Pastoring in an Age of Unemployment
Helping people rediscover their Kingdom purpose
Earlier this year, I received a call from an exhausted physician who was laying off staff because patients were not showing up. That same day, I met with a distraught restaurant owner who asked me to pray over spreadsheets after her business shut down as a result of the pandemic. Then another parishioner, a C-suite executive, told me he had lost his job.
This is the reality of ministry in 2020.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 31.8 million Americans were receiving unemployment benefits in early July, up from 1.7 million at the same time in 2019.
Fortune magazine, reporting 42.6 million unemployment claims between the start of the pandemic and the end of May, noted that this figure is greater than the combined population of America’s 22 smallest states.
Let those numbers sink in. They represent real people — our friends, family members, neighbors and congregants — many of whom were doing well before COVID-19 struck.
As pastors, we are facing a sobering situation. We are not only navigating a pandemic, but we are also leading in an age of mass unemployment. The impact on our church members goes far beyond finances.
Loss and Lament
Unemployment isn’t just a loss of income. Many have lost professional relationships, an outlet for their skills, and a sense of vocational clarity.
One definition of the word “vocation” is “calling.” Every person who is a follower of Jesus Christ has been entrusted with a unique set of gifts and talents to invest in service to God and others (Romans 12:1-8; Ephesians 2:10).
Pastors don’t have a corner on “calling.” God also calls parishioners to serve in areas like education, law, medicine, entrepreneurship and government. Believers who know their place of service have vocational clarity. But when unemployment strikes, it may cause them to pause and reevaluate their calling.
The challenge that lies ahead is helping our people lament and then rediscover their Kingdom purpose as they find a place to use their God-given gifts and abilities.
The reality is, some of those jobs may never come back. Some people will need to retrain, relocate or reinvent. Whatever lies ahead, they will need pastoral support and guidance.
We can disciple our people to be faithful to their calling but flexible to their work. Before we engage in these things, we must first take time to lament with them and offer compassionate care.
In Latin, compassion literally means “fellow-suffering” or “to suffer with.” Immediately after a loss is not the time to try to fix things for those who are suffering. It is a time to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).
Our American theology often glosses over pain, suffering and loss. However, these things are part of the human experience, so we must create space for them.
As Pentecostals, we rightly trust the Spirit to empower us to do the impossible. Yet the Greek word for the Holy Spirit, Paraklētos, starts with the preposition of para, which means “to come alongside.”
The Holy Spirit is One who helps by consoling, encouraging or mediating on our behalf. John 14:26 calls Him the “Advocate” (NIV), “Helper” (ESV), or “Comforter” (KJV). We can follow the Spirit’s example by coming alongside those who are in pain.
To do this well, we must rediscover how to pray and lament. In Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: The Grace of Lament, Mark Vroegop suggests a simple framework: honest complaint, bold request, and decision to trust. Vroegop uses Psalm 13 to illustrate this.
The Psalmist begins with an honest complaint (verses 1-2):
How long, Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Teach your people it’s OK to have an honest complaint before the Lord. There is nothing wrong with asking, “Lord, why did I lose my job? Will there be work for me? What is my part in all this?”
Of course, prayer shouldn’t end there. Next, the Psalmist makes a bold request (verses 3-4):
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
We can boldly ask God to open up new kinds of employment or new ways to use skills. We can pray, “Spirit, lead me to that new business where I can glorify God and help people. Give me wisdom and strength to flourish and do well in my new job.”
Finally, the Psalmist acknowledged his decision to trust God (verses 5-6):
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Pray with your people that they will trust in the Lord to provide new opportunities for work and relationships. Ask boldly on their behalf, and encourage them to approach God with confidence.
Faith and Work
Job loss is a traumatic event. Beyond the financial implications, it can take a toll psychologically, socially, physically and even spiritually. As we walk with people through this valley, it’s important to realize there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
As we walk with people through this valley, it’s important to realize there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
However, I do believe God has uniquely positioned your church in your community. You may be in an inner city with all its socioeconomic complexities. You may be in a growing area where jobs are somewhat easier to find. Or perhaps you pastor in a rural community where the closing of a single factory is devastating.
Regardless of your location, job opportunities change, but God’s faithfulness remains constant.
