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In tough times, faith organization sees growth in small groups

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The regular Thursday-morning meeting at IPC Technologies in Henrico County gets started early — sometimes before sunrise.

Usually, a half-dozen or more people gather in a conference room. There is coffee and friendly chatter as they take their seats and prepare for study.

Ken Banks, IPC Technologies' founder and president, calls the group to order with a prayer.

It isn't a business meeting, but a weekly Bible study and discussion group. The participants are not employees, but people from numerous professions and businesses who share a desire to have their faith inform their work life.

The group is one of dozens of support, discussion and Bible-study groups that meet at Richmond-area businesses under the umbrella of Needle's Eye Ministries, a nonprofit workplace ministry marking its 35th year of operation.

Needle's Eye has seen a growing interest in its programs and services that focus on helping professionals integrate faith into professional life. Tough economic times have also led to a surge in participation in its career transition groups.

"We started with a particular mission, and I think that the core of that mission is still here," said Judson E. "Buddy" Childress Jr., a former businessman who founded the organization in 1977 after attending seminary. "We are trying to bridge a gap between the church and the workplace, to take Christian faith and all the ethical implications of that to the marketplace.

"As time has gone on, I think there has been a greater need for that." Participants in the Needle's Eye programs — the group requires no membership fees — say it has influenced thousands of people in the Richmond area over the years.

"I think through all the avenues — the small groups, the luncheon series — it has kept professionals kind of grounded in their faith, recognizing and making sure that we think about how our faith should be applied," said David Fairchild, executive vice president and chief banking officer at Union First Market and a longtime participant and leader in Needle's Eye.

The non-denominational Christian group is perhaps best known for the monthly luncheons it sponsors with speakers who share their own faith stories.

Yet its fastest-growing program has been its small group ministry, which now includes about 60 small groups with about 400 participants that meet regularly, as well as several career transition groups that provide spiritual support for unemployed people in the area.

"We believe that the small-group ministry, in the next 35 years or even the next five years, will be as much the centerpiece of Needle's Eye as the luncheons," Childress said.


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Jim DePasquale, president of The DG Group Architects in Richmond, has been involved in Needle's Eye since he was a young man just starting out in business 35 years ago. He said the organization has helped him maintain a sense of balance and priorities.

"People can get so focused on their careers that it means more than anything, more than God or family," he said. "It is a problem in many households."

The group's programs over the years on issues such as workplace ethics, stress management and time management, "were all things that were fundamental to a young business person."

"No one is perfect," he said. "We all make our mistakes, but are we practicing better than we would have if Needle's Eye did not exist? Yes."

Banks, of IPC Technologies, got involved in Needle's Eye more than 20 years ago. He said it transformed the way he views his professional life, which became less focused on the bottom line as the only goal of business and more about the "servant leadership" that Needle's Eye seeks to foster.

For Banks, that means putting the emphasis on helping his customers and employees accomplish their goals. "It is not a financial reward; it's a personal reward," he said.

Among the regular participants in the weekly meetings at IPC is Tony Wilson, a college recruiter who said the small group ministry has been a key source of strength and encouragement for him for years.

"The value of small groups is the idea that I can get personal help, and share my deep feelings with other people who are believers," Wilson said.

The small group ministry has helped him through some tough times, too, including a period of unemployment several years ago. "I was miserable, really down in the dumps," Wilson said.

"The career transition group was a real resource," said Wilson, who now works for Averett University. "Just the spiritual support and hearing how the word will support you through adversity, that really helped pull me through."

He credits the success of the outreach and small group ministry programs to its staff, especially Jennifer Parham, a lawyer and Richmond native who joined Needle's Eye as its director of women's ministry in 2002, and Lisa Rattner, a social worker who joined Needle's Eye as director of small groups in 2008.

Rattner, who moved to the Richmond area from New Jersey with her family in 2004, had previously served as vice president of community services for the United Way in Bergen County, N.J., and helped lead the organization's response when the community lost 168 residents in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Rattner said the value of the small group ministry is in providing a sense of community at a time when technology has made it possible for people to communicate without having contact.

"I think we all keep such a frenetic pace these days, and to take that hour or 90 minutes a week and check in with a small group and just be with one another, is a time of refreshment and rejuvenation," Rattner said.


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Participation in the career transition groups has fluctuated with the economy. The ministry started during the recession of the early 1990s, and its participation rose again in 2001.

In June 2008, Needle's Eye had one career transition group with about 12 to 15 people, Childress said. By the end of 2008, with the economy going into distress, the number had grown to about 60 participants, and by February of 2009, it had reached about 140 people in three groups.

"I think we have seen, from 2008 to now, probably 500 or so people go through it," Childress said.

Needle's Eye keeps the names of its career transition participants confidential. At one recent meeting at the Needle's Eye office in Richmond, a group of about 10 unemployed people from various professions, including sales, engineering and manufacturing, gathered for a Bible lesson on the Old Testament story of Joseph, then discussed their personal experiences with losing their jobs and seeking employment.

Some expressed optimism that the search would take them to something better. Others expressed frustration with the economy and anger at the way they were treated in the workplace.

Expressing the views of many job seekers, several said they were frustrated by the impersonality of the job-application process, and that many employers will accept only online applications and do not return calls.

"I wish I could tell you that is going to change," said Jim Johnston, a retired manufacturing plant manager who leads the small group. He offered words of encouragement and even some tough love for the participants, urging them to keep up their networking and not hang onto any anger, which ultimately only hurts the person who is angry, he said.

In the 35 years since he founded Needle's Eye, Childress says these are the most difficult economic times he has seen.

"I don't think it is close to the Depression — my father lived through that and I heard stories about it," said Childress. "But in my lifetime, this is probably the most difficult time we have had."


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Childress is a former businessman who felt called into the ministry in the early 1970s after a life-altering experience of recommitment to his Christian faith. He left his business career to enter seminary, expecting to become a pastor, but realized in his second year of seminary that his calling was to start a workplace ministry organization.

A native Richmonder, Childress and his wife, Laura, have four children and six grandchildren.

The concept of "servant leadership" that he promotes centers on Christ's message that to be great in the Kingdom of God, one must be a servant. "It sort of goes against our nature, but that is what he asked us to do," Childress said.

"Good businesspeople sustain business and need to make a profit, but they can do so in an other-oriented way that is sensitive to their employees," he said.

Childress said he has no great theological answers that explain the reasons for economic troubles. "I do know that there are many promises in scripture, and there are many truths in scripture," he said. "One of those is that we are not going to live a problem-free life."

"Another is that God loves us and wants us to know him. And another is that God says he will never fail us or forsake us, which is why he is available to us."

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