Your phone vibrates and the picture of a dear friend appears on the screen. Excitedly you answer only to hear, "I got laid-off today." Whoa! No matter how you put it — downsized, let go, terminated, eliminated, pink-slipped — this is a difficult day. After the initial shock and grief, your friend will begin a dreaded period of unemployment.
You want to help, of course. It's in our United Methodist DNA, but sometimes you can say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Not wanting to make matters worse, you may be tempted to keep your distance. Don't. The journey of unemployment can be very discouraging. By drawing near as a traveling companion you can help someone close to you stay connected to their faith and the church.
To help you reinforce the positive, and keep your foot out of your mouth, here are some things NOT to say to someone who is unemployed.
"Have you found a job…YET?" You probably won't say it that way, but this is how it may be heard. Jennifer Kaylor, who recently moved nearly 600 miles from her home and the Park City (Utah) Community Church, a United Methodist congregation where she had been active. She says, "The 'yet' really punctuated feelings of hopelessness, lostness, frustration, and despair" while looking for a new job in a new community. Ask more specific questions about the job search instead. For what type of work are you looking? How did that job interview go last week?
"How many resumes have you sent out?" This seemingly benign conversation starter may reinforce pressure your friend is already feeling. Tim Boyle, a United Methodist and volunteer counselor and coach with a community employment agency in Colorado Springs, and one who suffered a lengthy period of unemployment of his own, says many job-seekers become obsessed with the hunt. Rather than reinforcing the job search, Tim advises us to "encourage them to get involved in serving others, through volunteer organizations or the church." Giving builds a sense of purpose and can do wonders for your unemployed friend's morale. Suggest a ministry where you can serve together.
"Have you tried…?" Unless you are sharing a specific lead or personal experience from your own recent bout of unemployment, leave the job-hunting advice to those who are trained to give it. You may want to point your friend toward amazing resources like the Job Networking gatherings held at Roswell United Methodist Church in Georgia that offer support and job-seeking advice. Look for similar gatherings in your area. Otherwise, resist the temptation to become a coach and remain a friend.
"It must be nice not having to go to work." No. It's not. It's awful. Delia Cruz, a young woman who has chosen unemployment so she can care for aging and disabled family members who attend Warren Grove United Methodist Church in New Jersey, said, "Sometimes I wish I were them… I don't earn a paycheck… I don't have a place to go to escape and occupy my mind 8 hours a day. I don't have co-workers to talk to and sometimes my world can seem very isolating." Your friend knows your job is a blessing. Treat it as such.
"Tell me all about it." Although the last time you spoke with your friend you had a deep and apparently helpful talk, that conversation may not be welcome today. "Sometimes I wanted and needed encouragement," said Jen Filla, an attorney and member of the Board of Trustees at Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument, Colorado, who recently went through a period of unemployment, "and other times, I just didn't want to think or talk about it." Be wise, listen intently, and let the other take the lead. Don't try to force an unwelcome conversation. It will not be as supportive as you may think.
"How are you getting by?" No matter how much your friend has squirreled away for a rainy day, she is worried about money. Asking this question may raise your friend's anxiety on a day he was winning that battle. Unless your friend brings it up, stay away from money talk. You may just be fueling the fire that jarred her from a sound sleep at 2:00 this morning. Todd Masman, a job seeker in Minneapolis, Minnesota suggests, "treat them to lunch or a movie. Send them a note and tuck in a $5 gift card to Starbucks, or McDonald's, or Target."
"God has a better plan for you." Wendy Schlafley, who sometimes works in the office of her United Methodist congregation in Monument, Colorado and a former office administrator for Greater European Mission, says she used to say things like that. Then she went through her own bout with unemployment. "While it may be a true statement," she continued, "it simply isn't helpful." Jay Litton, leader of the Roswell UMC Job Networking Ministry says, "We believe that God should be part of the job search" (from "Keeping God in Your Job Search"), but general statements about things eventually working out can be very frustrating. Instead, share what you know about your friend to offer encouragement when it seems in short supply— his giftedness, times God has come through for her, his remarkable network, and signs of God's continued presence in her life even during this difficult time.
Unemployment is a journey through a dense forest where traveling companions are desperately needed. You don't have to be the expert guide, you simply need to be what you have always been: a friend. Stay close. Listen. Offer a hand to hold and a shoulder to cry on. Provide some normalcy in the midst of uncharted territory, and a beacon of hope in the midst of despair.
Originally published September 1, 2014.
*Joe Iovino is a freelance writer and blogger who currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument, Colorado.