Churches tackle unemployment with job support groups

By Jenna De Marco | Dec. 1, 2009 {1107}

NOTE: This article is the third in a series on ways ministries in the Florida Conference are helping individuals and families cope with the current economic downturn. Links to the first two articles are included in the "related stories" section at the end of this article.

Rising unemployment in 2009 has displaced many workers, bolstering their need for both emotional and spiritual support and career development services, according to several local United Methodist churches.

Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov) reports place Florida’s unemployment rate for October at 11.2 percent, surpassing 30-year highs. To date Florida ranks second among eight states with the highest job losses. National unemployment for October stood at 10.2 percent, the highest rate since April 1983.

Local churches have begun responding to unemployment's affects in their communities by offering ministries targeted at people looking for work.

In April Palm Harbor United Methodist Church launched its Employment Support Network (ESN), a weekly group for people affected by unemployment and the economic downturn.

Polie Parnell, a 32-year veteran of the financial services industry and a member of the church, is one of them. Parnell lost his job in January when his employer eliminated his position. He now attends ESN and says he enjoys giving and receiving support.

“It is kind of refreshing to share with other people what’s going on,” he said.

What sets this group apart from other networking meetings, Parnell says, is spiritual encouragement blended with up-to-date strategies on how to get a job.

“The central notion for us is the spiritual side and working together as a Christian group and letting people know … the love of Christ and how that impacts all of our lives,” he said. “That spiritual part is very important.”

Cathy Hart, a registered marriage and family intern who serves as the church’s congregational care director, said the group’s inception “formulated out of God putting the passion in several people’s hearts” for this type of ministry. Hart and a small group of people worked together last spring to organize ESN and define its purpose.

“For me, church is community and when anyone in our community is struggling or hurting, I believe the church has a responsibility to provide that spiritual, emotional and physical support when we can,” Hart said.

Palm Harbor member Lynne Mullen, whose professional experience includes career development, leads the group of about eight to 15 people each week. Members represent a wide variety of careers, she said, with the majority falling in the Baby Boomer generation. Most are professionals who hold at least a bachelor’s degree.

The goal of the meetings, Mullen said, is to cover the “three S’s”— skills, support and spirituality. After an opening prayer, participants work on enhancing their job-hunting techniques, including resume writing, time management and the art of networking. They also practice delivering a 30-second “elevator speech” about themselves. Mullen features a different skill topic each week. To show support, group members share their personal stories, job lead tips or information about sales on necessities, such as groceries.

Karen Rae Short, a career development professional, helped the group get started. Short says many people are unaware that a job search “is a full-time job.” One of her roles is to encourage applicants to keep up their efforts in the face of disappointment.

“This is one of the toughest things they have to do in this life,” she said.

It is especially important for job hunters to improve their technology skills, Short said, and to know their career interests. In addition, she and Mullen advise job seekers to keep a daily record of their efforts and whom they have contacted.

“You have to be accountable for yourself on this,” she said.

Short is hoping to coordinate some type of job fair at Palm Harbor, possibly in January 2010. The idea is still in its infancy in terms of who might be eligible to participate, she said, because ESN does not want to duplicate the efforts of other area networking groups.

“We’re trying to reach out in some sort of orderly way,” she said.

Susan Yocum said the spiritual support and exchange of information she has experienced from the group have been “a godsend” to her. Yocum had a job as a pre-kindergarten teacher when she joined the group, but her goal was to find a job with a shorter commute.

“I like going because it’s not only social interaction, but the things that I have learned I want to be able to pass on to others,” she said.

Passing it on

Bartow Willingham, a member of First United Methodist Church in Melbourne, is sharing what he has learned with job seekers in his community.

Although now employed, Willingham said his recent struggle through two successive job losses spurred him to start a Christ Centered Career Group (C3G) at his church. C3Gs can be started at any church to provide emotional and spiritual support for people who are unemployed.

“As a recent job seeker who now has a job, I can witness to the value of being in prayer with others in the same situation,” Willingham said. “Adding Christ to the combination is the key.”

When a C3G group forms, all the members commit to staying together until everyone has a job, Willingham said. We “like to have people who have jobs” in the group, he said. That has happened naturally, as some members found employment but remained part of the group.

The weekly meeting structure comes from materials found at http://www.c3g.org and typically includes prayer, encouragement and relationship building. Members talk about their high and low points from the previous week and hold each other accountable.

“You come there to be helped, and pretty soon you find that what you are doing is helping someone else,” Willingham said.

Another helper can be found across the state at Cypress Lake United Methodist Church in Fort Myers. Warren Schirado leads the Landing on Feet Together (LOFT) group, which he founded about a year and a half ago.

“The reason I started the group is that someone helped me when I had a need and felt that I would return the favor to others,” Schirado said.

LOFT meets twice a month, covering such topics as resume writing, health care and insurance, and unemployment benefits. Job listings are also available.

Schirado considered ending the group in January because of the loss of his own job and low attendance at LOFT, but a number of people “pleaded with me to keep it going,” he said. He agreed and added guest speakers, which have been well received.

The group now reaches a total of about 150 to 160 people through e-mail communications and in-person meetings. The group’s Web site is http://cypresslakeumc.com/399466.ihtml.

Related stories

Church-run courses help families overcome financial stress

Churches, outreach ministries expand food programs during recession

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011, tparham@flumc.org, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.


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