How the Church can help laid-off workers–like me

By Derek Olsen

The January unemployment numbers are out and things don’t look good. In January alone the American economy lost 598,000 jobs. The official unemployment number is 7.6% but that’s an artificially low figure; it doesn’t include those unemployed for over a year or contractors who have no work once a corporation has canceled their project. Some look at this figure and see a crisis needing swift and solid government intervention. Others see it as a system reaping the fruits of failed fiscal policy. Me, I look at it and I see—competition.

I already got the call.

While I may pontificate on things historical, liturgical, and obscure, none of that pays the bills; I’m an IT consultant who, until recently, had a secure long term contract. With a bank. I’m sure you can see the problem here…

I consider myself quite fortunate. My boss called me a week or so ago and broke the news that due to the economy and conditions at the bank my contract would end on the final day of February. In truth, I had been expecting to hear this news ever since the company announced major staff reductions at the end of last year but, as time had passed and I heard nothing, I crossed my fingers and prayed that I was safe. I’m thankful that the call gives me a little time, at least a few weeks, to cast about and find something else.

I’m not alone, of course. A lot of Americans are finding themselves in this predicament and our numbers seem to be growing daily. The toppling edifices of Wall Street are crushing Main Street, where we live, work—and worship. In fact, this financial crisis is not just coming into our homes, it’s already in our churches through me and the thousands others like me. Its times like these that the church needs to step up and remember exactly what it is called to be: a nurturing community intent on proclaiming the Good News. Not economic news, not even social news, but the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus that transcends economic info—that God loves me, Jesus cares for me whether I’m employed or not, and that the Body of Christ cares too.

To get some thinking start on what churches can or could do, I’d like to address the two topics that are foremost on my mind:

1. Recognize that I’m freaking out! And that it’s both ok and normal…

Now let me say while IT work is my current occupation, it’s not my vocation. I don’t feel that God is calling me to be an IT guy for the rest of my life. In my eyes this lessens the lay-off blow a bit in that I don’t feel that my personhood has been assaulted in the same way as if my self-identity were deeply connected to my job. Nevertheless—this is a big hit for us. The past few months have been the first time in our almost ten year marriage when both my wife and I had jobs due to schooling, children, and a variety of unpleasant circumstances. We were finally shifting out of grad student mode and were looking forward to enjoying things that our peers have been savoring for years. Now that may have been cut out from under us—again.

I’m going through a grief process. Most clergy and many informed laypeople are familiar with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. Let me remind you that these don’t just apply to death! Job loss can take you through these stages as well: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Me—I’m still swinging through them all… And that’s both normal and necessary. You need to realize that too. Don’t tell me to “buck up” or that “tomorrow will be a new day.” I can think of clichés as easily as you can—and do you think your platitude will put food on my table? Just let me know that you care and that you’re there “if” I want to talk. That doesn’t mean bringing up my job search every time you see me, it just means giving me space to talk or not talk about it, giving me space to freak out my way…

Whatever you do, do not even contemplate using the words “God” and “plan” in the same sentence. As in—“Well, things may look bad now but remember that this is all part of God’s plan for you…” It doesn’t make me feel any better—and it’s bad theology. God is not a puppeteer pulling strings to screw things up so I learn “life-lessons.” A worldwide recession and the concomitant human sufferings that it causes (far worse than mine) is not God’s idea or plan. Can God make good things come out of it? Most definitely. Can I learn valuable lessons from this experience if and when I keep my eyes focused on God? Oh yeah. God can bring resurrection out of the bleakest situations—that’s the message of the cross and empty tomb. But that doesn’t mean God causes or plans these things. I have great faith in human freedom and therefore human sin—both individual and collective—to really screw things up. Thankfully I have an equally great faith in God to bring resurrection to flower in the midst of it.

2. Have some basic resources in place to give me a hand

The church is not first and foremost a social services agency, but that is one of its peripheral functions. The first way that the church can help—short of handouts or help with rent—is simply to identify community resources. Prepare a one or two page handout that identifies local government assistance programs, social service agencies, and other area programs that could help me out. You’d be amazed how helpful a contact sheet with phone numbers, contacts, and websites could be—yet so few churches actually have something like this on hand for the clergy and staff to hand out to those who need it. Get on this one!

A church I visited recently was promoting a support group meeting for people looking for work. I thought that was a great idea. Too—it shouldn’t just be for those looking… If anyone in the community is hiring, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t look for qualified individuals in the congregation first. Having a résumé book on hand for those who would like to participate in it would seem to go right along with a support group.

Like I said, I’ll fight hard against the notion that God plans or causes situations like these and yet an environment like this one is an opportunity for the church. We’ve been accused over the years by our communities of being too self-centered, too distant, too otherworldly—sometimes justly, sometimes not. However this gives us an opportunity to go beyond bickering and rhetoric. This is an opportunity for us to get down to the work of both proclaiming and enacting the Good News in tangible, visible ways in communities that need us now and—I believe—will continue to need us for quite a while to come. You got a chance and a choice—go ahead and do it: be the Body of Christ for me. Be it for those like me. And in the process you’ll be it for yourselves as well.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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