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Surviving the spiritual challenges of unemployment

WHEN MARILYN JANSEN THOUGHT ABOUT RE-ENTERING THE JOB MARKET, she was filled with dread. Years ago Jansen, 50, had left her travel-heavy career of selling computer software to hospitals to concentrate on raising her family. Since then she had also started a small gourmet food business, but now she felt the need for a significant change.

“With my kids approaching college, I wanted to relieve some of the pressure my husband feels for financial responsibility,” says Jansen. But beyond the obvious economic factors, Jansen was seeking something else when she started looking for a job.

“My self-esteem had slipped, and the idea of trying to tap back into the corporate world seemed overwhelming,” she says. And then there was that other factor. “ ‘Purpose,’ I guess, is a good word for it. I wanted to feel that I was doing the right thing at this point in my life.”

Jansen’s local parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview, Illinois, operates a free support group called Business Network Ministry to deal with exactly those issues: the practical and the spiritual sides of unemployment. Although unemployment traditionally affects blue-collar workers, it is increasingly hitting a new breed of job-seekers: white-collar workers and women like Jansen who are rejoining the workforce. Open to anyone, the group was started in 2001 for “the unemployed, the underemployed, and those whose careers are in transition,” says Ed Hauser, Business Network’s chairman.

But although Jansen knew about the group, she originally felt intimidated about attending it. “I don’t know why I was afraid to go,” she says. “I had all kinds of preconceived ideas that turned out to be false, like I would be judged or that I didn’t have much to offer.” Then one day Jansen experienced a change of mind. “Maybe God was whispering in my ear, because I finally realized that this group would be a safe place for me,” she says.

Jansen loved the once-a-month meetings immediately. “I could bounce ideas off other people,” she says. “In a collaborative setting I could let the world know that I was looking for a job. And making that declaration is really important. I had support and a way to explore all kinds of feelings, including the direction I wanted my life to go. To me, it was a profound moment when I realized I wasn’t hiding anymore.”

Eventually Jansen’s networking paid off when she was asked for her resume by a group member who worked for a corporation. It turned into the perfect job for her.

Five ways to get an ‘in’ when you’re out of work.

1. Find a support group. It’s best to have someone outside of your immediate family you can talk to, blow off steam with, and share feelings.

2. Network furiously. Most jobs are secured through connections, so spread the word that you are looking for a job. Everyone—the barber, a librarian, a neighbor—is a contact who should know about your search.

3. Get up to speed on today’s market demands. Develop your elevator speech—a 30-second self-advertisement on who you are and what kind of job you are looking for—until it flows smoothly. Have a business card printed up. And make sure your voicemail or answering machine has a professional-sounding message.

4. Think strategically. If you haven’t been laid off yet, but rumors are swirling about a possible company downsizing, don’t ignore them. Rather, think ahead of how you might best cope financially.

5. Plan a roadmap. And if you know that you will be stepping out of the job force for a few years to raise a family or to care for an elderly parent, lay the groundwork for your return route: Make plans to stay in touch with colleagues now—and follow through after you leave; pursue the possibilities of telecommunicating, flex-time, and special off-site projects with your employer.

Now Jansen heads up project development and outsource services for a Christian management company. She found both a paycheck and a purpose. Her path to a new career took about one year, but Jansen believes that she never would have found her way without her parish’s Business Network Ministry. “Maybe my timetable and God’s timetable had to get in sync,” she says.

Spiritual severance pay
Everyone knows the financial costs of unemployment: Unpaid bills mount up, children’s education plans are revised, retirement is pushed back a few years. No matter the size of your previous income, the downsizing of it is visibly reflected in your lifestyle: from forgoing the dry-cleaners and karate lessons to possibly selling your home. But the spiritual costs of unemployment, often internalized, can be devastating.

“We are talking about much more than financial burdens,” says Bill Droel, editor of Initiatives , a newsletter about the connections between faith, work, and social justice.

“There is the psychological blow of losing a sense of identity, which can lead to depression and frustration. And there is a significant spiritual blow, too. It can shake your faith. From a Catholic perspective, the primary place where Christians express their faith isn’t in the church building, but rather the workplace. Faith is action-based, not a mental exercise. When the sun comes up in the morning, there is ministry to be done just in the way you go about your day. But without a job, you are cut off from much of that.”

