Extending Faith-Based Career Development to Small Towns

by Timothy Beach
March 2017

The skill sets of displace workers often do not match the ever-changing economic situations of their various communities.  While some workers may need to gain new skills in order to adapt, others may simply need help in repackaging and remarketing them to new prospective employers.  The bottom line is that many unemployed and under-employed worker are not receiving the individual career guidance that they need.  On the other hand, in metropolitan areas, churches and other faith-based organizations are actively offering guidance that is lacking in some smaller communities.   In either location, Career Development Facilitators (CDFs) could potentially play a vital role.

Geographical Economics

Metropolitan areas that are overly dependent on a particularly industry can expect to face periodic tough times.   That’s the way it was in the 1970’s while I was in high school in Seattle during the famous “Boeing Bust”. Two realtors even paid for a sign on a billboard which read, “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE — Turn out the lights”. That was long before such now-famous names – such as Starbucks, Amazon, and Microsoft – appeared on the Seattle scene, providing some desperately needed economic diversification.  In stark contrast, Houston (where I presently reside) remains significantly dependent on one particular industry – namely oil and gas – and thus vulnerable to its inevitable boom and bust cycles.

While many metro areas experience periodic tough times, many small towns are increasingly plagued with perpetual tough times. National Public Radio (NPR) recently reported on two such small towns and their plights. The first report is on Sterling, Colorado where the community’s economic woes may be at least partly to blame for its prescription drug abuse problem.   The second article is on Independence, KS where a lot of young people routinely move away to find jobs.  Independence has even lost its hospital.

A Small Town Case Study

Prior to my family moving to Seattle when I was fifteen, I spent most of my childhood in Wellington–another small Kansas town–located nearly equidistance between the Oklahoma state line and Wichita to which quite a number of Wellington residents make their daily commute to work.  Although my parents, my brother, and my sister (and her family) eventually moved back to Wellington, I never did. During my infrequent return visits, I was no longer greeted by the bustling main street of my childhood years, but rather a downtown in a visible, ongoing state of decline. Many of the old, family-run downtown businesses have been displaced, not surprisingly, by Walmart.  Several buildings and numerous houses are dilapidated, with some awaiting demolition.  Wellington has experienced more than its share of economic woes, a shortage of good-paying jobs, and a drug problem – making the town somewhat resemble a combination of Sterling and Independence.

Unlike Independence, however, Wellington still has its hospital, and another bit of good news appears to be on the horizon.  Cowley County Community College, based in the next county to the east, is expected to start a branch campus in Wellington, hopefully bringing with it badly needed job-training and higher educational opportunities.

My most recent visit to Wellington took place shortly after starting my Career Development Facilitator (CDF) training, providing me with an opportunity to look at my hometown through the eyes of a prospective career guidance professional.  The National Career Development Association’s Facilitating Career Development Student Manual states that 60% of workers find themselves in jobs that they did not plan to be in.  So I began to wonder what kind of career guidance the students and workers in a town like Wellington would have access to.  Furthermore, ever since I first read (many years ago) What Color is Your Parachute, by The Rev. Richard Bolles, and with a special focus on the topic of the book’s Epilogue/Appendix A, “How to Find Your Mission in Life”, I have had a particular interest in the potential of faith-based career development.  During my most recent visit to Wellington, I decided to initiate some contacts with the Wellington Ministerial Alliance, Sumner County Workforce Solutions, and the Sumner County Mental Health Center. I subsequently followed up with these resources by email and/or phone after returning to Houston.

Urban Faith-Based Career Development

Although I eventually discovered that Houston is blessed with a large, cooperative, well-connected network of faith-based support groups for job-seekers, which includes Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian and Independent churches or groups, the first group to pop up in my Google search was based at Houston’s First Baptist Church.  I made an appointment to meet the coordinator about thirty minutes before the beginning of one of their “Job Search Work Team” meetings which takes place each Tuesday from 9:30 to 11 AM.

Bob Stroud is Ministry Coordinator of Houston’s First Baptist Church job ministry called First H.O.P.E. – which stands for ‘Helping Others Procure Employment’.  Bob describes himself as “a connector” – that is, he connects employers with job-seekers and vice versa.  However, even a casual observer will quickly note that his connector role grows out of his finely honed networking skills.  The result is two-way communication:  Bob calls his contacts and they call him.

Prior to being called to Houston’s First Baptist on March 4, 2016, Bob was serving in a similar Houston-based ministry named The WorkFaith Connections where he gained not only valuable experience, but also trustworthy partners who generously share their time and talent in helping other churches and organizations to minister to the needs of job-seekers within their well-linked communities.  For example, Ernie Perez, from a third Houston-area group called “Between Jobs Ministry” is scheduled to lead an upcoming a Job Training workshop for First H.O.P.E.  Such First H.O.P.E. workshops – on subjects ranging from resume writing to mock interviewing to inspirational and motivational topics ­­- are regularly scheduled for the second Saturday of each month.

In September 2016, Bob started another Houston’s First H.O.P.E. project called the “Job Search Work Team (JSWT)”, itself a seed picked from a parent project bearing the same name at Between Jobs Ministry and then planted across town.  My own involvement in Houston’s First H.O.P.E. came through the JSWT which I soon discovered is, by nature, both spiritual and practical.  Its participants consist of long term members (including founding members) and those who are just checking it out to see if it’s a good fit for them.   The official policy is to ask visitors to make a commitment after three visits.  The commitment focuses on accountability to the group through 1) consistent attendance (unless going to a job interview or other important reason), 2) reporting to the group one’s job-search related activities undertaken during the previous week, and 3) spending between two and four hours each week helping fellow members.

