For some, the problem of poverty has a simple solution: “The poor just need to get off their lazy backsides and get a job.” Second Thessalonians 3:10 offers some support of that view: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” But the answer is not always that easy.
I first encountered this years ago while doing research for an article about an urban ministry in Atlanta, Ga. I met a young man who worked at a home goods store; the ministry operated the store to teach job skills to community residents.
“What’s this job taught you so far?” I asked.
“I’ve learned to use a ruler,” he replied, “and that I have to show up for work on time.”
His response surprised me, but it made sense. If you don’t own much, you have little to measure. And if have nowhere to go, what difference does it make when you arrive? Yet these skills are basic to getting—and keeping—a job.
A Partnership Between Business and Churches
Recognizing this dilemma, the Raleigh, N.C.-based Jobs for Life (formerly known as Jobs Partnership) was founded in 1996. The idea grew out of a lunch conversation between Chris Mangum, head of a roadway construction company, and his friend, Donald L. McCoy. Mangum lamented that 10 of his construction trucks were parked for lack of drivers. McCoy complained that a number of people in his congregation were “parked” for lack of a job.
They resolved to forge partnerships between businesses and churches in the community to reach, mentor, train and provide jobs for their unemployed and under-employed neighbors. A steering committee was formed: eight pastors from different denominations, along with seven Raleigh-area business leaders. They developed a curriculum to teach basic workplace skills and ethics, based on biblical principles.
The program included instruction in filling out applications, communication skills, proper attire, even maintaining good eye contact. Values-based discussions covered issues such as authority, integrity, excellence, trust, perseverance, and forgiveness. Biblical examples were presented, and local business leaders provided glimpses of work in the real world. Role-playing and mock interviews helped students apply what they learned.
The Relational Dimension Brings Success
While typical broad-scale initiatives for assisting the jobless have failed, this approach succeeded. The majority of Jobs for Life graduates, sometimes as many as 70 to 80 percent of those who had successfully completed the training, were still employed after a year.
For instance, in the seven classes conducted through Men of Valor, a prison ministry in Nashville, Tenn., each of the former inmates had full-time jobs within two weeks of leaving prison. This can be attributed in part to addressing the root causes of joblessness, such as improper values, poor character, and a poor attitude, which are addressed through the Bible-based curriculum.
But just as important is the relational dimension of the training. Each student is assigned a “champion” who offers counsel, support, and encouragement. The value of a supportive community ready to assist cannot be overstated.
Mangum, now chairman of the Jobs for Life (JFL) board, spoke about obstacles confronting the poor. “We learn most of what we need for success from our fathers and mothers.” But in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, Mangum says, “Many young people are either poorly parented or not parented at all. The foundation they need to succeed in the workplace is not there.
“In Jobs for Life, we plant seeds, teaching biblical principles of work. For the first time, JFL students receive the tools they need to use in the workplace to succeed: respect for authority, how to resolve conflict, doing the right thing when nobody’s watching, and how to handle money properly.”
Strategy Shift: Train Existing Organizations
Under the old Jobs Partnership title, the program expanded to other cities, including Washington, D.C.; Orlando, Fla.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Cleveland, Ohio. The goal was to foster citywide initiatives. However, in 2005 the strategy shifted. The goal was now to equip existing organizations within a city, and to establish multiple sites to focus on neighborhood needs.
David Spickard, who joined the organization in 1999 as chief operating officer, became its president and CEO in 2006, about the same time the name was formally changed to Jobs for Life. “I had always wanted to help people in need, but didn’t know how,” Spickard said. That changed in 1998 when he learned about Jobs Partnership at a national conference for community development associations held at Briarwood Presbyterian (PCA) in Birmingham, Ala., his hometown.
Working as a consultant to BellSouth at the time, he felt a call almost immediately. “It seemed like a great fit for my background and interests. I had gone to school in North Carolina and my wife is from there, so it was like going home.”
Over the years, Spickard’s enthusiasm for the Jobs for Life strategy has grown, especially after becoming involved with a classic case in his own church, Christ the King Presbyterian. There he befriended a disabled man named Don who was living in a downtown Raleigh rooming house.
