Ministering to the Unemployed

by Robert V. Thompson

Mr. Thompson is senior minister of First Baptist Church, Evanston, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century September 1-8, 1982, p. 888. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Joblessness creates loneliness and alienation. This is an area to which the church could respond. Historically, one thing the church has done well is providing support for people in times of crisis.

These days the domestic issue gaining the most attention in the United States is our high rate of unemployment. Regardless of one’s socioeconomic class, ethnic background or religious tradition, unemployment can be devastating. It can create social unrest and economic despair leading to many forms of destructive behavior. Many of us have tended to ignore these problems as endemic to the lower class. But now unemployment is hitting the middle class.

Americans have retreated from recognizing the benefits of full employment and are now beginning to experience the consequences of that retreat. Private enterprise has neither the capital nor the motivation to create jobs. For small businesses, the current goal is survival. For large, successful corporations, the aim is to protect and enhance investments and to make a profit. Creating jobs does not directly accomplish any of these goals.

To complicate matters, the job market is changing. The day of the white-collar generalist is rapidly waning. Jobs can be found in the technical fields, but educational institutions are only now beginning to adjust to meet the training demands of these areas. The liberal arts degree, once touted as an insurance policy against joblessness, has lost its clout in the marketplace. It is a brand-new day; millions of middle-class Americans are coming home on Friday night with no job to go to on Monday morning.

The pervasiveness of the problem hit me when several members of my congregation found themselves out of work. I asked myself, “How can the church offer a tangible and significant response?” The church is not equipped to function as a job service agency. Even if it were, there simply are not enough jobs to go around. What could we do?

It became increasingly clear that, along with the unemployed members’ anxiety about finding work, they felt a persistent loneliness and alienation because of their joblessness. Loneliness and alienation were something to which the church could respond. Historically, one thing the church has done well is providing support for people in times of crisis.

Consequently, the jobless church members and I formed a support group for unemployed people, both churched and unchurched. We announced through the Evanston and Chicago media that our group would begin meeting the first Tuesday in February and continue as long as need for it persisted. Since the first February meeting, 75 people have participated at one level or another. While support helped people cope with joblessness, however, we found that their ultimate concern was to find a job. The group discovered that by thinking imaginatively together, we could develop resources which would facilitate each other’s job search.

First we sent a letter to members of First Baptist Church in which we identified the experience and qualifications of the group members. We asked for information about job opportunities of which church members might know. Many church people responded with ideas, which were passed along to group members. Second, we invited personnel managers of major Evanston and Chicago companies to meet with the group and comment on resumes, the interview process, and the impression a job applicant makes. Finally, we discovered that the most significant resources lay within the group itself. Group members became agents for one another. When scrutinizing the “help wanted” section of the Sunday Chicago Tribune or “pounding the pavement,” each person remained attuned to the needs of other group members. Participants also shared what did and did not work in obtaining interviews and job contacts.

This group process has provided a context in which the moral consequences of unemployment have become apparent to all of us. I use the term “moral consequences” because being unemployed affects the meaning and quality of life for the person concerned, his or her family, and society as a whole.

Particularly as people find themselves unemployed for increasingly longer periods of time, the personal and social dimensions of coping with unemployment become critical. The jobless person is forced to ask, “How can I feel worthwhile without my work? How can I cope with mounting financial pressures? How can I overcome my sense of guilt about losing my job?”

Or perhaps the questions are more relational in nature. An unemployed person may ask, “How can I face my family and friends? How can I adjust to my changing environment and changing acquaintances? How can I deal with being rejected by potential employers?”

Especially for members of the middle class, work and a sense of worth go hand in hand. Out of work, one finds oneself faced with a real identity crisis. We have grown up with the notion that we must “do something for a living.” The implication is that without a meaningful job, one isn’t really living.

It was Max Weber who first saw clearly the roots of the current middle-class work ethic. The Protestant Reformation, he said, was the source of capitalism. Daniel T. Rodgers, in his book The Work Ethic in Industrial America 1850 to 1920 University of Chicago Press, 1978), enlarges upon Weber’s original thesis, suggesting that “at the heart of Protestantism’s revaluation of work was the doctrine of the calling, the faith that God had called everyone to some productive vocation, to toil there for the common good and for His greater glory.”

Rodgers goes on to suggest that the Protestant Reformation in general and English Puritanism in particular instilled the monastic ethic of asceticism but reinterpreted it to fit the context outside the monastery:

Puritanism saturated its believers with an acute sense of the dangers of idleness, enjoining them to guard against the misspense of time and to improve the passing moments, each of which, in the end, had to be accounted for in heaven. This was an asceticism of a novel sort, worldly and systematic, looking forward to the time-and-profit calculus of industrial life rather than backward to the flesh-denying torments of the desert hermits. Joined with the doctrine of the calling, it demanded not only that all men work, but that they work in a profoundly new way: regularly, conscientiously, and diligently.

