The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Maneuvering today's rocky vocational road

How Lutherans, strengthened by their faith and understanding of vocation, are coping with today’s job market challenges

Some years ago our youngest daughter, now in her 30s and recently married, asked if I felt disappointed that she was a bartender, as opposed to working, say, in education or corporate life. I told her I wasn’t disappointed at all, and what really mattered is how she feels about it. She was, and is, working toward a college degree in business. Meanwhile, she is earning a good income.

I reminded her (and myself) that in the 1500s Martin Luther penned his theology of vocation, espousing the view that whether you are a priest or shovel manure (or serve as a bartender and conversation partner in the hospitality trade) you are occupying a station of equal merit, one that is holy (unless it’s overtly sinful). Key to any vocation, Luther said, is serving the neighbor, contributing to the common good.

Luther expanded the concept of vocation to include domestic and civic duties as well as employment. He wrote: “The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks … all works are measured before God by faith alone.”

His ideas had a leveling effect, taking the priesthood down a peg and raising the vocations of the laity. For Luther, key Scripture for his thinking was 1 Corinthians 7:23-24: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.”

In these days of unemployment and underemployment, Luther’s vocational views can inspire us no matter what “station” (or stations) we hold or once held.

Today another kind of leveling has impacted the American scene. According to theU.S. Labor Department and other reports, the latest recession (the 11th in the postwar period since 1948) was the most devastating since the Great Depression. The gross domestic product of the U.S. contracted 5.1 percent, and in October 2009 the unemployment rate reached 10 percent, dramatically up from the November 2007 figure of 4.7 percent.

The recovery has been relatively weak, according to many reports. Last November the unemployment figure stood at 7 percent with about 7.4 million jobs created since February 2010. That figure is considerably lower than the number of jobs lost in the recession — 8.7 million, according to the Labor Department. Reports suggest that the kinds of jobs now being created aren’t as high-end overall as many of the positions lost several years ago.

The Labor Department also has reported that the income of American households has plunged to a level not seen since 1992, when adjusted for inflation. The Census Bureau reports that the median household income is $50,233. The median income for men is $45,113 and for women $35,102.

So how are Lutherans around the country handling the challenges of today’s job market? What role is their faith playing in their capacity to cope? How do they use their gifts in their daily work and otherwise?

John Grabner

The 58-year-old member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Lansdale, Pa., and mechanical engineer has been out of work twice since 2001, most recently several years ago and more than two years altogether. Grabner said he “spent a lot of time praying and looking for guidance.”

The first time he was unemployed he said it helped a great deal that he had “a renewed relationship with Christ.”

While unemployed, Grabner also volunteered for an immersion week with the Appalachia Service Project. “I was so positively overwhelmed by that experience that losing my job didn’t feel like such a big deal, or so I thought,” he said.

During his second period of unemployment, Grabner had the benefit of an outsourcing firm’s counsel. He connected with the Business Executives Marketing Group, where he discovered people who want to help others. “A couple of people I met had started networking groups at their churches, and that inspired me to create Trinity Connect (at the Lansdale congregation) to help unemployed or underemployed people think about approaches to finding satisfying work,” he said. “I think a large part of my faith foundation is helping others.”

Trinity Connect has counseled about 70 people during the last three years, ranging from an auto mechanic to a chief financial officer. Grabner said about 25 percent have found satisfying jobs.

Many come to the program with low self-esteem. “They will say, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why won’t anyone listen to me?’ They are frustrated and sometimes have become reclusive,” he said. “We teach them not simply to look for a job, but also how to connect with others for advice.”

Grabner now has the most satisfying job of his life as an energy engineer with a company that relates to PPL, a large Pennsylvania power utility. He works with churches, apartment landlords, hospitals and other enterprises to fulfill a state mandate to reduce energy consumption.

Sometimes when he thinks about his work, Grabner asks God for guidance. “The opportunity to talk about [my work] to God tends to move me in the right direction,” he added.

Tempie D. Beaman

The 66-year-old, a member ofAscension Lutheran Church, Los Angeles, has struggled with layoffs since 2003. “That year I was principal of our church’s elementary school when it was determined it had to close,” she said. “I found myself unemployed and ineligible for unemployment. I had a mortgage and other bills with no source of income. For the first time in my life, I found myself seeking assistance from the congregation’s food pantry rather than providing it assistance.”

Beaman found some part-time work as a consultant, but otherwise had plenty of time. “I began a more consistent time of personal devotions, began daily exercise and continued my congregational involvement,” she said.

She took up volunteer faith-based community organizing, receiving training from a chapter of a national community organizing group and from the ELCA. “Members of the congregation personally supported me in ways I didn’t expect when I was unemployed,” Beaman said. “Sometimes after Sunday worship, I would find a check or cash stuck in my Bible, or members would put balled-up money in my hand —$200, $50, $20.”

Beaman began to realize what it means to trust God. “It’s easy to trust when you can see how things might work,” she said. “It is much harder when nothing is visible.”

In 2007 she entered candidacy for the ELCA’s diaconal ministry roster and became a student in the Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) program at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif. “However, by the time I finished my studies in 2010, funding had dried up [for my preferred position with Lutheran Disaster Response].”

Unemployed again, she decided to “retire” and now has a limited source of income through unemployment and Social Security.

“My previous experience … taught me I just needed to continue to do what God asked of me, and God would take care of me. I lived out my call as a diaconal minister in service,” Beaman said.

She currently is the nonpaid executive director of My Friends House Inc., Ascension’s outreach ministry.

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