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VOL. 36 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 02, 2012

Houses of worship help with job search

Low-cost alternative to expensive services

By Brad Schmitt

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Neil Lambert looks at 20 to 50 resumes a week. As director of non-hospital related recruiting for the gargantuan HCA Healthcare, he helps make more than 3,000 hires a year.

So it would be easy to understand if Lambert hesitated when his church asked if he might do some career counseling – for free.

But Lambert dove right in two years ago at West End United Methodist Church to help fellow parishioners find jobs.

“I feel like I should help people when I can,” Lambert says. “I’ve been very fortunate that this line of work has kept me employed even through the worst of times.”

Churches and temples have long been a place for members to get financial help, religious education and spiritual and emotional counseling.

In the recent recession, Middle Tennessee houses of worship are increasingly offering career counseling.

Brentwood United Methodist Church has offered help for job seekers for years, and Mt. Zion Baptist Church recently held its 10th annual job fair. Jewish Family Services also offers a career networking program.

Why? Why not, says Hal Hassall, a longtime volunteer who teaches networking at Brentwood United Methodist.

“I think it’s important for churches, synagogues, schools, civic organizations, anyone to help people find their own jobs,” Hassall says.

Private help can be pricey

First, there are the simple economics. Most folks looking for work are struggling financially, and job-hunting seminars can cost anywhere from $50 to $500. Private career counseling sessions can be $75-$400 an hour, and most agencies have start-up fees of $200 to $400.

Most church-based programs are free.

But those who use the programs also find the fellowship comforting, knowing that they’re not alone in what can be panic-inducing searches.

“It was reassuring and supportive to know that I was not the only one in the job search boat so to speak,” says Mark Witzl, who found a job through the BUMC program.

What to expect

Sessions often start with 30 minutes of networking with the 100 or so participants who show up each week, Witzl explains.

“Attendees introduce themselves to others, swap business cards and catch-up with other job seekers, asking about their progress and sharing tips and ideas about looking for employment,’’ he says.

“This part was always humbling and helped to remind me that no matter how I was feeling, there were others sharing similar feelings and hope.”

Hassall adds: “It’s a safe environment where everyone’s sensitive to career change. It’s not employers and interviewees; it’s fellow travelers. That may be one of the reasons for our longevity.

Different Approaches

At 23 years, the Brentwood program is the longest running and most involved, offering classes in online job searching, using social media to look for work, staying motivated during searches.

The West End United Methodist Church offers a two-month program – participants come once a week – where Lambert offers tips on resume writing and networking.

And the Mt. Zion Baptist Church hosts an annual job fair that this year attracted more than 500 job seekers to its Antioch location.

“It is always amazing to see thousands of chairs removed from the sanctuary to allow space for 103 vendors to use their creativity in designing their personal booth space,” Mt. Zion volunteer Jacqueline Rowe wrote in a statement.

“It’s too early to tell if anyone from the Expo has been hired.”

Businesses Reach Out

Jewish Family Services has put together a network of about 30 business owners and business leaders who can open doors for job seekers.

Those business leaders take resumes and get them in the hands of colleagues or associates who might be seeking new employees.

It’s a program that Jewish Family Services started in 2009 when the downturn in the economy had many more folks turning to JFS for various forms of relief, director Pam Kelner says.

“That’s probably the hardest part is getting your resume in front of somebody. We can make that first step for people.”

Twice a year, Jewish Family Services also holds seminars on resumes and interviewing.

Volunteers who Understand

Church volunteers often come from the ranks of those who themselves found jobs through church programs.

Hassall says he found a job in the mid-90s because the Brentwood program taught him how to network.

“I became a student and then a teacher,” he says.

No job placement program – church-based or otherwise – can guarantee 100 percent success.

But there are enough anecdotal success stories to keep volunteers and participants motivated.

Like the woman who came to Nashville with no job and no acquaintances, just two adult kids and two grandkids. The BUMC program helped her start a new job within five weeks.

Or like the guy who sought help at the West End United Methodist Church who, because of an introduction from Lambert, started a job at Vanderbilt University in a month or so.

“I can always help a person with their resume, can always help with the search,” Lambert says.

“But I don’t take it personally if they can’t find anything,” he says. “We do what we can.”

Yes, religious institutions have a spiritual mandate to do whatever they can to serve the flock, but there’s a more practical reason to help parishioners find jobs: Employed parishioners are less of a drain on financial and food resources.

JFS’ Kelner cites Middle Ages philosopher/scholar Maimonides:

“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”

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