May 5, 2020

Pastoring the Unemployed . . . As An Unemployed Pastor

I recently marked 10 years of pastoring my church—a wonderful group of Christ followers in the heart of North Florida.

However, because of our small size and limited finances, the church does not give me a paycheck. They do generously pay for my health insurance and have provided other benefits over the years. But the foundation of my income comes from my other job—teaching high school. For the past six years, I have taught history, English, music, computer, Bible, and any other topic that the local Christian schools needed me to teach.

On Friday, March 13, I said to my students, “See you in a week” as we departed for spring break. The next day, we discovered that spring break would be two weeks on account of the novel coronavirus outbreak. A week later, I received a call from school administration to inform me that the school would be closed indefinitely. In that instant, I became one of the millions of Americans who lost their job due to COVID-19.

Growing Issue

As people around the world lose their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, pastoring the unemployed is a growing need that churches all around the world are now facing. My current experience, as both a pastor and also an unemployed worker, has been bittersweet. On one hand, I have much more time to minister to my church members as we navigate this difficult season. On the other hand, I’m experiencing the deep feelings of uncertainty that follows the loss of a job.

I’m feeling both the need for work myself, while also trying to serve people who are in need of work. As I have examined my own experience, and those of brothers and sisters around me, I have noticed four areas that need particular attention as we pastor the unemployed.

1. Physical Needs

The roughly 50% of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck simply cannot function very long without income. When someone becomes unemployed, they may be forced to choose between food and a house payment. Others may cut back on every expense possible because their limited funds are running dry.

A government stimulus check—though welcome in these difficult times—only lasts so long when there are bills to pay and mouths to feed. Further, unemployment compensation is unreliable. (In my home state of Florida, as of the time of this writing, nearly one million people have applied for unemployment but only 200,000 have received any money.)

2. Fear

A pandemic is stressful for everyone, but those feelings are multiplied when unemployment hits. The fear of living without income infects the mind, causing untold stress and anxiety. There’s also the fear that jobs might not even be available once this pandemic subsides, as many employers are considering cutting back on personnel permanently.

The currently unemployed are unique in that most of them are skilled people who are capable of working, had been working, and want to work, yet they are simply not allowed to work right now. Along with that frustration and fear is the uncertainty about whether the unemployed person should wait on her old job to return or whether she should go out and look for a new one.

3. Feelings of Betrayal

A friend of mine was recently laid off from his long-time sales job. He’s consistently been one of the company’s hardest and most faithful workers. After becoming unemployed, he began experiencing feelings of worthlessness. He feels betrayed by his employer.

In my own teaching position, our administration often stressed that we are “one big family here” and that we “watch out for one another.” Yet when faced with the threat of financial hardship, they cut nearly everyone loose with no other explanation than, “There will be no more paychecks and you need to file for unemployment.” I understand that a business is a business and must be mindful of the bottom line, but workers like my friend can harbor feelings of bitterness that their employers didn’t make more of an effort to care for their employees.

4. Discouragement and Anxiety

Not knowing how or when this pandemic will end makes for painful uncertainty as we look to the future. For those who have lost their livelihood and are facing the prospect of starting over from scratch, it’s extra discouraging. On April 16, 2020, Newsweek reported that prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications had increased by over 34% since the pandemic began.

Unemployed people—many of whom are experiencing physical needs, fearfulness, betrayal, discouragement, and anxiety—absolutely need pastoral care. But as pastors, what can we actually do, especially when entire communities are under stay-at-home orders? Here are a few ideas.

1. Maintain regular contact with people. Let them know they are valuable and remembered—both by you and also the Lord. 

2. Gently inquire about physical needs and seek to find practical ways to provide. Many of these self-sufficient laid-off workers will not ask for help, choosing instead to suffer in silence. Discovering needs and meeting them, even in small ways, is one small way to provide huge practical encouragement. A gift card, a fuel card, a bag of groceries, or even a package of toilet paper can be very encouraging to a person who is struggling with fear and anxiety over the future.

3. Pray for and with people. On the phone. Over text. Via FaceTime. Whatever works.

4. Encourage people to not waste their unemployment, but to use this time to diligently seek the Lord and grow in Him. It could be helpful to offer independent Bible studies they can do along with virtual small group Bible discussions for mutual encouragement and accountability.  

5. Point people to Jesus. He’s the One who for our sake became poor (2 Cor. 8:9); the One who was betrayed, who took on the stresses and pains of life. He both understands our weaknesses and has the power to bring us through.

In the end, one way or another, our Lord Jesus will bring us through.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared at One Hope.

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