Each year, nearly 20 million people lose their jobs. This year already, more than 22 million people have already filed for unemployment due to COVID-19. While a number like 22 million can feel impersonal or unreal, it is likely that in the next few months, someone you know — a neighbor, a friend, a coworker, a child, or the acquaintance who sits behind you in church — will be unemployed. It might even be you. When someone loses a job, they often experience a cacophony of turbulent emotions. Usually, there is a sense of shock —“How could this happen? I never saw it coming.” Many experience anger —“How dare my company let me go...after all that I have done for them. My boss is a jerk. This is an injustice.” Anger often mixes with shame —“I hope others don’t ask me what I do for a living. What will others think of me when they hear I’m out of work?”
After the initial wave of emotions, bigger questions begin to surface. There is fear and anxiety — “How will I pay my bills? What if I can’t find another job?” Confusion and doubt often follow — “I’m not sure I have the skills or connections to find work. Does God care? How could he let this happen? What in the world am I supposed to do next? Where do I look for help?” If joblessness persists, there is often sadness — “I miss having something to do each day. I can’t stop replaying the terrible things that were said to me.” And eventually, loneliness — “I feel so alone. People can’t relate. I feel like they are avoiding me.” In addition, studies have shown that when a person loses a job, even their physical health can suffer.
Kate Strully, a sociologist at State University of New York in Albany, found that among people who became unemployed through a circumstance outside of their control, and who did not have any health problems prior to losing their job, “80% were diagnosed with a new health problem — ranging from hypertension and heart disease to diabetes...18 months later.” This shouldn’t surprise us, since God created us as integrated beings. It can be difficult to know how to help someone going through a job transition. When we don’t know what to say, we often resort to our favorite Christian catch-all — “I’ll be praying for you.” To be sure, prayer is vital. But the Scriptures provide 41 other ideas (or rather, imperatives) that expand our imagination of what it means to demonstrate the love of Christ to those in need.
Given the unique challenges of those without work, how might the church help those going through a job transition?
Intentional communities of support (Gal 6:2)
In most churches, especially large churches, small groups are the front lines of pastoral care. Through prayer, showing empathy, offering encouragement, and demonstrating a willingness to network and make connections to potential employment opportunities, small groups are often well positioned to rally around people looking for work. Pastors can coach small group leaders with simple skills and awareness to come around those who have lost a job.
Gently point people to biblical themes that offer perspective and hope (Col 3:16)
We have all encountered people who use the Bible as a weapon. This can make some of us shy in pointing people to Scripture in times of pain. Yet, we know that Christ is our life, and Scripture point us to him. Several themes are especially helpful to the hurting. Lament — The Psalms invite us to cry out to God with our pain, sadness, anger, confusion, and despair. When career transitions fill us with visceral emotion, we are invited to speak to God with unedited questions, anger, doubts, complaints, fears, and hopes. God’s sovereignty and love — God is in control of all things, but his sovereignty is never meant to be applied with a hammer. Instead, it is meant to be a foundation to stand on, because God also loves us deeply and is working all things for our good. He is in control of the timing and place of our next work endeavor. Gospel-shaped identity — The gospel shapes our sense of identity in two important ways: on the one hand, it gives us unshakeable confidence since we are loved and secure in Christ, and on the other hand, it grounds us with sober humility since our sinful rebellion sent Jesus to the cross. A job loss can kill our confidence and magnify our sense of failure. Though all of us experience discouragement and despair, including “heroes” in the Bible (1 Kings 19:1-9; 2 Cor 1:8-9), the gospel provides a strong ballast against despair by reminding us of our true identity. Trust — We are invited to trust God when we don’t know what is ahead. We don’t know where work might spring up, but we affirm our trust in God, even as we ask him to help us with our unbelief.
Provide coaching opportunities in skills related to the job search
Jobs for Life is one of the leading organization that works with churches to help prepare individuals for meaningful work. Having partnered with churches in more than 300 cities, they address the root causes of unemployment, and work with churches to foster honest relationships, mentoring, workforce development training, and an ongoing community for support. Other churches, like Evangel Ministries in Detroit, Michigan, have found creative ways to coach unemployed congregants with everything from what to wear to a job interview to how to write a resume. Churches can also consider organizing job search support groups. During a time when people often feel alone, support groups can provide unique encouragement and hope.
Introduce people to employment services
Zachary Ritvalsky, pastor of Sweet Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, knew he wanted to help people in his congregation looking for work, but didn’t have the bandwidth to start another program. Instead, he invited PA CareerLink to help his church become an employment satellite center, offering job readiness workshops for the unemployed. This resulted in a ministry not only to congregation members, but also to those in the wider community. Churches can play a vital role in helping people find work, both in organized and organic ways. On a relational level, they surround the hurting with a caring community. On a spiritual level, they point to the hope we have in Christ. On the practical side of finding work, they can coach people with skills and connect them to employment opportunities. In doing so, the local church can shine like a city on a hill, with good deeds that point others to the light and glory of God.