Support Groups for Unemployed Still Vital
Earlier this year the Rev. Ralph Mero, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, formed a men’s group at the congregation led by his wife, the Rev. Deborah Mero, for the study of scripture. But it wasn’t long before a different issue took over the group.
Members of the group, at the Unitarian Fellowship of West Chester, Pa., began sharing not scripture passages, but stories of losing their jobs or struggling with less than ideal work situations. The stories included the litany of problems that go along with job loss—health problems, depression, stress, marital strife, foreclosures.
“Just about every week I would hear of people in our congregation who had been laid off or who were struggling to find replacement work,” says Mero. “Many of these people were over the age of 50 and job loss is especially hard on them,” he noted.
Mero, who was director of Church Staff Finances for the Unitarian Universalist Association for 12 years before retiring in 2008, says job-loss stories are continuing. He has embarked on a campaign to encourage congregations of all faiths to address this issue, which he believes is pervasive and getting worse.
“There’s almost a conspiracy of silence in congregations where ministers shy away from saying anything about the desperate circumstances of unemployment that some of their members are confronting,” he says. “In thousands of religious communities in America, clergy and lay leaders are in a position to positively respond to this crisis, if they can find the will to do so. Middle-aged out-of-work members can be found in almost every congregation in the U.S.”
At the fellowship, a job support group is now open to all members of the congregation. One member, Sharon Sweitzer, has been looking for work for two years while raising four teenage daughters alone. She says connecting with other members of the fellowship who are in similar circumstances has been immensely helpful.
“It all comes down to community,” she says. “Everyone here knows my story now. Without the fellowship I would be totally alone. Here there’s someone to share joys and sorrows with.” The support gives her the courage to keep going. She’s signed on with a career coach. “Having a coach or others in your life who help you hold yourself accountable for your thinking and actions is very empowering,” she says. “I do believe I am on the right path.”
One congregation that has taken on this issue is Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Md. It has a program called Finding Work and Meaning, which is run by the Rev. Heather Janules and member Robert Werner. Finding Work and Meaning is comprised of two free programs that focus on people 50 or older who are out of work. The first part of the program has three elements: spiritual support sessions conducted by a minister, an intensive counseling session with an experienced business professional, and a half-day workshop by a human relations professional focusing on how to do a job search, network, and prepare for interviews.
The second part of Finding Work and Meaning calls on all members of the congregation to act as a network for job seekers. The members have created a job bank of opportunities that they are aware of. Werner notes that a network like this would be even better if it were expanded to all congregations within a particular cluster, district, or diocese.
Werner is working to expand the program at Cedar Lane nationally. “If I had my way every church in the country would get involved,” he says. “Unemployment is a national crisis. We like to talk about being in the forefront of social justice. This is a classic economic justice issue. Older people who are out of work have to struggle with not only job loss but foreclosure, and real physical and emotional problems. I’d like to see the UUA exercise real leadership on this issue.”
When one woman (who preferred to remain anonymous) lost her job in 2008, one of the places where she hoped to find support was her Unitarian Universalist congregation in the middle of the country. Instead, she found that being unemployed made other people uncomfortable around her.
“I think people felt ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ ” she says. “They didn’t really ask about me even though I was not shy about telling people I’d been laid off. Maybe they didn’t know what to say, but it would have really been nice if they’d at least have acknowledged what I was going through.”
After a year and a half of struggling with this issue alone she took a drastic step. She left her husband and children temporarily, and moved to the Washington, D.C., area where the job market was better. She researched UU congregations and began attending Cedar Lane UU Church, in part because of its Finding Work and Meaning program, which she joined.
“Overall the primary benefit from that program was that I knew I was not alone and that others were having problems as well,” she says. “It was nice to share concerns that unemployed people have—struggling with paying bills, being depressed, feeling like you’re wasting time because you’re not working.”
The fact the support group was part of her own faith community was a plus, she says. “My whole support network was here. [Janules] created a covenant and practices that made it a safe environment. We all shared progressive values. Being free to open up, to express who we really are, was definitely helpful.” After a few weeks on the East Coast, and bolstered by the support she received at Cedar Lane, she says she dug deep into her files and reconnected with a former employer who rehired her. At some point she will reunite with her family, but for now she’s doing what she has to do.
Her advice to congregations and to individual UUs when confronted by people who are out of work: “If you don’t know what to say, at least express good wishes. Even if you don’t know of any jobs, say you’ll keep your eyes open. Just doing that much makes all the difference in the world to someone who is out of work. Looking for work is a time-consuming and intense process. It helps to know that other people are supporting you.”
At the beginning of the recession four years ago, many congregations implemented programs to support those who lost jobs and or homes. There were counseling sessions, support groups, and sharing of funds. Over time many of those programs faded away. But some have endured.
Ron Katz, a human relations professional for 25 years, started a support program after Sept. 11, 2001, at the First Unitarian Society of Westchester in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. By 2007 the Job Support Group was still active, although attendance had dwindled. Then the recession hit. “We were down to two or three regular participants,” Katz says, “then in the fall of 2008 we had a dozen people again. We’re still going strong.”
“The group provides some spiritual support, but mostly we give advice on job search, networking, interview preparation, career reinvention, and how to deal with the emotional roller coaster people find themselves on as they cope with the stress of losing, finding, or keeping a job,” he says.
The group meets twice a month and has been opened to the larger community. “A lot of tears have been shed in those meetings,” he said. “People get a pat on the back or a kick in the butt, whatever they need.” In all, he says five or six dozen people have used the group. “It’s not a job-finding group or network. I do help them figure out what they need to do.” He even wrote a book, Someone’s Gonna Get Hired—It Might as Well be You, based on stories of members of the group. He adds, “One thing I’ve tried hard to do with this group is remove the shame. So many people isolate themselves and stop connecting with people.” He conducted a workshop several years ago at the Metro New York District’s annual meeting and is happy to help other interested congregations begin groups.
Janules, at Cedar Lane, observes, “The message I want to send is that we do have a pastoral responsibility to step into the breach. We may not solve the massive problem of unemployment, but we build community and give people a chance to give and receive information and help relieve shame and isolation. It’s a huge problem, but simple things go a long way.”
Contact the Rev. Ralph Mero at the Unitarian Fellowship of West Chester, the Rev. Heather Janules and Robert Werner at Cedar Lane UU Church, and Ron Katz at the First Unitarian Society of Westchester.