“We were just starting our Jobs for Life class, and since I had no other ideas for helping him, I encouraged him to attend. It turned out to be a great thing we could do together. Today Don is married, living in the mountains of North Carolina, self-employed, and teaching art classes all over the county.”
Poverty statistics are astounding, Spickard noted. “In America today, one in every eight people is in poverty, including one in every five African-Americans, and one in every six Hispanics. And in homes without a dad, more than 50 percent of children live in poverty.”
A More Efficient Kind of Mercy
“According to an Urban Institute study (2001) of outreach programs, many churches provide food, clothing, and housing for the poor. But very few—only one percent—are engaged in any form of employment assistance. What if we could reverse that—putting job training at the top of the list? That could solve the food and clothing problem, and have a very positive effect on the housing need.”
How do we shift some resources from temporary assistance to longer-lasting development efforts? “I wish I could answer,” Spickard says. He hopes JFL can serve as a “messenger,” helping churches understand the high return on investment in helping people find meaningful work.
Part of the problem, Spickard believes, is commitment. It takes time and energy to build relationships, to form open-ended commitments, and to help the poor overcome the barriers that confront them. “It can seem difficult, even overwhelming,” Spickard admits, “but as I have found in my own life, the reward can be incredible.”
The jobless comprise a vast, untapped mission field, he said. “Throughout the Bible, we see God affirming the importance of work. Whenever we try to take the gospel to another culture, one of the challenges is to learn their language. As we seek to teach the language of work to the poor, we can learn from them the language of poverty and the unemployed.”
An Adaptable Curriculum for Community Needs
Under Spickard’s leadership, the JFL curriculum has undergone considerable revision, becoming a “tool kit” to equip churches and Christian-based organizations to reach out to people in their communities.
Today JFL has 79 active sites in 59 cities and 25 states, each one integrating the curriculum into their unique missions. An example is Advance Memphis, headed by Steve Nash, which serves the impoverished communities of Cleaborn and Foote.
“Our 38126 zip code is the poorest in Tennessee, and in 1999 was the poorest in the nation,” said Nash, a member of New Beginnings Community Church, a PCA congregation. “We are using the Jobs for Life curriculum to help adults gain the knowledge, resources, and skills to become economically self-sufficient through the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He and his staff combine the JFL material with a financial freedom class every morning over four weeks. In the afternoon students work in a business established in the community so they can put lessons into practice.
Last June 16 people enrolled in the class and 10 graduated; seven of the 10 are now employed full-time. Nash said he hopes to have 18 students enrolled in the next class.
The benefits of Jobs for Life are numerous, he said. “Most of our students have no idea the Scriptures talk about work. [In the curriculum] they see examples of workers from the Bible and learn how to apply principles to their own lives. They gain a bigger picture of life and the world from the firm foundation of God’s truth.” JFL’s approach offers a long-term answer to the poverty question, according to Nash.
Against the Grain is a faith-based organization in Franklin, Tenn., working with single mothers to help them escape generational cycles of poverty. Jobs for Life is a key ingredient to its mission.
“[The program] teaches them how to get a job and how to hold onto a job. Recently we gave some training in being interviewed: What they would be asked, how to prepare their life story, and what questions they should ask about the job,” said Meredith Kendall, executive director.
“The next week, one of our women applied for a job at Wal-Mart. She got the days and hours she wanted to work because she knew enough to ask. After the interview, she called me and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, they really did ask those questions!’”
Bill Lee’s mechanical contracting company in Nashville has employed two JFL graduates in conjunction with Men of Valor, a prison ministry.
“Coming out of prison, people start with a disadvantage, needing an opportunity a lot of people will not afford them. So they are grateful for the training and a chance to work. As a Christian business owner, I see my business as a ministry. The idea of encouraging people to work according to biblical standards and values parallels my desire to honor God by serving people, including my employees.”
Mangum’s company has hired 10 JFL graduates. Most eventually moved to other jobs more suited for their skills and talents, but Louis, a man he hired from the very first class, has been a gem.
“Louis has been with us for 10 years and is definitely part of our corporate culture. He was always dependable and has become more strategic, now working with new employees and heading up our buddy system to help them transition into the workplace.”
