At work, he was nicknamed The Undertaker. To many employees at the national men's ministry where Gary Hansen served as Chief of Staff and Human Resources Director, the title fit perfectly. He became the bearer of bad news, informing employees that due to ongoing financial problems in the organization, they would lose their jobs.
No one foresaw layoffs when the ministry started in the early 90s. As its influence grew, so did its need for additional staff. At one point, Gary oversaw 600 employees there. But financial contributions dwindled in the late 90s. Over time, Gary orchestrated 10 different layoffs, reducing staff by 400 to 450 people.
"I felt horrible," he recalls. "I personally laid off about 300 people, including many of my good friends. There were a number of meetings in which I actually sat there and cried with them."
To vent his frustrations and cope with his unpopularity, Gary often visited with Dr. Gordon England, the ministry's Director of Evangelism and an ordained minister. Dr. England introduced him to the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle so he could understand employees' reactions in the layoff meetings. Denial, shock, and anger, Gary learned, are typical emotions of those who lose their jobs.
In September 2008, Gary experienced those emotions firsthand. With a change in leadership and new direction in the ministry, The Undertaker faced his own "burial": Gary was asked to resign, along with the executive staff. Fourteen years of faithful service ended—just like that.
Given the ministry's deepening financial struggles, Gary's wife, Kathy, had anticipated the cut for months and told her husband to get out. But Gary wouldn't budge.
"I'd committed to stay at the organization until either it closed or I retired. I never envisioned that someone else was going to determine my last day," he says.
The news hit Gary like a sledgehammer, but he remained at the ministry through the end of October to assist with the transition to new leadership. Once he shut his office door for the last time, he faced the cold realities in the land of layoff: no paycheck, no title, and nowhere to go.
For weeks, Gary sat at home, bouncing between denial and shock; Kathy went between anger and fear. She'd started a new job just seven months before, after being out of work for two years. Though she didn't make much money, they were just starting to turn a corner in their finances. Now a balloon payment was coming due on their mortgage—not a good time to be managing on a single salary.
Job loss wasn't the greatest challenge Gary and Kathy Hansen had faced in their marriage; they'd battled health issues and family problems together. This time, layoff would take their teamwork to a higher level.
One thing they did was share their emotions with each other. Married life had taught them that God created men and women with different emotional "wiring." If they didn't discuss these differences, they'd fester like a sore and divide them.
Once anger and shock had worn off, Gary admitted to being angry. But his anger had to do with a loss of identity. "The first two or three Sundays after I left work, I went to church very angry," he says. "Many there wanted me to talk about the layoff. I didn't want to be there, and didn't want to talk about it. I didn't have a job title. I wasn't getting a paycheck. I was 'unemployed.'"
Kathy adds, "I remember a couple conversations where somebody asked what my husband did, and I said he was unemployed. Gary used to get angry with me when I said that. It hurt him because it brought up that loss of identity."
Gary and Kathy discovered that she actually had more anger and fear than he, but hers related to a loss of financial security. She saw his job not as an identity but as a paycheck they desperately needed. Though they could live on savings for a while and their children were gone, how would they pay their bills if they depleted savings? Gary often talked of starting his own business. What if he failed? Each day that passed without a job prospect, the balloon payment loomed on the horizon. What if they couldn't pay it and had to sell their house? To Kathy, the house they'd lived in for so long wasn't just a structure. "That's my home that I built," she says. "The thought that it might not exist anymore frightened me."
Though their emotions were normal reactions to layoff, Gary and Kathy knew they needed help to work through them. Gary reconnected with Dr. England (he too had been laid off from the ministry) to discuss his feelings and review the Grief Cycle. And for a number of weeks he went to breakfast regularly with friends to gain their perspectives.
"I learned to stop telling stories about what happened," Gary remembers. "I shifted gears and talked about the future. They asked me, 'What are your plans? What are your ideas? What are your options?' That was very helpful."
Kathy found her greatest support from the Bible. God reassured her that he was walking through the water and fire with her and Gary and that they would not be harmed (Isaiah 43:1-3). He reminded her to pray and not be anxious (Philippians 4:6-7) and to stop worrying and trust (Matthew 6:25-34).
In job loss, Gary and Kathy learned to have prayer partners interceding for them, but their number one prayer partners were each other. Praying was hard at first; layoff fogged Gary's mind and drained his energy. Prayer didn't feel important to him; he worried more. When Gary did pray, he merely informed God of his plans. "I said, 'Lord, I'm going to take over for a while. This is too important. I can fix it myself.' I wasn't angry at God, but I didn't think I needed God at that point."
At times Gary sat silently while Kathy prayed, but other times he joined her. They repeated the promises of Jeremiah 29:11, that God had a hope and a future for them, and of Romans 8:28, that God was working all things for their good.
Something powerful happened with Gary and Kathy united in prayer: Jesus joined them (Matthew 18:20). They formed "a cord of three strands" (Ecclesiastes 4:12) that would remain strong for more challenges ahead. And they built a defense against Satan. They knew the devastation that the enemy can wreak on couples in layoff, like addictions and divorce. Gary explains, "Part of the prayer of Jabez says, 'Protect me from Satan's harm.' When we prayed together as a couple, we put up a wall of protection around us that Satan couldn't break through."
Fear or Facts?
In layoff, Gary and Kathy discovered, it was sometimes easier to talk about fears than to talk about money and a plan of survival. But if they didn't address the facts, they would drift into the unknown instead of staying in the "now."
Tommy Newberry's book The 4.8 Principle, based on Philippians 4:8, came to their aid: Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right … fix your thoughts on those things. Gary says, "Focus your thoughts on what is true, not suspicions, not hunches, not 'what ifs.' We chose to deal with the truth, and that eliminated a lot of fear."
The Hansens were in a better place than most couples to deal with truth. They'd always stuck to a budget, and they'd savings to live on for a time. Knowing that would only stretch so far, Gary and Kathy prioritized their bills: the mortgage payment first, then utilities and other expenses.
They also met with the mortgage company to talk about refinancing their loan. Given Kathy's single salary, they didn't qualify for refinancing. But they did qualify for a special government program that removed the balloon payment.
Gary and Kathy saw this as God's creative way of supplying their need (Philippians 4:19) and as a defeat of Satan's attempt to distract them with fear. Gary explains, "One thing I learned from Tommy's book is that your thoughts often misrepresent reality. Satan loves to tell you half-truths and always emphasize the worst. Here's a comment I have in my journal: 'Remind yourself that negative thoughts do not come from God. God is positive in everything except sin. If a thought brings about worry, fear, or fatigue, it's not from God.'"
Two years have passed since Gary and Kathy teamed up in layoff. Kathy works in a job that supplies a strong second salary. And she appreciates her house in a whole new way, seeing it as a place where family can gather and celebrate the goodness of God.
Gary has come a long way since his "undertaking" days. He is president of Inspired Calling, a Christian career coaching organization that guides people through job loss. These days he is the bearer of good news—that the God who led you into a layoff will lead you out, in his way and time, and that your marriage will be stronger through the process if you work as a team.
Gary sums up what both he and Kathy have learned: "We serve a living God. No matter what goes wrong, he is still in control."
Sherri Langton is an author and editor. She was laid off in 1989 and has a special place in her heart for people going through that experience.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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