Image: Sandra Friedrich
Elise Amendola  /  AP
Sandra Friedrich prays during an unemployed support group meeting in Beverly, Mass. The group is one of several church-related unemployment support groups that have formed around the country.
updated 7/5/2009 12:35:00 PM ET 2009-07-05T16:35:00

Her fellow job seekers offer knowing groans as Diane Castro recalls the day she was laid off: The fear of being summoned to the front office. The phones in nearby cubicles going off like grenades. Finally, a ring at her desk.

Every member of the unemployment support group meeting has their own story to share and encouragement to give. In twice monthly gatherings, they exchange tips on writing resumes, developing new contacts and making ends meet.

They also pray.

"Father, we pray you would strengthen our faith and help us to wait on you," Castro says as heads bow around her. "It can be so hard sometimes to be patient."

Castro's group is one of several church-related unemployment support groups that have formed around the country as the jobless rate reaches heights not seen for decades. On Thursday, the government reported a 9.5 percent unemployment rate for June, the worst in 26 years.

Job seekers can't use God as a reference, and studying Scripture might seem unrelated to grabbing a prospective employer's attention. But church support group members say the meetings aren't just about helping people find the next job; they're also about refining and strengthening their faith along the way.

"The help available and the assistance on a spiritual level is amazing," said Walter Baker, a retired human resources executive who leads a four-month-old group at Grace Community Church in Auburn, Wash.

Baker and Castro welcome the nonreligious to their groups, though very few people without faith have attended.

Baker offers group members resume reviews and mock interviews. He asks them to craft an "elevator speech" — a pitch of their qualifications they can deliver quickly. And he urges them to "draw close to God."

Faith communities have particular relevance to the unemployed, said Doug Hicks, author of "Religion and the Workplace" and a professor of religion and leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

"When a person loses his or her job it's not just the income that's lost, but it's a kind of sense of meaning, sense of fitting in, a sense of contribution," Hicks said. "And many of those things have spiritual dimensions."

The Rev. Duane Jesse of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Cortland, Ohio, said the group he started six weeks ago is almost entirely about job seekers' spiritual needs. He started the group after a man, devastated by unemployment, confessed he thought suicide might be easier.

"At the end of the day we've got to keep families together, marriages together. We've got to keep people sane, we've got to keep people from losing faith," Jesse said.

Still, the practical benefits of such groups can't be overlooked, said Rick Lytle, dean of the College of Business at Abilene Christian University in Texas. Faith-based groups provide rich networking opportunities because members may trust each other more, and go the extra mile for them, because they share a church or a faith, he said.

Sandy Friedrich, a member of Castro's group who worked at a hospice care facility in Boston, said the people in the group are important for who they are, not what she thinks they can do for her. "Of course, in the back of our minds it's fine that we think any of us may be a lead to the next thing for us," she said. "But that's not the primary purpose for us."

At a recent meeting at Castro's house, not everyone in the seven-person gathering was friends, but they quickly shared their personal angst and advice on everything from unemployment law to how to respond when a prospective employer asks how much you expect to be paid. Debbie Trainor, a hospitality industry worker, talked about the nerve-racking preparation for job interviews and said she sees God as a partner.

"He's with me during this time," she said. "We're doing this together."

Connie Durgin, a customer service worker, was baffled that a third job interview didn't lead to an offer, though she was sanguine about her prospects.

"(God) knows what direction you're going to go. Eventually, you'll find it," she said.

After lunch, the group moved to the living room, where Friedrich shared a Bible lesson and the group discussed the employment strategy book, "Ground of Your Own Choosing." The conversation turned to some unexpected benefits of being laid off, such as more time with family.

Jack Melvin, an architect who was laid off in September, said he had new time to pursue standing as a Third Order Franciscan, whose members can be married and live in society at large, but also pledge to lead lives of prayer, simplicity and service to Jesus Christ.

Melvin said he welcomes the chance to start on the lengthy journey, though he'd prefer not to have so much time for it. The opportunity comes as his faith is being stretched in painful ways.

"I think what we've got to learn is that our employer doesn't feed us, he's an instrument for God to feed us," Melvin tells the group.

With a laugh, he adds, "I guess I had to repeat that to myself four months straight."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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