Help wanted: Parishes offer assistance to the unemployed

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Article Parish Life Social Justice
Stuck in the job hunt with seemingly few prospects? Maybe your parish can offer some advice.

Peter Durek had lost all hope. For the six months after he was laid off from his job as a surveyor in 2012, he spent his time simply surfing the Internet, applying for jobs occasionally while his house fell into disrepair and he fell behind on his rent. He researched a short-term government training program offered through the Workforce Investment Act, but found himself in an endless maze of unreturned phone calls and paperwork. “It wouldn’t be a lie to say that I’ve been struggling with depression,” he says.

Having grown up bouncing from one relative’s home to another after his mother was declared unfit by the state, Durek has faced a lifetime of difficult obstacles. Fortunately, he is bright, and during his 20s he briefly had a shining information technology management career. However, he has been unable to find work in that field since 2007 because he has no college degree. One recruiter candidly told Durek that, at 37, he was “too old” for IT.

In January, at the urging of a friend who attends Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in downtown Chicago, Durek went to his first session at the Career Transitions Center (CTC), a faith-based organization cofounded by several area churches. “To be honest, I had never heard of such a thing,” says Durek, who, though he considers himself Catholic, is not a regular churchgoer.

He is not alone. Although church-run jobs programs often offer more one-on-one support to the unemployed than government employment programs and have the benefit of a real network that can extend through several parishes and numerous employers, many job seekers are unaware of their existence. Programs run by Catholic parishes and organizations serve people from all religious denominations and belief systems, so anyone can find help through this route.

Durek went to the program at the CTC, one of the few unemployment ministries that charges dues to attendees, but admits he had a cynical attitude, expecting “a sales pitch.” But he was allowed to spend the whole day attending seminars for free, and his attitude has become noticeably more positive. “I learned a lot of things about networking that I didn’t know. And I now have an ‘accountability partner,’ ” he says, referring to a fellow job seeker he met who will check with him regularly to make sure he is progressing. “I think this could actually be useful.”  

The parish network

“One thing job seekers will learn through our state departments of labor and throughout the whole process of finding a job is that networking is the key,” explains Sam Hall, communications director at the Georgia Department of Labor. “Eighty-five percent of all jobs are not listed. The more you can expand a job seeker’s networking arena, the better.”

Catholic job-seeker ministries and networking groups have become more common in recent years, especially after President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform bill and President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives softened restrictions on government funding for religious organizations. The extremely tight job market, of course, has also been a factor.

The New York Times recently reported that, due to the glut of job applications companies currently receive, many have increased their reliance on internal employee referrals to select job candidates, making networking ever more critical. The accounting firm Ernst & Young, for instance, has set a target of obtaining 50 percent of all new hires from internal employee referrals, and other companies have begun offering prizes and cash incentives to employees who refer job candidates.

At a time when close to 5 million Americans have been jobless for 27 weeks or longer—a group that has tripled in size since late 2007—this is cause for concern. Average unemployed workers in the United States now take more than nine months to find a new job.

“I saw a lot of pain, almost despair on people’s faces,” explains John Nemia, who in 2009, as president of the Men’s Club at St. Stephen Parish in Riverview, Florida, distributed gift cards to unemployed parishioners at Christmastime. “I kind of felt like I needed to do something.”

Having held the same job with Citibank for 46 years, Nemia had little knowledge of the job search, but he began consulting with human resources professionals he knew. Six months later he founded St. Stephen’s Career Transitions Ministry, which serves Riverview and the greater Tampa Bay area. Like most church jobs ministries, St. Stephen’s offers résumé clinics, hosts volunteer speakers, and provides interview coaching to its attendees, as well as spiritual counseling and support.

“Unemployment is a real spiritual problem,” says Nemia. “Job loss is like any other kind of loss. . . . It’s a relationship loss.”

Since parish job-seeker ministries are usually volunteer-run and budgets do not curtail the number of people involved, the ministries can provide more individualized attention than government organizations, though few offer actual work skills training. Some, like the Career Transitions Center in Chicago, include professional psychologists in their ministry, while others, like St. Ann’s Career Quest of Marietta, Georgia, provide one-on-one career coaching for all of their members on a weekly basis.

Possibly even more valuable than the individual attention found in church employment programs are the connections provided by volunteers, many of whom are eager to pass on career advice. Larry Denk, then a 55-year-old engineer, had been struggling to find a position that fit his salary and experience when he attended the highly regarded jobs fair run by Epiphany Catholic Church in Katy, Texas. A representative from the small company Agrekko realized Denk would be the perfect talent recruiter and now, at 74, he makes a habit of visiting the Epiphany fair and recommending the candidates he meets.

