Need a job? Come to church!
Twin Cities Lutheran congregations help members find new employment.
When people at St. Andrew Lutheran (ELCA) in Eden Prairie use the phrase “cookie talks,” they’re not referring to conversations over coffee and
pastries between Sunday morning services.
The reference is rather to what has become a customary part of the congregation’s big Wednesday morning program to assist people in the
community who have lost jobs and are trying to make a new beginning.
That program, which now draws between 100 and 150 job-seekers each week, traditionally starts with a celebration for any member of the group
who has obtained employment during the preceding week. One or more individuals describe their successful job quests, receive loud cheers and
then pass around containers of cookies for the rest of the members to share..
The job-transition group at St. Andrew dates back 15 years. That’s when Senior Pastor Rod Anderson decided to join five members of the parish
who were out of work and got together regularly in their kitchens to read through help-wanted ads in newspapers over a cup of coffee and help each
other find the best job leads.
The program has grown and developed into a formalized outreach ministry of the congregation in the years since 1987, serving well over 6000
persons in the communities around it, most of them not members of St. Andrew.
A lot of the growth has come in the last year or two as a recession has been followed by a stagnant economy and many businesses have continued to downsize their work forces. The cutbacks have hit white-collar workers — in fields like information technology, marketing and human resources —
very hard, and the length of time many of them have been without jobs has stretched out.
While the program at St. Andrew, a congregation of over 8000 members that was the fastest growing in the ELCA in the mid-’90s, is regarded as the
largest faith-based support group for job seekers in the metro area, it is no longer one of just a few. Faced with sharp increases in the number of
laid-off workers, including many professional people, among their members, about 20 congregations have started job-transition groups in recent
These include six suburban Lutheran parishes — Minnetonka Lutheran, Prince of Peace Lutheran of Burnsville, Calvary Lutheran of Golden Valley, Lord of Life Lutheran of Maple Grove and Transfiguration Lutheran of Bloomington, all ELCA congregations, and Woodbury Lutheran, LCMS.
Like St. Andrew in Eden Prairie, most have begun the groups because of a concern for the employment situation among their own members and then developed into outreach ministries serving entire communities. They become involved because they believe there is a spiritual dimension to the
problem of unemployment.
Anderson of St. Andrew puts it this way: “As a pastor, any time you experience a loss — a death, divorce, loss of health — you experience the grief process, and we should care about the grief process no matter what the occasion. I approach leading this group from the perspective of helping
people through a loss.”
Until a person who has lost a job has dealt with such issues as denial, anger, guilt and depression and come to accept loss and realize change is a part of life, he or she is not ready to start the search for new work, the pastor adds.
Besides helping the unemployed cope with problems of loss and grief, church leaders believe they can provide group settings that offer a unique sort of fellowship and support needed by those seeking new employment.
The typical church job-transition group offers three main components: guest speakers and group discussions on topics related to job search; an opportunity to network (exchange names to contact) for job leads; and the chance to gain support from other job seekers.
It is in the area of networking that St. Andrew has excelled and set a high standard. Over the years the church has assembled a database of more than 9000 names it can offer as contacts to job seekers at its weekly meetings.
Some 3900 of these are names of members of the congregation who have offered to provide information about their place of employment to callers referred by Anderson.
“Use my name when you call them, that’s the trigger,” Anderson urges job seekers when he refers them to one of his parishioners. “Tell them their pastor thinks they can be helpful to another human being.”
The other 5500 contacts are the names of persons who have attended meetings of the job-transition group and filled out a form that includes the name of their last employer as well as the type of new position they are seeking. A roster with this information about persons attending for the first
time is compiled and handed out to every participant at the end of each meeting and entered into the database.
The value of this database of all persons who have taken part in the program is that newcomers who would like to get a job at a particular firm can contact someone who has worked there before, get a better understanding of the company, its culture and major players and thus do better in a job
Anderson opens the weekly meetings at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday with a prayer, then calls on the persons who have found new employment for their “cookie talks.” Because the attendance has grown so much in the past year, the pastor then divides participants into two groups.
He meets with those who are attending for the first or second time, while his assistant, David Singer, an independent human-resources consultant from Richfield who first came to the group 10 years ago as a job seeker,
presides at a session of longer-term veterans in an adjoining assembly room.
In his group, Anderson has each member give a 30-second “commercial” describing their employment background and a “target” company or field where they would like to find work. The pastor responds with the name and phone number of a person from his congregation database who works
for the “target” company. Singer follows a similar procedure in his group, using the database of transition-group “alumni.”
Every session provides those attending with three sources for networking, Anderson says. There are the names he and Singer furnish from the database, the information each person gains from others as he listens to their “commercials,” and announcements sent in by several dozen employers during the week of jobs they have available.
Under Anderson’s enthusiastic and energetic leadership, the meetings become rapid-fire exchanges of contact names at many companies.
“What we have to offer is the networking thing,” he said during a session in early December. “We hope to pump up the energy level. It makes you feel like you’re on the trading floor of the Chicago Grain Exchange.”
Singer estimated that in the latest month about 250 new job seekers have attended the sessions and the number of persons who have returned to
report success in their hunt for work has been around 30. Of that latter number possibly only two or three have said the contact names they got at
St. Andrew led directly to new employment.
Still, Singer termed the success rate of the group in helping people find jobs “immeasurable.”
“It gets people in the habit of networking, and that’s the only way to get a job these days,” declared Singer, who describes the current employment situation for white-collar workers as “shocking.” He helped set up the job-transition group at Prince of Peace Lutheran and serves on the board of
the oldest faith-based support group for the unemployed in the area at Colonial Church of Edina.
Further, Singer said, the value of the fellowship provided by the group is hard to overestimate. When people come back to report success in finding work, they often speak tearfully of the lift they got from being in a group of people engaged in the same tough struggle, he said.
At Woodbury Lutheran, an LCMS congregation of well over 3000 members, a “career-transition group” was launched 3 1/2 years ago. A few unemployed members had been meeting on their own, and several parishioners with experience in the employment field volunteered to provide
leadership for them.
The group now meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m on the second and fourth Thursday of each month with attendance ranging from 15 to 35. It maintains an e-mail list of 120 and has become an outreach ministry of the congregation, with 85-90 percent of its participants non-members.
Nancy Branton, a longtime human-resources specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the owner of her own
career-counseling business, has led Woodbury Lutheran’s job transition group for most of the time since its start. She’s the only member of the steering committee who hasn’t gone through the job-loss experience herself.
The program offered at Woodbury Lutheran combines talks by guest speakers on topics dealing with both the nitty-gritty aspects of job search and spiritual assistance; small-group discussions; connections with others going through the same difficulties; and some networking, though nothing on
the scale of that at St. Andrew. Spiritual support is the primary emphasis, according to Branton.
She believes many unemployed choose a support group based on the speakers and topics advertised in the local and St. Paul newspapers. And she says the only measure the church has of the success of its program is letters it gets from participants saying they’ve found jobs, expressing
thanks for the group’s help and asking to be removed from the e-mail list.
But, Branton declares, “We get a lot of feedback, and people say we have a reputation as a caring group and one that provides good, solid
assistance and information.”