment benefits, families are left with extremely tight budgets and sustained periods of high stress levels. Spiritual exhaustion takes its toll: not only are church members fighting to find a job, they're fighting to keep hope, to keep encouragement, to keep faith. Job searches merge with the physical tolls of sustained stress and emotional fatigue, sometimes bringing depression. Folks in the pews worry, "what's wrong with me? I can't feel anything anymore." Or even - "am I still a Christian?" What a ripe moment for pastoral leadership to take the opportunity to reaffirm who women and men are in Christ, to address depression and mental illness battles, and to reaffirm a solid theological understanding of the dark night of the soul.
-Act: Work with your (remaining) staff to plan a sermon series on the spiritual struggles of the laid-off, foreclosed, and broke. 
-Note: If your congregation does not have a pastor of counseling, or if your staff has had to lose a counseling position, liaise with Christian counselors in your area who are willing to partner with your congregation for a reduced fee.

Other ideas? Start a church garden, where participants work a few hours a week in exchange for receiving fresh fruits and vegetables. Plan a liturgy of blessing for job seekers. Offer continuing education courses from church members who are established in their fields: computer training, culinary instruction, management classes, auto mechanic workshops. If you have a growing contingency of newly relocated folks, find congregational "tour guides" who will host them around the city for a day. Begin a "God's Provision Prayer Partners" campaign, where volunteers take cards with a name of a jobless church member to pray for daily.


Anonymous said...

Our congregation is very small (everyone knows everyone else by name and situation) so we have been able to pray as a church body for our unemployed by name on a regular basis. Our county has one of the three highest unemployment rates in our state, which is one of the hardest hit in the nation - BUT - God has been so faithful! God has provided jobs for our people! NOT ONE of our families has lost their home. Some are working at reduced wages, but they are managing.
I heartily encourage churches to pray for unemployed congregants by name.
It is such a blessing to see the joy on faces when God answers yet another prayer.
Again, I say, "He remains faithful!"

Anonymous said...

P.S. I endorse all of your recommendations - they are excellent!
Pastor of a small church in Michigan