Churches Offer Services to the Jobless
by Linda Bloom
The rising U.S. unemployment rate is having an impact on churches, as well as the communities they serve.
But the economic crisis also is pushing many United Methodist congregations into new areas of mission as they try to offer services - ranging from assistance with food and housing to career counseling - to families dealing with job loss.
According to figures released March 6 by the U.S. Department of Labor, 651,000 more jobs were lost in February as the unemployment rate surged to 8.1 percent from 7.6 percent the month before.
Reporting those statistics, the New York Times noted that, "In key industries - manufacturing, financial services and retail - layoffs have accelerated so quickly in recent months as to suggest that many companies are abandoning whole areas of business." More than half of the roughly 4.4 million jobs eliminated since the recession began have disappeared in the past four months, the Times said.
The collapse of the automobile industry has particularly affected churches in Michigan and Indiana. Major automakers reported a continuing decline in vehicle sales in February, to their lowest level in 28 years.
In Michigan, where the current unemployment rate of 10.6 percent is the highest of any state, other industries have had layoffs as well, including Whirlpool. First United Methodist Church in St. Joseph, where Whirlpool is the community's largest employer, has had a "frugal" budget for some time, using targeted fundraisers for programs like vacation Bible school. But the church's commitment to both local and global mission remains.
In Indiana, the downturn has affected auto workers in Kokomo and those laid off from recreational vehicle manufacturing jobs in the Elkhart area. Trinity United Methodist Church in Elkhart is involved with food relief and provides assistance with employment and financial issues. The church has sponsored "Networking Nights" to connect laid-off workers with representatives from area educational institutions.
In Illinois, residents of Peoria were dealing with the fact that Caterpillar, a major employer, has been trimming its labor force. First United Methodist Church there has brought together members and community and social agencies to act as a clearinghouse for those needing assistance.
Other churches around the country have made the current economic crisis a specific mission focus. Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., has a free ministry called NETWORK that offers job seekers in the community access to services such as resume preparation, coaching for interview skills, networking opportunities, and crisis and financial management.
Roswell (Ga.) United Methodist Church has more than 140 volunteers on a team of hiring and recruiting professionals who meet with job seekers twice a month through the church's job networking program.
Mission commitment continues
Despite the recession, church leaders from the local to national levels have seen evidence that the denomination's members remain committed to mission.
Officials of the Women's Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, were pleased that their core constituency - United Methodist Women - more than met their pledges for 2008. By the end of the year, the division had received $16.5 million in mission giving, about $3,000 above the total amount pledged.
Welcoming those results, Harriett Olson, the division's chief executive, said it is a "critical time" for sustaining the mission institutions and programs that assist women, children and youth. To ensure the commitment to mission, the division has cut its 2009 operating budget by 10 percent.
In Tipp City, Ohio, Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church took its regular Christmas miracle offering for its Sudan Project just one day after General Motors closed its automotive plant in nearby Dayton. Despite that economic blow, the offering raised $725,749 - part of the nearly $4 million Ginghamsburg has raised since 2004 for its Sudan work with the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
United Methodists were reminded that the church's ministry is needed more than ever during tough economic times in a February message signed by the president of the Council of Bishops, chairman of the Connectional Table and chairman of the table of general agency executives.
"It is a prophetic reminder that our destiny as a worldwide community and a global church is interwoven with complex bonds of prosperity, security, dignity and justice," the three leaders said. "We reclaim anew Jesus' teaching, ‘as you (cared for) the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me' as an urgent appeal for how we can live today."
Jim Winkler, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, pointed out in "Faith in Action," the agency's newsletter, that the economic crisis "is a human construct," not a dilemma imposed by God.
"If you have faith that God will provide abundant life, and realize that doesn't mean big houses and fancy cars or private jets, then you can look forward, and won't have to turn back," he wrote.
Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
Date posted: Mar 12, 2009