The JFL curriculum affirms the importance of work in the Bible, starting in Genesis and continuing through the New Testament, Mangum noted. In addition, it fits well with the biblical call to mercy ministry.
“In Micah 6:8, we are commanded ‘to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ Through Jobs for Life, we give tools to people, tools that … give them access to the poor, enabling them to serve and produce a good result. We motivate and encourage people in the church, helping them overcome their fear of … working with ‘the least of these.’”
Robert J. Tamasy is vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., an Atlanta-based ministry to business and professional leaders, and author of Business At Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace.
Five Reasons for Job Training
Why should churches consider job training in their outreach to the poor? David Spickard offers five reasons:
1. “As they discover what the Bible teaches about work, they will encounter Jesus Christ in the process.”
2. “One of the most important things the church can do to transform lives is ‘teach the poor to fish,’ helping them to find value through work.”
3. “It puts the church in a position to serve where government is overwhelmed.”
4. “It provides businesses with employees who have strong work values.”
5. “Engaging in active ministry will change members’ lives and transform the church.”
For more information about Jobs for Life, its unique curriculum, and how your church can utilize its resources, visit their Web site, www.jobsforlife.com, or call (888) 408-1565.
A Realistic View of Working With the Poor
Hope for Chattanooga, a Christian community development organization, aids the urban poor through a four-pronged approach: job training, housing, adult literacy, and training urban ministry teams from other cities. For more than 10 years, Jobs Partnership/Jobs for Life has been an important piece of its employment puzzle.
Paul Green, Hope’s executive director and a member of the Jobs for Life board, states that nearly 1,000 men and women have been introduced to the biblically-based training curriculum, including more than 300 through the first seven months of 2007.
Unfortunately, that does not mean that 1,000 people are now gainfully employed.
Green says the average class starts with 25 people, but attrition over the 13-week span is “generally 50 percent.” About 85 percent of those who graduate are placed in jobs; half of those retain their jobs for extended periods of time.
The fault is not with the curriculum, he points out. It’s the difficulty in overcoming deep-rooted problems endemic to the poor, including:
• The survival mentality. “We try to teach them what they need to do to be successful. But people in the projects develop a different mentality. For a lot of them, all that matters is surviving day to day.”
• Financial management problems. “Many of them have little understanding of how to manage money properly, even handling a checking account.”
• Basic interviewing and communication skills. “They need to learn the importance of looking, talking, and acting properly, just to be considered for a job.”
• High-risk behavior. “Many of the people we work with have drug problems, prison records, or both. Who’s going to give them a second chance, especially in a competitive environment?”
• Inadequate education. “Even if they can get in the door, limited skills in reading, math, and computer literacy keep them from rising through the ranks.”
• Lack of proper role models. “Many of them come from single-parent families, often where they did not see a healthy work ethic being modeled for them.”
“Assessing problems of the poor, we usually don’t take into context all they are up against. How do you overcome all of these barriers?” Green asks honestly, admitting the solutions are neither quick nor easy. But the situation is far from hopeless.
A common response by middle-class church members is to write a check, feel a measure of satisfaction, and be done with it. But the Hope executive suggests that a deeper investment is necessary.
“Giving money is helpful, but we need to invest ourselves,” he says. “They need someone willing to walk with them, even give them the opportunity to fail.”
This fall, Hope for Chattanooga, New City Fellowship (its founding church), and North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga—both PCA congregations—will partner to test the new Jobs for Life curriculum, compressed into a six- to eight-week time frame, shorter than the 13-week model Hope has been using.
Green says the original Jobs Partnership format “connects with us better,” providing time with students twice weekly over a longer period. “Many of them have had trouble in finishing, staying with anything, so it’s important to build relationships with them eye to eye.” He envisions eventually blending the two models to meet the needs of Hope for Chattanooga and its communities.
Funding agencies often want quick results and high-volume success rates, he notes, but this is not realistic in ministering to the poor. “It can’t be about big numbers in relationally-based ministry. It’s not a pretty work and can be frustrating after investing a lot of time in individuals to see them fail due to poor choices,” Green admits. “But you have to remember we are called to do the work as best we can and leave the results to the Lord.”