“Nobody is ignorable. Nobody is disposable. Every person is a carrier of an everlasting soul. There are no gradations in the image of God.”
~Senior Pastor Scott Sauls, Christ Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN
Christ Presbyterian Church (CPC) is a large congregation located in a suburban neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. The church has an active special needs ministry that began informally when a member volunteered to care for a baby with Down syndrome during a service so the mother could worship. Over time, more families with sons and daughters with disabilities came to the church and a more formal ministry was established. Currently, the church pairs children with disabilities with adult buddies to attend their age-appropriate Sunday school classes or youth group, and children’s church (if applicable). Also, the church hosts a semi-monthly young adults fellowship group and Special Saturdays (monthly respite) for children with disabilities and their siblings, and a Very Special Bible School during the summer. The special needs ministry is housed in the church children’s ministry and includes one paid staff position and a number of member volunteers who may teach and/or serve as peer mentors or “buddies.” Church leaders are committed and supportive of the ministry.
Though the special needs ministry is supported and active within the church, staff and families were looking for a way to minister with members with disabilities and their families beyond Sunday. They also wanted to address concerns that some families had expressed about feeling isolated from the larger church community. The congregation decided to pilot the Putting Faith to Work project as a way to meet employment needs and to make the young adults within their ministry “better known” within the larger community.
Gathering a Team
The initial informational meeting consisted of the special needs ministry coordinator, who had extended personal invitations to staff, parents, and church members with interest or experience in working with people with disabilities. Around 25 people attended. At the meeting, an overview of the project was presented and the group held a conversation about the potential need in the church, who might benefit, and how the project might be structured. At that meeting, it was reported the project would need to be member-driven so as not to overwhelm paid staff. After the team affirmed participation in PFTW, a parent of a young adult son with a disability agreed to chair the team and the special needs coordinator agreed to provide administrative support. Though the team made efforts to recruit additional team members, recurring participation over the course of the project held steady at around 15 members.
Crafting a Plan
The team decided to meet on a monthly basis. Early conversations focused on identifying members with disabilities who they believed should consider participation. Because the congregation has an established special needs ministry they decided to work, at least initially, with job seekers they already had relationships with and who attended church on a regular basis. Five candidates were identified.
They decided to begin working with two and expand as initial successes were made. They also decided that team members could be involved in different ways. They polled the group to designate roles. Team members could invite job seekers, participate in the “Conversations About Work” to better understand their gifts and strengths, identify and make connections to employers, and/or provide on the job supports.
The team also developed a clear vision statement: “Our hope is that we would follow Christ in His mission of loving people, places, and things to life by assisting our teenage and adult church members and friends with disabilities build relationships within our church community and work communities.”
Christ Presbyterian Church also decided to integrate PFTW into the life of the church making it an established Missional Community, which focuses on making a positive difference in the greater Nashville area. This made them eligible for small internal grants to support their efforts, gave them a Web presence, and further legitimized the project within the community.
Inviting job seekers
Once the job seekers were identified, the team brainstormed about who had personal relationships with either the candidate or his or her family, and therefore would be well-situated to issue an invitation to participate. They decided the process for inviting job seekers would be to first gain permission from the parents to approach their son or daughter, and then to hold a conversation apart from the families. A team member would invite the potential candidate to coffee or lunch and asked them questions about whether they desired employment, what their goals and dreams for a perfect job would be, and if they would like the church to help them meet their goals.
A Conversation About Work
Once the candidates had agreed to participate, the team organized a time to convene the job seeker and his/her family, the team, and anyone else who was identified that could help to point out the gifts and talents of the job seeker. At CPC, the “Conversation About Work” was renamed a “party.” At the party, the job seeker was able to select a menu and draft the invitation list. The team followed the questions provided through the PFTW program. The team also made the process their own by inviting a member who is an illustrator to the party to draw images of the job seeker engaging in the types of work identified through the conversation. It was a great (and fun) way for the job seeker to see the possibility of them engaging in that work.
Connecting People with Employers
For CPC, this stage in the process presented the most challenges. Though many ideas emerged from the conversations (parties), after potential employers with whom the team had personal relationships were exhausted the team stalled. This could be attributed partly to newly developed methods and policies for communication to the church at large, not the traditional forms of “advertising” which are more familiar to this more mature committee (like use of bulletins or message boards or listserves).
They built a Webpage on the CPC Website, developed one-page job profiles for their job seekers, and were able to share them through their missional community blog and through their natural forms of communication through email and calls to friends and acquaintances in various employment industries. Another challenge was that the team only met monthly with periodic communication between meetings. Despite the challenges, the team’s commitment kept them motivated and effective in making employment connections.
Supporting Job Seekers
Because PFTW is a formal Missional Community at CPC, the group was eligible for a small grant that could be used to meet project goals. The team decided that the grant could be used to provide for any work-related expenses like transportation to and from work or uniforms. Team members also went out of their way to be sure job seekers were prepared for interviews. They assisted with developing “job wanted” ads and one-page profiles that could be shared with potential employers. One job seeker was interviewing for a job with a hockey team and had never been to a hockey game before. A team member pulled a few strings and found tickets to a game so the job seeker would have some familiarity with (and hopefully develop an affinity for) the sport prior to his interview.
Reflecting on the Journey
The team reflected at monthly meetings, especially when the process of connecting job seeker to employment felt stalled. They brainstormed new ways to disseminate information, new yet relevant job sectors to explore, and/or reassigned tasks. Reflections of each stage of the PFTW project from team members, job seekers, and families at CPC are sprinkled throughout this manual.