Don Harkness of Welker Engineering has hired a number of people from the Epiphany job fair as well. He says he appreciates that the fair is open to all kinds of people, as opposed to a college fair or an industry fair, which allows them to find job candidates with strong potential. “As a small employer, we’re pretty good at recognizing transferable skills,” he says.

Employers who attend a particular parish are more likely to assist that parish’s job ministry, sending them job listings before they are posted publicly and providing volunteers. Even employers outside the church community often see such networks as having special value. When the drug store chain CVS teamed up with inner-city churches in Washington, they found that candidates hired through a church were 35 percent more likely to stay in their jobs for a full year.   

Work and our deepest selves

Father William Langlois began to invite the unemployed members of St. Patrick and St. Anthony Parish in Grand Haven, Michigan to breakfast once a month in 1999. “A man came in, and he had lost his job. He was really down, really discouraged,” recalls Langlois. “His whole identity was his work. . . . I realized that possibly there may be a need . . . and we are in the business of looking for needs.” Thanks to community support and donations, including some initial funding from the state of Michigan, his ministry now has a paid staff and provides basic skills training.

The gospel offers several teachings on the meaning of work. Matthew 5:14-16 speaks to the deep identity that people associate with their personal talents and abilities, reminding Christians that “no one would hide a lamp under a basket.” The parable of the laborers in the vineyard, in which a landowner pays the same salary to those who began work in the late afternoon as he does to those who have worked the entire day, asserts that, according to gospel values, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Throughout history Christians have held all forms of work—even the most mundane tasks—as sacred ways of participating in God’s creation. While the Protestant work ethic points to hard work and prosperity as outward signs of an individual’s predestined salvation, Catholics have adhered to an understanding of labor that reflects the parable of the vineyard.

From early Christianity until today, the lifestyle of monastic orders such as the Benedictines, whose motto is “work and pray,” has involved individuals of different talents and backgrounds each doing work that is beneficial to the community, from simple manual labor to erudite scholarship, sharing equally in the fruits of those labors. St. Francis of Assisi embraced a radical definition of work as being dignified by itself, without regard to money.

While Catholics have also sometimes viewed labor as a punishment—the result of being cast out of the Garden of Eden—Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), made a decisive call for a celebration of fruitful labor that uplifts the common good, or “the work of wealth” that brings real social opportunity to all.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops quoted Laborem Exercens when they called on Congress to extend unemployment benefits for jobless Americans in 2011 and again in 2012: “The obligation to provide unemployment benefits . . . is a duty springing from the fundamental principle of . . . the right to life and subsistence,” the bishops said.

“So much of a person’s identity revolves around their work, and when that is taken away, I think a lot of their personhood, their own identity . . . is diminished,” notes Franciscan Father Timothy Shreenan of St. Francis of Assisi, a New York City parish of the Holy Name Province, which operates a network of job-seeker ministries up and down the East Coast. “Anything that we or other friars at other locations try to do is to restore a sense of dignity to those individuals.”

In demand

Sadly, as Capuchin Franciscan Father David Courtier of Franciscan Action has noted, the demographic divisions of parishes across the country reflect the growing division of income in the United States. Parishes in the areas suffering the most from unemployment often do not have the resources to deliver even basic ministries, let alone ministries that help people find paid employment.

For this reason, John Marotto finds that people are often willing to come long distances to St. Ann’s Career Quest in Marietta, an affluent suburb of Atlanta. The region is a hotbed of church-run employment ministries, and Career Quest is one of the largest and most successful.

The Georgia Department of Labor has a close relationship with these programs and is able to refer unemployed residents to groups that might meet their needs. There’s another side to this friendly relationship: Georgia unemployment benefits last only a brief time, so the church networks are desperately needed.

Marotto has seen, however, that many church-run ministries fail to survive over the long haul. “A lot of them have gone belly up in the last few years because they lacked leadership
or focus,” he says.

Sometimes location, time, and a lack of volunteers are also factors. Cindy Kilpatrick of St. Matthias Parish in Redwood City, California thought she would start a simple prayer group to help herself and other parishioners cope with the ups and downs of the job search. But a survey of church attendees found that many wanted a more elaborate ministry, with guest speakers, résumé clinics, and practical advice.

