BEVERLY, Mass. — Her fellow job seekers offer knowing groans as Diane Castro recalls the day she was laid off. The fear of being summoned to the front office. The phones in nearby cubicles going off like grenades. Finally, a ring at her desk.
Every member of the unemployment support group has a story to share and encouragement to give. In twice-monthly gatherings, they exchange tips on writing resumes, developing new contacts and making ends meet.
They also pray.
"Father, we pray you would strengthen our faith and help us to wait on you," Castro says as heads bow around her. "It can be so hard sometimes to be patient."
Castro's group is one of several church-related unemployment support groups that have formed around the country as the jobless rate reaches heights not seen for decades. On Thursday, the government reported a 9.5 percent unemployment rate for June, the worst in 26 years.
Job seekers can't use God as a reference, and studying Scripture might seem unrelated to grabbing a prospective employer's attention. But church support group members say the meetings aren't just about helping people find the next job; they're also about refining and strengthening their faith along the way.
"The help available and the assistance on a spiritual level is amazing," said Walter Baker, a retired human resources executive who leads a group at Grace Community Church in Auburn, Wash.
Baker and Castro welcome the nonreligious to their groups, though very few people without faith have attended.
Faith communities have particular relevance to the unemployed, said Doug Hicks, author of Religion and the Workplace and a professor of religion and leadership studies at the University of Richmond.
"When a person loses his or her job, it's not just the income that's lost, but it's a kind of sense of meaning, sense of fitting in, a sense of contribution," Hicks said. "And many of those things have spiritual dimensions."
Still, the practical benefits of such groups can't be overlooked, said Rick Lytle, dean of the College of Business at Abilene Christian University in Texas. Faith-based groups provide rich networking opportunities because members may trust each other more because they share a church or a faith, he said.
Sandy Friedrich, a member of Castro's group who worked at a hospice care facility in Boston, said the people in the group are important for who they are, not what she thinks they can do for her. "Of course, in the back of our minds it's fine that we think any of us may be a lead to the next thing for us," she said. "But that's not the primary purpose for us."
At a recent meeting at Castro's house, not all in the seven-person gathering were friends, but they quickly shared their personal angst and advice on everything from unemployment law to how to respond when a prospective employer asks how much you expect to be paid. Debbie Trainor, a hospitality industry worker, talked about the nerve-racking preparation for job interviews and said she sees God as a partner.
"He's with me during this time," she said. "We're doing this together."