By the mid-19th century, the industrial revolution was beginning to make a profound impact on life in Europe and America. Gradually the population was shifting from rural to urban settings, and the meaning and nature of work was being defined in a secular context. The religious roots of the work ethic were giving way to its secular interpretation. Comments Rodgers:

The old ideas never completely died out, but gradually the term “calling” faded from common speech and with it the idea that in work one labored in the first instance for the glory of God. Increasingly the moralists talked instead of usefulness. Benjamin Franklin helped set the new tone in his tireless strings of maxims and projects for the public good, and by the era of the American Revolution, political writing was saturated with the ideal of public usefulness.

It should therefore come as no surprise that millions of unemployed middle-class Americans are discovering that when they lose their work, they run out of self-esteem.

The social matrix in which we live contributes to this dilemma by reinforcing one’s acquiescence to the work ethic through personal and institutional relationships. For example, the first experience of a newly unemployed person is rejection. Whether it comes across a desk, over the telephone or through the mail, the message received is that one is no longer needed.

Even if the reason for termination is economic, the employer has communicated that the former worker is no longer useful and has no more economic value to the organization. Worse yet is the ongoing sense of rejection that accompanies the job search. Members of my support/resource group are finding that they are out of work for a period of from four months to two years. During such a prolonged time, the job seeker must go through multiple experiences of rejection at the hands of potential employers overloaded with qualified applicants.

Thus the unemployed person develops a feeling of powerlessness that becomes a fiercer foe as time wears on. The feeling begins when one loses a job. One’s emotional and material power base has been removed. After all, money is power; having a reason to get up and go out the door is power (power of purpose); being in a position in which people are dependent on the services one renders is power (the power to influence). Suddenly, one’s income, motivation and influence are all gone.

Furthermore, one discovers that the feeling of powerlessness is compounded when one has to conform to the demands and schedules of possible employers. As one of my group members said, “We are forever filling out their applications, being interviewed at their convenience and waiting to hear from them when they decide to call.”

The pressure of a work-oriented society combined with the relational dynamics of feelings of rejection and powerlessness pose a real danger to the emotional health of all unemployed people. This is particularly true for those of the middle class who have been nurtured in the secularized version of the Protestant work ethic.

Thus, what appears on the surface to be a secular and social problem is ultimately rooted in a deeply religious ethic. The solution to the problem appears to be simply one of finding work, thus restoring one’s self-esteem. As long as joblessness remains a threat to their identities, however, middle-class Americans will continue to fear the possible loss of self-worth. Thus, losing another job will raise the old issues of work and worth, of rejection and powerlessness.

The role of work is an old theological problem dressed up in new clothes in an industrial/technological society. The real solution to the problem of joblessness is not simply to find another job -- that would only mask the symptoms of the illness. Whether people are employed or unemployed, the real question is whether a new ethic can be found to replace the old work ethic.

My unemployed friends have taught me about the roots of the work ethic. Most of them have stumbled into our meetings for the first time pouring out feelings of self-doubt, rejection and weakness. I have heard them ask, “Who am I, anyway? What can I do apart from my work? What is wrong with me? How can my life be useful to anyone now?” When they raise these questions, they are really asking, “How can I find a sense of worth that will stick with me?”

No one in the group has yet responded by saying, “Relax; when you get another job, you will recover.” Quite the contrary. People have listened, shared their experiences and responded with care. They offer one another personal support and a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves -- a community of shared pain. To use Henri Nouwen’s term, they have become wounded healers. It is a miraculous transaction of emerging wholeness among people.

The work ethic is being replaced by a relational ethic here. The people in this support group have discovered that one is not what one earns, does or has; one is as one loves.

Frequently people who come into the group are alienated, hopeless and frustrated. Through their relationships their alienation becomes reconciliation, their hopelessness becomes hopefulness and their frustration, while still present, becomes diffused. This transformation occurs because they face their present and future not alone, but in the context of community.

One member is a divorced mother of two. She lost her job because of school funding cuts in the spring of 1981. As of this writing, she has been unemployed for one year. She has made every conceivable effort to find a job. Her lack of emotional and financial resources has taken her to the precipice time and time again. When she joined the group, she was angry, isolated and despairing. In applying for new jobs, she had been rejected again and again. She had seemingly lost her sense of self-worth, and in her view, there was only one solution: finding another job.

Recently she shared with the group a job opportunity for which she felt qualified. With tears in her eyes, she told how it had become impossible for her to go through the motions of preparing a resumé and cover letter to apply for this job. She simply couldn’t bear another rejection. Hearing her desperation, the group members offered to write the resumé and letter for her. Feeling their support gave her strength to go ahead and apply for the position.

To date the woman has received no response to her application; but since that experience, she has discovered energy and new purpose. For now, at least, she has hope. Her motivation for finding work has increased. Why? Because her self-concept is changing. She is finding worth apart from work. That, I suspect, is why she said, “Something special is happening in these group meetings. I really can’t put my finger on it, but it is real.”

This little secular community of unemployed people who meet in a church once a week is discovering spiritual truth more deeply than many of them ever had. What ultimately matters is their recognition that they are more than their work. What matters is their seeing that they are really not alone. What matters is that they find meaning apart from their work. They are discovering usefulness in who they are and what they mean to each other. If they ever run out of work again, perhaps they can hold on to their worth, no matter what happens.