EDEN PRAIRIE (AP) -- It's Ash Wednesday at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, and the Rev. Rod Anderson is ringed by supplicants. They silently wait for a word from the good book that sits open before him.
And the word is ...
"People treat you like you're damaged goods. Sometimes you don't get the contacts you would like, but after a hard day, coming to these groups is refreshing. You get energized. I feel more comfortable talking to networking groups than to friends and family. They have more empathy." -- Anonymous man at a Prince of Peace jobs gathering
Anderson nods at an unemployed man who moments ago asked for a job contact at the agribusiness giant. "I do have a name for you."
He rattles off the name, office and home phone numbers of a Cargill executive, a member of Anderson's congregation, who will provide direction and assistance for the man's quest for employment at his company.
As the man writes down the precious information, Anderson notes that, on this first day of Lent, this gathering -- the St. Andrew job transition group -- is "clothed in the dust of September 11th."
St. Andrew's particular job outreach is unusual, but it's not alone in ministering to the unemployed. In addition to spiritual nourishment, dozens of area churches offer secular succor through job transition groups open to members and nonmembers alike.
Thanks to the recession, which accelerated after Sept. 11 and left tens of thousands of predominantly white-collar, highly educated Minnesota workers unemployed, this longtime networking circuit in the Twin Cities has grown red hot.
Every Wednesday they arrive at St. Andrew from all areas of the Twin Cities: Woodbury, Orono, Andover, Burnsville. They are mainly white, mainly male, mainly middle-aged and ex-middle managers.
One by one they stand to recite the names of the companies that downsized, terminated, released, laid off or otherwise pushed them out the door. Their professions come straight from economic contraction headlines: manufacturing, information technology, transportation and financial services.
Their former employers' names are ripped from the recession news: Northwest, Qwest, Honeywell, U.S. Bank, Sun Country, Fingerhut, Global Crossing, Carlson Companies. The names they seek from Pastor Rod, as he is known by all, come from corporations less hard-hit: Medtronic, Best Buy, Target, General Mills, Cargill.
Anderson culls them from what he calls his "database," a giant loose-leaf binder full of about 3,900 names -- everyone in his congregation. To be a member of St. Andrew is to agree to become an entry in the book, and Pastor Rod is vigilant in making sure no name is ever overused. Across the hall, another 60 or so people pose similar questions to a volunteer who has a second 4,500-name binder -- everyone who's visited the St. Andrew job group in the past 15 years.
The church-sponsored job transition groups "cater to the professional who is out of work," said David Singer, who volunteers at several groups. "They provide extra support."
In recent months, attendance has jumped significantly.
"It's been extremely heavy lately in terms of the number of people and the quality," said Stan Brown, who presides over two workshops a week for managers and professionals at Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina.
St. Andrew has been so swamped, it's in danger of outright flooding. After 160 people showed up for one weekly meeting, the group is now divided in two, and those two halves are almost at capacity.
The church is urging anyone interested in the program to visit its Web site rather than calling the church.
"All the job groups are mushrooming," said Donna Bennett, director of the counseling center at Colonial Church of Edina, sponsor of the Twin Cities' longest-running job transition group. "We're getting calls from other churches asking for help."
The formats vary slightly from group to group. Some ask for donations and some don't. Generally the meetings run an hour and a half to two hours and provide job leads, speakers, specialized instruction on job search techniques and effective resume writing. But mainly, for those engaged in the often frustrating and lonely pursuit of employment, these groups offer an opportunity to come together, commiserate and network, network, network.
"I was overwhelmed at how many people were in my same situation," Nancy Miller, a downsized Northwest Airlines information technology executive, recalled of her first visit to a church networking group. "It amazed me that there were so many talented people whose skills were being wasted. I left feeling that it would only be a matter of time until we got jobs."
Miller, who now works as a consultant, tries to attend one meeting a week.
"The biggest plus is sitting down with someone who shares the same problems that your spouse might not understand," said Bruce Hanson, who worked as a technology field manager for Automatic Data Processing (ADP) until the company cut his job last June. "These people can relate and give you noncritical ideas."
Hanson, who said he typically attends three different groups each week, was at his standard Monday night meeting at Colonial's job transition support group. Colonial started its group 25 years ago and, except for the occasional holiday or snowstorm, has been operating ever since. Colonial introduced the now-ubiquitous "cookie talk" at the beginning of each meeting, where newly employed group members come back for one last visit, bring cookies for the group, and tell how they found work.
On a recent night, about 60 people filled the spacious Colonial meeting room, but no cookies appeared. After everyone in the large group gave their "elevator speech" (a 30-second overview of who you are, where you came from and what you're looking for) there was a brief networking break before the group scattered into smaller discussion circles. Joe Oliver, who has coordinated volunteers for the group practically since its inception, took a group of first-timers and outlined the rules: Respect confidentiality (many people are still employed, but exploring possibilities), don't be judgmental, don't interrupt.
Many at the meeting had been separated from their jobs for only a matter of days, and it showed. In David Singer's group, a woman bitterly related her job experience. "I can hear your anger," Singer told the woman gently, adding that it's best to work through that, because prospective employers might hear it as well.
Colonial's volunteers are often current or former jobseekers themselves. Singer, a former human resources executive actively searching for work, shared interview tips he learned from being on the other side of the desk.
"Keep your answers to interview questions short, 30 seconds max," he told the group. "The goal of your first interview is simply to survive." He commiserated with other group members about the dearth of jobs. "Three years ago you were lucky if anyone applied for the job you advertised," he says. "But today an ad draws 200 to 400 responses."
Colonial saw its Monday night meeting grow to a high of 200 before deciding several years ago to relieve the strain by helping other churches start similar groups. For a small fee, Colonial's counseling center trains and conducts background checks on group facilitators.
The Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville is one such offshoot; it's been running job sessions every Tuesday night since October.
"People treat you like you're damaged goods," said one man at a Prince of Peace jobs gathering. He didn't want to give his name, but offered, "Sometimes you don't get the contacts you would like, but after a hard day, coming to these groups is refreshing. You get energized. I feel more comfortable talking to networking groups than to friends and family. They have more empathy."
Miller, the former Northwest executive, found her niche in a specialized networking group for small-business consultants that Stan Brown runs once a month at Christ Presbyterian. At a recent meeting a group of 14 contained a former bank executive, a company CEO looking to change directors, a former senior manager at a manufacturing company and several information technology casualties. Brown is an easygoing consultant who started his specialized groups as offshoots of his Tuesday night group, which is eight years old.
"We're living in a day where people can no longer rely on a corporation for long-term anything," he says. "They have to take care of themselves first."
That night, two members tried out the PowerPoint presentation they plan to use in pitching their new consulting company. They got sophisticated critiques and suggestions, and applause for their effort. Of all the job transition groups she's visited, Miller says she likes this one most.
"It's the best combination of information sharing and networking," she said. "Learning new techniques and learning about yourself. I think that's what the job search is all about, learning about yourself."
Pastor Rod remembers, a little wistfully, when his Wednesday job group attracted 25 people, and the time there were seven cookie talks at one meeting.
But in the past two years, the response to St. Andrew's unique approach to job networking -- providing attendees with a solid job contact at a company of their choice -- has been crazy. The first Wednesday after Sept. 11, 110 people came. After Christmas the number shot up to 159. Finally, the group split in two, with Anderson handling only the first-timers. Hanson, who found his ADP job through a St. Andrew contact, regrets the expansion: "I miss being in Pastor Rod's group; it's special."
On the Net:
Job transition groups: http://www.standrewlu.org/jobtransition.shtml
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