The economic downturn saw unemployment rise in the UK to more than 2.4 million people. For those facing redundancy, it can feel as if they’ve reached the end of the line. So how can we respond?
I call redundancy an octopus. Over time, it wrapped its tentacles around eight important areas of my life – my identity, my faith, my income, my home, my diet, my health, my wardrobe, and my self-worth – and squeezed.
The start of the recession saw the end of Woolworths. What followed saw banks collapsing, homes being repossessed, and large numbers of people being laid off or made redundant. As the daily headlines announce the latest casualties of the economic downturn, it is clear that few, if any, areas of industry, business or public services have been left unaffected. Charities are no exception and, after an amazing bi-vocational career in the private, public and charitable sectors across three decades, this recession has shaken my world too.
In 2009, the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA), a charitable organisation that I had been engaged in for some seven years and running for the past four, ceased trading. The day the trustees informed me of their decision, I had been in meetings in Westminster exploring opportunities for political engagement. I returned to the office for an unexpected, uncomfortable and surreal conversation. The decision had been made and, a week later, ACEA closed it doors. For the first time in my life I was made redundant.
I was stunned. I had left jobs before for a number of reasons – promotion, new jobs in other organisations, and to return to study – but this was the first time I had been removed from a job. Encouraged by my family, in particular my sisters who had experienced redundancy themselves, I was determined to stay positive and hopeful. Armed with my revamped CV and P45, I made my first visit to a job centre in 25 years. ‘You’re a level five,’ the advisor announced, with a tone of voice that made the other advisors within earshot look up. I quickly realised two things. Firstly, the recession had displaced a significant number of skilled professional people. Secondly, the usual list of services for the unemployed was not scratching where this growing group of clients was itching.
To their credit, my local job centre did not offer me re-skilling opportunities; in fact one advisor hinted that I could probably run them. Instead they referred me to a partner agency that provided personality testing, CV support and gave valuable feedback on applications and supporting statements. They also recommended business start-up seminars through local enterprise schemes. I took advantage of all of the above and braced myself for the increased competition of finding paid work, recognising that it was not going to be easy or quick.
The recession and subsequent redundancies meant a whole new segment of the labour market had emerged. Skilled and experienced individuals were applying for vacancies usually aimed at school leavers and graduates. The ratio of applicants to vacancies shifted considerably as unemployment soared, and when it reached 2.47million in 2010, more vacancies were being filled internally, frozen or even withdrawn. A familiar phrase began to appear in recruitment adverts: ‘If you have not had a response to your application within seven days of the closing date, your application has not been successful.’
The effort to keep looking, applying and waiting for the response became more difficult, so too did the confidence to start again after each rejection. After the first six months, I had begun to doubt whether what I had to offer had any value in the current climate. After 12 months, I was still a statistic – available for work. I stopped keeping or counting the ‘thanks, but no thanks’ responses to job applications. Each one had pushed my morale lower and lower, threatening to wipe out any sense of self-worth that was left. At the job centre I heard other ‘level five’ clients describe their out-of-work experience as a dark place, and for the first time, I agreed.
I felt that my life had changed in a very public way and was still changing. The infrastructure of my usually ordered life had begun to collapse like giant dominoes. My last job had taken me to significant places and I had met some pretty important people. I was used to introducing myself as my name and job title; with redundancy that title went and I found myself asking myself: who am I now? For the first time in a long time, I felt that I had no identity.
Neither regular nor paid work materialised, but a financial ‘sandstorm’ did and almost effortlessly depleted my ‘rainy day’ savings, leaving a trail of cancelled agreements in its wake. I lost my home of seven years, losing with it the sanctuary and security that I had enjoyed there, along with all the joys and freedom of being independent. As finances decreased, so did pride and I reluctantly resigned from my default position of independence, learning to ask for and accept support from my amazing family and faithful friends, and favour from complete strangers.
My commitment remained strong to the voluntary ministry at my local church where I had played a key role on the leadership team. But change was on the way there too, and while this was not a direct result of being made redundant, it all happened against the backdrop of it and for me the last major pillar of stability had begun to wobble.
I adjusted what I ate, and had to rethink if, when and where I shopped. I re-used and recycled out of necessity, while still adjusting to an untitled identity and relocation. It was a daily decision to stay healthy and hopeful, doing all I could not to come across as a pallbearer at a party. Publicly, I threw myself into voluntary opportunities, explored the free facilities and services in my new community, and somehow continued to mentor and develop others. Privately, I prayed through my tears – and often it was just tears – and embarked on a year-long walk through the Bible, all in an effort to dispel the descending darkness and to find better answers to the difficult questions.
God in the Gaps
So where was God in all of this? Well, I believe that God was where God always is, and that’s present, very present. Present in the difficult conversations, giving me a sense of calm. Present to help me find new answers to old questions like, ‘Who are you?’ Present when my job application is rejected and the job search continues. Present when my finances run low and my morale is even lower. He was and is present through my family and my mentors, in my friends and my local church family; they have counselled me, encouraged me, prayed for me and with me, and fed me too, reminding me in their actions that all these things are working together for good because of God’s call on my life. Thanks to them and God working through them, I am finding strength to see God at work in this season of my life, and to explore new ways of being productive and profitable.
Harriet Harman MP got it right when she reminded the UK’s coalition government that behind job losses are real people with real lives. For the first time in two and half decades, my life is one of those real lives, and when I see and meet people at the job points, in the libraries, at events and at church, I remind myself that redundancy is an event or an occurrence, not a label. It has punctuated the life of most organisations across all sectors, and before the end of the current recession, more of us are likely to have experienced it or to know someone who has.
My story is not over, and my reason for sharing it now is not to solicit pity or to apportion blame, but to pose a question:
How is the Church meeting the needs of an emerging mission field of the long-term unemployed, and responding to complex needs that are bubbling to the surface?