The concept of “spirituality of work” is a growing one. And while the phrase sounds modern, the basis for it is centuries old. Jesus himself says, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (John 5:17). And he told parables that were constructed around details of work that are still applicable today, such as laborers, finances, interest, and landlords. Spirituality of work gives meaning to an everyday occurrence: Work is no longer seen as only a means to an end—financial reward—but as an extension of one’s own purpose. The questions raised—Why am I here on Earth? What am I meant to do during the course of my day?—are profound, and searching for personal answers can be difficult even when one is employed. But when a person is unemployed, the questions of a spiritual journey can be daunting.

“Unemployment throws everything at you at once,” says Rose Ann Pastor, executive director of the Career Transitions Center, a nonprofit started by five different faith groups in Chicago. “You have the obvious issues: food, shelter, kids, and bills. At first the question from a newly unemployed person may be, ‘How am I going to stay afloat?’ But quickly it can become, ‘Who am I? What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’ Over time I have seen some pretty big egos broken. And from there, it isn’t a big leap to ask, ‘Where is God in all this?’ ”

Enter a growing national network of job support groups that deal with both the economic and spiritual costs of unemployment. Some of them are parish-based groups that meet once a month, starting with a prayer and moving on to networking tips. Others, like the Career Transitions Center, are independent operations that for a nominal fee offer private cubicles, computer usage, and job coaches.

“We’re not a one-stop-come-find-a-job place,” says Pastor, whose organization deals with a working base of 150 to 200 clients. “We try to help people find a spiritual center.”

To that end, Career Transitions Center holds an annual two-day retreat to reflect upon issues of purpose, faith, work, and one’s future. “I have seen some angry people,” says Pastor, “people who wonder, ‘How could God do this to me?’ or ‘Why would God let this happen?’ I’ve also met people who say, ‘I couldn’t get through this without God as a comforter.’ Usually people start at one end of that spectrum and work their way to the other. But it is not an easy process.”

“You have heard of the stages of grief?” says Bill Broderick. “The unemployed tend to go through the same stages: denial, anger, bargaining, and so on until acceptance.” Broderick—along with partners Sue Cibelli and Ralph Tileston—created Work Ministry in 2004. An interfaith Web-based organization that sponsors job support groups around the country, Work Ministry resources are offered free over the Internet. Broderick’s goal was to present a turnkey operation to anyone who wants to start a job support group but might lack the time or skills to pull all the resources together.

The process of finding a spiritual path through unemployment is obviously a personal one. Some people go back to basic touchstones of their faith, like attending services or setting aside special times for prayer. Others end up doing more spiritual homework, addressing questions of vocation such as, Why am I here on Earth? and How do I live a good life?

To find help answering those questions, some read the psalms or St. Paul’s epistles or recite the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”). Some turn to meditation or find solace in reading Thomas Aquinas or Thomas Merton; others prefer a more action-based route like volunteering at soup kitchens, youth groups, and parish support groups.

A place to vent
Brian Healy had worked at one company for 16 years when it was sold. “It just wasn’t the right place for me anymore,” he says. “I realized it was time to change jobs, or maybe even careers, but I was at a loss on what to do.” His pastor suggested that he attend a kitchen meeting the next Saturday with a few other people who had expressed similar sentiments.

That was 20 years ago, and since then Healy, now 60, has started his own successful business. He has also become the lead volunteer in the Job Support Group at Holy Family Church in Inverness, Illinois, one of the longest-running job support groups. Admittedly issues have changed over the years. “Originally we used to talk about getting a really good home printer, not a daisy wheel,” he says with a laugh. “Now there is so much more sophistication in a job search.”

But for Healy one thing has remained the same. “Having a support group is absolutely essential for someone who is out of work,” he says. “In our society, so much of our identity is wrapped up in whom we work for. It’s good for someone to find a place where he or she can share feelings with people who are not family members. It is so much better for everyone not to burden the spouse or children with the upheaval of your emotions during this time. Come tell us; we already know how you are feeling.”

Still, isn’t Healy tired after a 20-year volunteer commitment to the support group?

“I do it because I will never forget how miserable I was,” he says. “Or how hard it was to be in limbo.”

Like the Career Transitions Center, Healy’s group tends to deal mainly with white-collar employees. The biggest demographic in both Career Transitions Center and Healy’s Job Support Group is people in their mid-40s to mid-50s. “That’s who is getting whacked the most,” he says, “because they are the ones who have been around long enough to have higher salaries, more company expenses in health care, bigger bonuses.” The second largest group is women like Marilyn Jansen, who stepped out of the workforce to raise families and now can’t find their way back to meaningful careers.