Kilpatrick, a stay-at-home mom, had just gone through a divorce and was attempting to find her first employment in years, and it was difficult for her to continue running the parish group. “I was hopeful during that whole time that we met for a year and a half that somebody would step up [as my successor],” Kilpatrick says. She sought cooperative ventures with other parishes to sustain the ministry but wasn’t able to secure any, and once she herself became fully employed, the program fizzled. “It’s a shame,” she says, “because I feel there is still a need for it.”

There is no question that six years into the global economic decline, there are still many in need of assistance in finding employment. As of May 2013, the unemployment rate was still at 7.6 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Volunteers at job ministries see the greatest need among midcareer professionals, recent college graduates, and those with only high-school degrees or limited English ability.

“Jobs are becoming more plentiful, but the criteria are steeper and the pay is lower,” says Shelley Appel, coordinator of the job-seekers program at St. Patrick and St. Anthony. “Many jobs that people had three to four years ago no longer exist,” adds parish administrator John Strazanac. “People have to start from scratch, choose [to pursue] alternative education, or work two to three jobs.”

For those who are looking for second careers later in life, their age can also be an obstacle in finding employment. During a typical meeting at the St. Hubert’s Job Networking Group in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, it’s hard to ignore the fact that most people in attendance are in the 40 to 60 age range.

Sixty-two-year-old Lucy Francis, who belongs to the Baha’i faith, found success in her job search after being urged to join the St. Hubert’s group by a friend in the parish. She recently landed an offer for an administrative position, though she has scheduled an interview for another opening that might be ideal for her. She even turned down another job she was offered because it was “not the right fit.”

“You have to keep your chin up,” says Francis with regards to the age issue. “Appearance is paramount. It can really help you get a job. I’ve learned to swallow this bitter pill.” She also feels that older people in the job hunt must be open to using new resources, such as LinkedIn, as part of their commitment to finding a job. “There are some people my age who are still reluctant to embrace the new technology,” she says. “Looking for a job is the same thing as going to work. You get up in the morning, and you should hit it.”

Expert advice

The largest and most successful Catholic unemployment ministries also reveal that age, and even retirement, are indicators of priceless know-how. In some cases it is a retired parishioner with an impressive work history who begins an unemployment ministry in a parish, continuing to use the skills he or she has built as a leader.

Robert Podgorski, who founded the St. Hubert’s Job Networking Group, was a human resources executive when he started the ministry as an impetus for his own job search. Ten years later and post-retirement, Podgorski still devotes 40 hours a week to the program, on top of his paid consulting work. Other parishes have also seen successful ministries get off the ground at the hands of parishioners who have retired from careers as executives of banks
and corporations.

Richard McCarty is a retired sales marketing consultant who founded Team Job Search at St. Rose Parish in Anthem, Arizona, outside Scottsdale. While consulting for an executive outplacement firm, McCarty developed a unique job hunt model that helped high-level professionals determine how their skills transferred to different careers. McCarty’s contract prevented him from profiting from the model, so after retirement, he decided to give it away for free through St. Rose and on his website, www.jobsearchdemandside.com.

“Finding work is work,” says McCarty of his program. “Some people don’t want to do the work, and they need a different kind of compassion and help.”

And some people are more than willing to “do the work” of job hunting, but they face serious challenges. Dealing with the problems the neediest job seekers face—from lack of transportation to intergenerational poverty to health issues to slow-moving government services—can be challenging. Fortunately, the rewards of success can be that much sweeter when volunteers help someone to break a vicious cycle.

Jenny Wagner, whose name has been changed for this article, is a felon who recently found a job through St. Patrick and St. Anthony Parish, which has partnered with the nonprofit 70 x 7 to help job seekers with criminal histories. The former heroin addict now works at a manufacturing company where she enjoys a good work-life balance and is paid to volunteer 80 hours a year.

“They’re people with big hearts who look past everything and get to know you,” says Wagner of those in the parish who helped her. “They say, ‘Oh, you’ve been to prison twice, have six felonies, and you’re a drug addict? What can we do for you?’ ”

According to St. Patrick and St. Anthony pastor Langlois, they’re just carrying out the mission of the gospel. “It all goes back to Matthew 25,” he says. “ ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in.’ ”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article omitted the fact that St. Francis of Assisi Parish in New York City is part of the Holy Name Province, which operates a network of job-seeker ministries. The earlier version indicated that it was the parish rather than the province that operates these ministries. We apologize for this error.

This article appeared in the August 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 8, pages 21-25).

Interested in reading more? Here is a web-only sidebar that accompanies this article: Tips for networking in your parish

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