I think of career issues in terms of calling, vocation and work. Our callings are divine, our occupations change, and our work depends on our location. As we disciple people, we can help them discover what God has called them to do. This brings vocational clarity, a constant North Star of God’s calling and purpose.
If our people know what God has called them to do and can hone the skills to pursue their calling and apply them in any environment, work activity simply becomes a matter of location.
Every believer needs to hear from God about his or her specific purpose in the Kingdom. Each person has unique gifts and talents. We have a divine design that benefits us, our families, and our communities as we seek the common good.
Vocational clarity brings dignity and meaning to work, but it goes beyond employment status or positions. It’s about who people are at their core, whether they are big-picture visionaries, detailed analysts, relationship builders, or natural contributors.
Within that divine design, there is room for occupational flexibility. For example, someone with exceptional creativity could use that gift in construction, corporate problem solving, or legal analysis. It could find expression in laying tiles, designing spreadsheets, identifying financial solutions, or doing landscaping. It’s a matter of honing practical skills and being willing to learn new ones.
Work activity then becomes a matter of location and preference. It is the location and context of what and where people want to spend their time.
When people give you pastoral permission to get involved in their lives, it is a privilege. You may need to coach people to file for unemployment, relocate, or seek a new job. In some cases, the church may be able to help with some bills or network with someone in the congregation to find a position.
God designed us to work and create. Granted, not all work is a perfect fit. Nevertheless, sometimes people need a gap job to provide an income source, even if it doesn’t line up with skills and passion.
When pastoring in an age of unemployment, shepherding people to start working is important. It’s often easier to find a job when you have a job.
Here are five things to consider when helping people find solutions:
1. Networking. As a pastor, you know a lot more people than you think you do. Now is the time to leverage that network. Think about what your people do for work and what their skills are, and identify individuals you know outside your church. You may be able to help match workers to potential employers.
For example, perhaps a talented, outgoing church member lost a sales job. With that person’s permission, you might send a few emails to the church’s insurance company, bank, and other vendors inquiring about openings.
2. Services. Think about the talent you have in your church and the skills others need. Do you have an unemployed parishioner who previously ran accounts payable for a company? Maybe that person could do bookkeeping for two or three small business owners in your congregation.
3. Bartering. I pastor many entrepreneurs, all of whom are a little eccentric and wildly creative. Instead of two businesses hiring each other, they sometimes do a straight trade.
Say a small accounting firm owner needs an office bathroom remodeled. Instead of paying for it, a contracting business remodels the bathroom, and the accountant does the contractor’s taxes. Do your people have skills they could barter?
4. Relationships. What are the needs in your congregation, and what relationships do you have in the community?
Our church doesn’t have a food pantry. Instead, we support the local food banks and have a relationship with them, which makes it easier to refer our people there for assistance.
5. Benevolence. Every Communion Sunday, take up a special offering that goes directly to help those in need, assisting with food, clothes, utility bills, etc. As in Acts 6, let the deacons manage and oversee that ministry.
Colossians 3:23-24 offers a Kingdom perspective of earthly work: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
When everything we do is in service to God, work becomes an act of worship. It also benefits the local economy, which is a service to others.
We can see a connection between work and worship in the Old Testament in the Hebrew word avodah. First, it means “work” in contexts such as “there was no one to work the ground” and in God’s intent for Adam to “work [the Garden of Eden] and take care of it” (Genesis 2:5,15, emphases added). Elsewhere, this word means “worship”: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Exodus 8:1, emphasis added).
All work can be worship if we offer it to God.
God called you not only to your church, but also to your community. This includes the marketplace where people work. What would happen if we discipled people to think of work as worship and creating an income as secondary?
What if every member of the congregation sought to honor God wherever they are right now — whether working a less-than-ideal job, learning a new trade, filling a volunteer role, caring for children at home, or seeking employment?
This is not to dismiss the real struggles people are facing, of course. But even in difficult times, we can trust that God is working in and through us.
When God is the focus, fulfillment no longer depends on a particular position. We can use our gifts to glorify Christ and point others to Him in all we do.
May we lead creatively and prayerfully as we pastor our churches and communities in an age of unemployment.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 edition of Influence magazine.