From my limited experience I have identified four ways to RISE from redundancy which churches and individuals could apply:
Recognise the change as an opportunity
Identify your personal development needs
See the potential within you and around you
Evaluate your experience positively
i) Recognise the change as an opportunity
Redundancy is a great opportunity to consider occupations and activities you would not normally. Few recognise the uniqueness of this economic downturn, but those who do are pursuing new ways of living and working, such as Jenni Williams, a former HR professional, who after being made redundant became a redundancy coach.
I now recognise that the end of one occupation can be just the catalyst to propel me into the ‘new thing’ God has for me, beginning with my thinking. Grieving for too long over the ‘death’ of what’s behind doesn’t burn calories, but it can absorb valuable time that could be spent looking and planning ahead.
ii) Identify your personal development needs
When I was reviewing my CV, I realised I had done the logical thing of listing my qualifications, awards, experience and past employers in chronological order. The result was a well-crafted summary on two sides of A4, easy on the eye and well laid out. I thought it would tell a future employer who I was. Wrong. It was an historical account, an accurate one at that, but it didn’t say who I was and what skills and solutions I would bring to current or future opportunity. So I set to work on ‘me’, producing two personal statements which painted a picture of me in words. Apart from being hugely therapeutic, this process also affected the way I read adverts and the jobs I then applied for.
I first met Grace Owen at the last event I attended in my role as CEO and again almost a year later when she published her easy-to-read book The Career ITCH – four steps for taking control of what to do next with Identity, Thinking, Change, and Habit. Using these steps, I dared to see my gifts and abilities, to be honest about the gaps in my skill or experience, and to make decisions that could build bridges. I began to see what I still had to offer and not what I had lost; I ditched the negative self-talk in favour of a positive outlook; I dared to change small things that made a big difference, and over time they have become habits. Together, these actions are giving birth to new ideas for business and ministry which I felt I had lost the remit and the right to even consider.
iii) See the potential within you and around you
As the pillars of my life crumbled since redundancy, the truth is, so did my view of myself. I didn’t doubt the facts of my revamped CV, but I was losing sight of the value of it. So when one of my mentors suggested that I take some time out, I was sceptical, not least because a sabbatical of any kind is usually offered and taken while in a role, not when you’re unemployed.
With some gentle encouragement, and the support of family, mentors and my local church, I embarked on a journey of listening to God. Over a period of 100 days, I read widely, attended events and went to a different church each Sunday unannounced, not to find a new spiritual home, but just to hear God. I kept a memory box of the things God said on that journey and the words of prophecy, pictures, prayers and preaching notes that I collated over my time out. They paint such a coherent picture that it’s as if I was ministered to by one church and by the same minister. More importantly though, they revealed what God says about me and what he sees in me, and that’s value. For example, one Sunday morning in Putney, God spoke to me through a picture of a boat leaving with everything I valued on it – God reassured me that he was going to restore what I thought I’d lost. On another Sunday in Hayward’s Heath, there was an example given of a rare and unique jewel that had been in a back drawer that was going to be restored to a visible and valuable place. Through these and other experiences confirmed by my daily walk in the word of God, I am seeing my potential in a new light. As Bishop TD Jakes puts it in his book Reposition Yourself, I am now seeing my life in terms of abundance, not deprivation, and have ‘set a course…to prosper on all levels’.
iv) Evaluate your experiences positively
Six months after being made redundant, it was still difficult to think or talk about what had happened without feeling anger, resentment and regret. This was emotionally draining, and even though it felt justified, it was neither productive nor healing.
One of my mentors suggested that I get rid of the toxic thoughts that stir up those feelings by facing them head on and by finding ways to share the learning that was taking place. This seemed like a big ask, particularly as I felt that these thoughts had provided walls of self-preservation. These walls had to come down and I was relieved when a beautiful friend offered to pray with me for an hour each week until the demolition was complete. The accountability in prayer matched the accountability in practice and I have been challenged to seek out opportunities to communicate my experiences positively.
As a minister, God has nudged me to include examples of my own life in sermons and has used my pain to demonstrate a deeper level of empathy, particularly with those who are unemployed or who have experienced a catalogue of loss. My testimony may not be a unique one, but it is a real one and shows the mercy and strength of God in the seasons of everyday life.
Avoiding the Clichés
In walking in these four steps, I have become the target of deliberate and unsolicited encouragement, including spontaneous rib-cracking hugs from friends who have that gift, to house-sitting for friends and soaking up great opportunities for uninterrupted reflection and restoration. The temptation to use scripture as a sticking plaster is gone, as are the clichéd but well meant responses that I may have resorted to in the past. I’ve even avoided the temptation to fill this article with lots of scripture, quotes and statistics, but I do want to challenge pastors, ministers and church leaders to look at the vision, mission and activities of your church and answer these four questions:
1 How are you ministering to the specific needs of the unemployed?
2 How are you helping them to recognise their new opportunities?
3 How does your church or ministry realistically encourage people to become all they can be?
4 What support is in place to help them reposition themselves by understanding the purpose of this season in their lives?
There’s no doubt in my mind that being out of work can seriously damage your health, wealth and wellbeing. Counsellors, psychiatrists, GPs and lawyers are bracing themselves for the fall-out of the desperate behaviour that often surfaces in desperate times, and the Church can be preparing itself to help people keep their faith and hope alive. With appropriate support and encouragement, redundancy and unemployment need not feel like ‘the end’.
When Joseph reflected on the downturn that preceded his dream, he reflected that God meant it for good.
When Job prayed for his friends, God restored his losses. It’s that same God who is inspiring me to RISE from redundancy and to experience a new beginning and an abundant life in him.