It is not surprising that the numbers from these job support groups are growing. Beginning with the economic downturn of 2001, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there has been a consistent rise in unemployment among experienced and credentialed people. Economic downturns still disproportionately hit blue-collar workers. But by the end of 2003, almost 20 percent of the U.S.’s unemployed were white-collar professionals.

A wider problem
For Hispanic workers in the United States, studies show that as of 2004, employment increased, but wages have remained flat. More Hispanic workers are working but experiencing downward economic mobility.

“Typically when you think of a job support group, you think of middle-class people who want help with their resumes,” says Ray Sullivan. “But that’s not who we are dealing with here.” Sullivan, a deacon in the Diocese of Albany, New York, recently helped launch Assisi in Albany, a job-counseling center for the inner-city poor. Along with financial planner Bob Griffin and the Conventual Franciscan Friars, Sullivan has created a free interfaith organization that operates out of St. John’s Lutheran Church. “This gives you an idea of how open we are,” says Sullivan. “We are a Catholic operation working out of a Lutheran church, assisting Muslims, Baptists, Jews, recovering alcoholics, single mothers, and felons. Anyone who needs help can come see us.”

Because of their clients’ different needs, the support Assisi in Albany gives looks different from that of groups catering to white-collar professionals.

Instead of promoting a group support system, Assisi in Albany relies on individualized meetings between job seekers and a counselor. “We are dealing with people who may need a lot of help, but they are trying to do the right thing,” says Sullivan. “We just started this past March, and I have already seen people in their early 20s and grandparents who have to raise their own grandchildren.”

One example Sullivan gives is of a man who left a well-paying job in restaurant management in Pennsylvania when his ex-wife moved with his children to Albany. “All he wants is to be close to his kids,” says Sullivan. But he doesn’t have a high school diploma, and while that wasn’t an issue for him in Pennsylvania, it has seriously hindered what kind of job he could find in Albany.

“We work with local merchants to find jobs,” says Sullivan. “[He’s] making pizzas now, but he has management experience that is not being utilized. Right now we are encouraging him to get his GED.”

Another example is a man who is raising his young children by himself because his wife suffers from mental illness. “These are the different kinds of unemployment situations we run into,” says Sullivan.

Although Assisi in Albany is a Catholic program, Sullivan says it does not offer direct religious spiritual support. “Our intent is not to be intrusive in people’s spiritual lives,” he says. “We want to help ease their burden in life and show them compassion.”

A friend in need
Five years ago, the job market in San Jose, California was devastated. “When the dot-com bubble burst—well, of course, it was bad everywhere—but in San Jose it was particularly terrible,” says Jim Gibson, director of the Job Search Support Group. Gibson came to the group in 2001, the first year it started, when he lost his job at a nonprofit organization that underwent national restructuring.

“Being unemployed is just an emotional roller coaster,” says the 61-year-old Gibson. “You’re depressed, you’re confused, and you’re overwhelmed.” That is one reason why the San Jose group welcomes each new member with the same greeting: “Welcome, you now have 30 new friends.”

Gibson looked for work for about a year while he attended the support group. “My experience is pretty typical. While you are looking for work, you don’t just need tips and networking help. You need camaraderie, and a support group provides that. It’s very easy to get down, particularly if you try to deal with unemployment all by yourself.”

After finding a new job, Gibson stayed on as a volunteer leader of the Job Search Support Group. “It’s an important service,” he says. “We build community through friendship and humor. It really helps people keep their spirits up during a very trying time.”

The group is free and open to anyone who wishes to attend. Originally started through the St. Cyprian Church in San Jose, it is now sponsored by the Cupertino, California Rotary Club, which provides each participant with a copy of Richard Nelson Bolles’ book What Color is Your Parachute? (Ten Speed Press) and a binder with resource materials. “Since the Rotary took over sponsorship of the group, we have no overt religious tone,” says Gibson.

The spiritual comes not out of words or a particular faith, but action. “The Rotary supports the same principles the group originally started with: helping others in the community to the best of our abilities, because we are all in this together,” Gibson says.

Gibson has recent reason to take that message to heart. The company he worked for just went through a downsizing, and now he is out of work again. “So just like everyone else here, I really need this support,” he says.

Marcia Froelke Coburn is a writer living in Chicago. This article appeared in the November 2006 (Volume 71, Number 11; pages 12-17) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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