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— Kendrick Brinson/LUCEO Images

Over a year ago, David F. Papuga put a notice in his church's bulletin, offering to match the parish's job seekers with anyone who knew of job openings. "A lot of people were losing their jobs and coming to me out of desperation," says Papuga, business manager and deacon at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Moorestown, N.J. "So I thought this would be an easy way to help people connect."

It worked. "We've helped over 60 people land jobs so far," says Papuga.

Generally, a house of worship isn't the first place job hunters think of to get help. But religious institutions have long been involved in the economic as well as spiritual lives of their members, pushing politicians on issues such as the minimum wage and workplace discrimination. Now they're getting involved in the nuts and bolts of job seeking.

At the Our Lady of Good Counsel program, volunteers set up free job-hunting workshops, using meeting space offered by Virtua Health, South Jersey's largest health care system. Guest speakers covered search strategies, résumés, interview skills, computer literacy and salary negotiation.

"This has really exploded," says Papuga. More than 325 people are taking part in the seminars and workshops.

One is Russel Miller, 65, who was laid off in September 2008 when business tanked at his mechanical engineering firm. Miller attended a workshop after making no progress with executive recruiters, newspaper classified ads and online job postings.

"I was afraid to network," he says. "I worried what people would think when I said I was fired. But the meetings gave me the oomph to start calling around." That stepped-up effort helped him land a job at an engineering firm the following July.

Encouraged by their initial success, Papuga and other volunteers launched the Career Transition Partnership, a nonprofit coalition of South Jersey business, industry and interfaith communities offering help to the unemployed or underemployed. So far, CTP includes a dozen faith-based organizations that are pooling resources to help job clubs. It has established faith-based groups in all three South Jersey counties, says Papuga. And continues to expand.

As Miller's experience shows, networking is key to a successful job search, and faith-based clubs recognize this. Typically, they arrange for job hunters to quickly state their expertise, goals and target companies in a room of 50 to 300 people. Some assign partners or buddy groups to hold individuals accountable for their weekly job search goals.

Finding helping hands

"I can't tell you how many times someone gives their 60-second elevator pitch and four hands go up because somebody knows a contact inside that target company," says Sue Tileston, founder of Work Ministry, a private firm that advises faith-based and community networking groups.

In this age of online applications, networking is still the way people land jobs, says Tileston, a human resources professional. "Employers today are more likely to hire on a referral because they are so inundated with résumés," she says. "One online posting can result in more than 1,000 résumés, and HR professionals don't have time to review them."

Denise Bryant, 56, of Riverdale, Ga., said she knew networking was important but thought it was too time-consuming. She spent seven days a week answering online job postings that netted only a few interviews in two years. With foreclosure threatening her family, Bryant joined Those In-Between Jobs, a support group at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

At weekly meetings, Bryant learned to restructure her job search by spending less time online and more time identifying and following up on leads. In April, she landed a full-time job at a call center. But it lasted only a few months, and she has returned to Ben Hill.

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