As layoffs rise and the job market weakens, church-based support groups for job hunters are growing in number and size in the Twin Cities. The groups typically offer job seekers emotional support and the opportunity to expand their network of contacts.
At Colonial Church of Edina's Job Transition Support Group, Bob Dover is telling of several dozen mostly men how he got his new job, and how the support group helped him both emotionally and financially.
Dover says one member, a human resources professional, coached him on discussing pay. "And he helped me with an approach for negotiation and it worked. I got more money out of the base salary and a signing bonus," Dover says.
The group meets Monday evenings, alternating weekly between presentations relevant to job hunting, and small group discussions and sharing contacts.
David Singer, the laid-off HR professional who helped Bob Dover, first attended in 1993. Singer says he's never gotten a job directly through this or other church groups he attends. But he says it was helpful immediately, especially as an antidote to the isolation of being unemployed.
"When you take a walk around the neighborhood, you might see a mom or two, but you don't see people. There's no one to connect with. So this is the one place you can go where there are people who are doing the same thing that you're doing. That's searching for that new career," he says.
Donna Bennett, head of Colonial Church's Counselling Center, oversees the volunteer-run job group. It's continued for about a quarter century and is generally recognized as the oldest in the Twin Cities. Bennett says the demand for such programs is rising as layoffs increase and employer assistance shrinks.
"So many people hit the streets without jobs in such a short period of time that they're not all getting the assistance that they did in the '80s, where companies can't afford to pay the outplacement costs that they did then," she says.
Bennett says representatives from other churches have sought Colonial's expertise lately as they try to launch their own groups.
Kathy Michael, associate pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, says the church has a new job group that's met twice so far. Michael says she's seeing job loss - even the threat of it - taking a toll on families. "There are also the spiritual concerns for people of faith. It's, 'Where's God in the midst of this?' When everything falls apart, and the world comes crashing down, and job loss is a real part of that, people tend to ask, 'Well, where is God in this, and what does this mean about my role in the universe, and the meaning of life,' and all those fundamental questions," according to Michael.
It's not clear how many faith-based organizations offer job support programs in Minnesota. At least seven Twin Cities churches do. One of the oldest programs is at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie.
Pastor Rod Anderson says attendance at the weekly meetings has soared and is topping 100. Anderson says several church members proposed the idea in 1987, and he leapt at the chance to help.
"Because on Sunday mornings, when I knew of people that were unemployed and I shook hands with them at the door, it was very difficult to know what to say. If you asked them, week after week, 'Anything happening, you got any interviews, you got anything going?' pretty soon they want to pop me in the mouth because they're tired of being asked," he says.
Pastor Rod, as he's known, has a big draw: the church database. He uses the church's nearly 4,000 members as contacts for people in the job group. Not all churches do that, and each group has a somewhat different approach.
Lynn Miller, a dislocated worker job coach with the Minnesota Department of Economic Security, says the church groups add to the menu of options available to job hunters, who have a wide range of needs.
"The more things that they can try on for size, if you will, the more chance they can make this process their own and really be happy with what they're doing and finding it effective," Miller says.
The number of church groups available may continue to grow. As one volunteer says, "the need is hard to measure, but very large."More from MPR