Navigating unemployment

April 22nd, 2020
This article is featured in the Acting Missionally issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

A few years ago, I was laid off from my job at a technology startup. For the next several days, I was overwhelmed by different emotions. I was angry that I hadn’t seen the layoff coming. I was upset and felt that my company didn’t think my work was worth investing in anymore. I was sad to leave my co-workers, and that sadness was deepened by the knowledge that most of them were losing their jobs as well. I felt regret about the extra energy I’d been putting into my job recently and all the other jobs I’d recently decided not to apply for. As I processed those feelings, the biggest ones remained: fear and confusion about the future.

Some of my worries in the days and weeks that followed were allayed as I began the process of applying for Unemployment Insurance (UI). Because I worked for a company in a state with a strong social safety net, I’d be able to collect about half of what I’d made at my old job for six months or until I found a new one, whichever came first.

The Unemployment Insurance program began during the Great Depression and passed as part of the same legislation that implemented Social Security. The program is set up so that employers pay taxes into their state’s UI fund, and workers who are laid off from those employers can collect from this fund. However, this benefit is only available to workers who:

  1. Worked for employers who paid into the program, 
  2. Made more than a certain amount of money when they were working, 
  3. Lost their jobs through no fault of their own, 
  4. Are looking for a new job. 

Other benefits of work

For most of us, our lives revolve around our jobs. Our work hours don’t just determine our schedules, they in many ways help us define who we are. When we meet someone new, the first question is almost always, “What do you do for a living?” When the goals and tasks that normally fill our days suddenly vanish, we often lose much of our sense of purpose.

Someone who loses their job also tends to lose a large chunk of their social circle at a time when they’re most in need of social support. It’s no wonder that 10 to 20% of unemployed people experience depression. They’re grieving relationships, their old routine, a sense of meaning and are often anxious about their income. Aside from that, job searching can be demoralizing at the best of times. When applying for job after job becomes a necessity, applications involve less excitement and confidence about a new career move and more anxiety and dread.

The mental and physical health benefits of work are well-documented. We, as human beings, are meant to work. We are meant to set and accomplish goals, to contribute to a team or community and to spend our days actively providing for ourselves and others. When God created humanity, God gave them a beautiful place to live, community with God and each other — and a job, to be stewards of creation.

Supporting unemployed people

When I was laid off, I was also experiencing some major health issues. I applied for plenty of new jobs, but ultimately used my time of unemployment to recuperate and discern a new career as a writer.

Job loss can certainly be devastating, but a period of unemployment can also be a needed time of rest, an opportunity to reevaluate life and career directions, and a chance to consider one’s identity and vocation. This is particularly true when Unemployment Insurance or other life circumstances can help reduce anxiety about finances.

In helping people process their emotions after losing a job, churches can both acknowledge that people need work to feel purpose and that our culture generally over-relies on our work and careers to shape our identities and even determine our value. People need their grief and frustration to be validated, but many of us can also benefit from taking some time to find purpose and value outside of work.

For most people who go to church, it is their primary place of community and purpose besides their workplace. Some people even start going to church after a job loss to experience community or spiritual support.

Congregations experiencing a time of high unemployment among their members can be intentional about countering our culture’s message that unemployment is shameful and encourage people to ask for help if it’s needed. Like many difficult life events, a friend’s unemployment might seem like an awkward thing to talk about because so many of us have grown up thinking it’s embarrassing or a “personal problem.” But we can help change that perception by talking frankly about unemployment and how to help one another through an experience that is, for most of us, almost inevitable. We must remember that it’s ultimately a good thing to recognize our interdependence and learn to receive help from others.

Churches might also consider offering counseling or spiritual direction for vocational discernment, community gatherings where people can socialize and support one another, or help with resumes and interview skills. They may even think of offering extra volunteer opportunities to help people occupy their time during the job hunt.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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