Because the goal of the group is to graduate members into full-time jobs, the make-up of the JSWT is obviously going to remain somewhat fluid, with some new inquirers arriving and while others are seen less frequently due to going to job interviews or tending to the regular demands of life.  Also noteworthy is the fact that Houston’s First Baptist is located next to a freeway in a very upscale part of the city.  All the participants I have come to know are college educated.

A typical JSWT meeting starts with one member praying on behalf of the group and followed by everyone giving a thirty-second self-introduction – which is particularly helpful when newcomers are present. Bob or a group leader will make announcements of upcoming events. Next, each person may give an accounting regarding how much time he/she spent in job-search related activities and the nature of the activities.  This is often followed by a presentation by one of the members on a particular topic, or perhaps some will solicit feedback on the content and format of their resumes while others may be engaged in mock job interviews or practicing their informational interviews.  One member may request assistance with a particular need, such as solving a computer problem – which is certainly not an infrequent request.  Finally, one group member will close the meeting in prayer.  Some participants may have already left by that point, while others may hang around to help each other on resumes, computer problems or other needs – or to have lunch with another member.

The overriding sense of community permeating the group cannot be overstated, nor should its value be underestimated. Bob’s own personal life experience undoubtedly helped to set the tone for the group in this regard.  Following one of those periodic downturns in the oil and gas industry, which are infamously and intermittently known to plague the city – this particular one in 2005 – Bob lost his IT consulting business.  So when it comes to helping the unemployed, it’s very personal for him.  “I know what these people are going through,” he asserts.  With that sentiment in mind, it’s not surprising that he wants to see results.  He reports that First H.O.P.E. helped 31 individuals find jobs in 2016 and successfully helped 6 do likewise as of early March in 2017.

But there’s more to “the team” than just the Houston’s First H.O.P.E. and the JSWT.  Houston’s First Baptist also boasts a fully-staffed professional counselling center.  Kendra Brunson, MABC, LPC-I, offers professional career counseling services which include administering the Places Personality Assessment .

Small Town Needs and Challenges

Back in Wellington, where congregations are much smaller, supporting a full-fledged counselling staff is unfeasible­–unless several congregations were to jointly start a faith-based counseling center.  In the meantime, at Sumner County Mental Health Center (SCMHC), Sheila Schroeder, LSCSW, says that her agency is capable of doing a complete vocational profile and a mental health assessment which also assesses school performance and employment history.  She states that SCMHC works closely with the local Workforce Solutions office, educational institutions and other agencies.  She also reports that SCMHC offers career guidance services to about twenty clients in an average month.  When asked what she thought of the idea of having trained, volunteer career guides to assist in meeting the basic career guidance needs of those whom her agency serves, she replied that it “might be interesting to further explore.”

Accordingly, it seems to me that, in a town the size of Wellington (pop. 8,000), if the career guidance needs of those who do not require mental health services could be served by several trained CDFs, then far more individuals could be served.  Taking this idea one step further, Wellington is the county seat of Sumner County (pop. 23,000) which, as is typical of many mid-western counties, includes at least ten towns spread out over an area of 1,185 square miles – most of which is wheat fields and pastures.  All of the larger towns contain churches and schools – potential sources of future CDFs.

The Problem of Obscurity – and a Possibly Solution

Unfortunately, no one I have spoken with thus far, either in Wellington or in Houston, has ever heard of NCDA or CDF– that is, of course until I asked them if they had. Furthermore, the only references to either the NCDA, or to the CDF credential that I could find in What Color is Your Parachute? (2017 Edition) were: 1) a brief statement in the About the Author section that Bolles had been a keynote conference speaker for the NCDA, and 2) in the Sampler List of Coaches index,  one career counselor in Massachusetts holds the GCDF credential, in addition to several others.  Of course, I find it rather surprising that the NCDA and its CDF credential have made such a small incursion into the world’s best-selling career guide, even though the latter is revised annually.  Volunteer career guides and CDFs have much to learn from each other.  I certainly have learned from both the experience of the career guides I have met as well as my fellow job-seekers.

I was recently offered an opportunity to make a contribution to the JSWT.  I gave a PowerPoint presentation featuring overviews of job search websites and other pertinent web sites that should be helpful in the job-search decision-making process.  Although it was a bit rushed, it was well received.

It seems to me that if NCDA’s CDFs would like to be better known, then encouraging CDFs to volunteer with programs like First H.O.P.E. presents a great opportunity to learn and share.  I highly recommend other budding CDFs to seriously consider volunteering with community-based or faith-based job-search groups – or even starting one!

References and Resources

“Will the last person leaving SEATTLE — Turn out the lights”. http://www.historylink.org/File/1287
NPR: Rural Colorado’s Opioid Connections Might Hold Clues To Better Treatment
NPR: Despite Economic Troubles, Residents Of Kansas Town Remain Proud
First H.O.P.E
. http://houstonsfirst.org/sienna/ministries/career-development
The WorkFaith Connections http://workfaithconnection.org/

Timothy Beach, M.Div., CDF has had three broad careers which include short stints in pastoral work and as an EEG technologist, followed by many years of teaching that have included Montessori, ESL ( one year in China and 20 years in Taiwan), and in Special Ed.  He is currently working as a substitute teacher at public and private schools, and at private special education schools, while seeking a full-time teaching position. Having just completed his CDF certificate requirements, he has also recently started Dyslexia Therapist training.  He embraces a holistic view of education and human development.