Faith-based job clubs are usually free and open to believers and nonbelievers alike. Such groups range from six people meeting over coffee in a church basement to highly structured programs with 500 members run by volunteers with backgrounds in human resources, executive recruitment and career development.
In larger programs, the participants often receive free career assessment testing and one-on-one coaching. Guest speakers lead workshops on developing a personal marketing plan or using LinkedIn and other social media tools.
"It's a way for HR people with industry knowledge to fulfill God's mission by helping others professionally, emotionally and spiritually," says Marilyn Santiago, a consultant who organized the job ministry at Ben Hill.
While no one knows the exact number of faith-based job networks nationally, there is no doubt that newcomers are flocking to them. "Our caseloads have increased 30 to 40 percent in the last 18 months," says Genie Cohen, executive director of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services. "Traditionally we've helped lower-income, poor and disadvantaged people, but for the first time we're seeing more middle-income and professionals."
Faith-based job search groups often vary in the services they offer, so some job seekers attend more than one in their area. Marti Valentine, 61, arrived in San Francisco five years ago. She was recently divorced and had no contacts, no résumé and few marketable skills. "This is a young, techie city," she says. "I'd look at job openings on Craigslist and think, I don't fit anything."
Valentine dropped in at GraceWorks, a networking group at Grace Cathedral, the city's largest Episcopal church. "But I felt a little intimidated around a lot of high-powered attorneys and business professionals," she says. "My people skills are off the charts, but I needed help with basic skill building."
GraceWorks referred her to the local Jewish Vocational Service, where she got career assessment testing and computer training. To plug gaps in her résumé, she attended a two-week National Council on Aging hospitality training program, which led to an interview with a temp agency. Valentine now works for nine agencies at conventions and trade shows, an arrangement that gives her time off to visit her mother back East.
"Officially I'm a 'conference concierge,' but I like to call myself the Information Queen — you can ask me anything about San Francisco and I'll tell you," she says.
The religious message in faith-based job clubs can range from none, at nonsectarian Jewish Vocational Service agencies, to a moment of guided meditation at GraceWorks, to readings of scripture and opening prayers at some groups.
So far, job clubs seem to be less common at Hindu and Buddhist temples or at mosques. "I've heard of a few temples holding workshops, but the effort is highly localized," says Henry Shibata, executive director of the Buddhist Churches of America, based in San Francisco.
But many clubs focus on assistance first and religious affiliation second — if at all. The 25-year-old job club at Holy Family Catholic Church in Inverness, Ill., skips faith-based content. "We have Hindus, Muslims, Jews and nonbelievers," says group moderator Jim Phillips. "So we don't emphasize a religious message, because we don't want to offend anyone."
A place for fellowship
What faith-based groups provide is fellowship, trust and emotional support at a time when job seekers feel vulnerable, even traumatized. "Many newcomers say it's the first time they've said, 'I need a job' out loud. They were just too embarrassed to tell anyone before," says Ben Hill's Marilyn Santiago.
Civil engineer Steve Brandt, 52, of Coppell, Texas, had never been out of work before he was laid off in July 2009. "That was a shock," he says. "There's a grieving process after a layoff that leaves you lost and confused."