Joy to the Jobless

I had the pleasure this past week of sponsoring Tim Goeglein, former special assistant to the president during the Bush Administration, and currently the vice president of external relations with Focus on the Family, during his visit to Liberty University to promote his memoir, The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era. Tim is a friend as well as a fellow author, and he is a living example of God’s grace who inspires me with his candor, humility and a countenance of joy whenever I see him. The most powerful political leader in the world showed him mercy at a time in his life when he will tell you he deserved scorn and disgrace, and the experience made him an even more powerful witness for Christ. God is always made strong in our weakness, and while the world, and many Christians for that matter, do not grasp that fundamental aspect of God’s character, it is essential to living the contented life he promises, with a peace that passes all understanding.

I tell you all this not to pitch Tim’s book, although you should buy it -- I’ve read the excerpted first chapter, and I will buy it when money is less tight -- but to touch upon a couple of points he made during his presentation to 92 students, faculty and visitors at the Helms School of Government, and a comment he made to me later over dinner.

He laid down a couple of statistics that I found staggering. The first is that, in absolute numerical terms, there are more Americans out of work than at any time in our nation’s history, even more than were unemployed during the Great Depression. The second sobering statistic is that two-thirds of the unemployed have been out of work for a year or longer. Tim’s recitation hit me where I live because, until I was hired into my current position this past August, I was in that number.

At a Hanukkah Dinner later that evening, hosted by the campus’s Stand with Israel club, I shared with Tim my own story of failure, repentance, redemption and grace related to my recent experiences with unemployment and underemployment. He said to me, “You need to tell that story.”

I’ve been pretty transparent about my job struggles of the past five years, and I’ve reflected in numerous articles and my book the trials and despair I experienced, and the lessons I learned as a result. Tim is right, though - I need to tell the story again, in one place, and pray that God can use my words to bring hope or peace to the tens of millions who are still out of work or who, like me, are underemployed, making much less than they did before, but still blessed to have work.

It was 2005, and to the casual observer, I was riding high.

Behind me were three years as a senior executive in the Bush Administration, where my reputation in the information technology management field was so high that, when I departed government, Government Computer News declared, “The meteoric rise of Ron Miller through the federal government has ended.” I had arrived in Washington, D.C. as a political appointee and the chief information officer at FEMA, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred only months after my arrival. I was involved in the nascent stages of homeland security planning and execution at the federal level, and I dove into my work like a man on a divine mission. Like President Bush, the events of 9/11 changed me forever, and I believed I had found my purpose. Until this year, I would have told anyone who asked that being the chief information officer at FEMA, at that time in history, was the best job I’d ever had.

I was recognized by Federal Computer Week two years in a row for my leadership in homeland security, and the Fed 100 awards were especially sweet because they represented the acknowledgement of my peers in the federal IT community. I helped to establish the Department of Homeland Security, and hanging on the wall in my current office is a photo of me shaking hands with President Bush, who invited a select number of us to the Oval Office to thank us for our efforts. That 45-minute visit was the apex of my service to the Bush Administration.

After leaving the administration in the summer of 2004, I went to work for a major professional services firm in the DC area, and in one year, I had become a senior principal with plans to create my own business within the firm. I had a six-figure salary and a future that seemed assured.

Inside, however, I was smoldering with discontent, and I’m not sure even those closest to me knew what was going on in my head and heart. You see, my time in the Bush administration, at least the way I looked at it then, was marked with frustration, betrayal, unkept promises and unfinished business.

In my book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch, I describe what happened behind all the accolades in a chapter entitled “Trials of Many Kinds,” and, as I recount in the book, “I decided I would live up to my commitment...and then I was leaving government for good. In July of 2004, I bid the Bush Administration and all the hell it had put me through a bitter farewell.”

This inner sense of disquiet caused me to make a fateful decision during the summer of 2005, when the White House was searching for a replacement for the Department of Homeland Security’s first chief information officer. I look back at this decision as a line of demarcation between my “first” life and my current life. I reflected on that moment in the book:

It was during that time that Steve Cooper, my friend, boss and mentor, resigned as the department’s CIO. I learned I was on a short list of potential replacements for Steve and I hoped that God was giving me a second chance. I wasn’t picked, however, and the impression I got was that the person who was selected was perceived as less of a troublemaker than me. My background made me better suited for the work, but I wasn’t politically correct. I reached a critical decision at that time: I was tired of trying to make a difference while subordinating myself to someone else’s agenda. I decided that someday I was going to be the one setting the agenda.

Looking back on this time, I am ashamed of how prideful I had become, but I was oblivious to it then. Eventually, my decision manifested itself in a run for public office in Maryland in 2006. It was a doomed enterprise from the start. I thought I could manage my work, my family, my church and my campaign, when all I was really doing was dividing myself into fourths rather than thirds, and everything suffered. The twists and turns of a political campaign caused me to make decisions that hurt my family financially and emotionally, although I thought it was for the greater good. In the end, I lost the election, and the humiliation, along with the remorse over the hole I’d dug for us, was nearly unbearable.

I returned to a job that no longer inspired me, and my employer didn’t know what to do with me, either. I left the firm to work for Steve Cooper, by this time the CIO at the American Red Cross, and he created a position tailored to my skills and interests. The organization was in dire financial straits, however, and undergoing a lot of change. My mentor left, and after only nine months on the job, I was called into the acting CIO’s office, ostensibly to discuss staffing reductions in my division, only to find out my division was being eliminated, and my job along with it.

I couldn’t believe it. In just two years, I’d gone from being a well-paid, highly touted corporate executive to unemployed. Fortunately for me, I was still well-regarded in the federal IT community, and I was quickly hired by a small firm that was looking to win a new contract with a federal agency. I participated in the proposal process and helped them to win the work, and I was given responsibility for the new task.

We stumbled out of the gate, however, and I quickly lost the good will of the customer, whose history with contractors was checkered to begin with, and control of my team. I worked as hard as I’d ever worked in my life to get us back on track, but there were too many factors I couldn’t control, and the company and the customer decided it was best to walk away from the contract. It was the equivalent of an amicable separation where both sides acknowledged mistakes, but the impact on me was the same.

With no more work, my entire team, myself included, was laid off. It was one of the most spectacular failures of my life and, following on the heels of my electoral defeat and being laid off from the Red Cross, it devastated me. I was emotionally and physically broken. Even before the work ended, I had lost weight because I had no appetite, and I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression, a disease I had struggled with in the past.

I was out of work this time a little longer than before, but once again, a former federal colleague and friend came to my rescue, and I was hired to lead an existing task with DHS. The only problem is that it took DHS nearly a year to to determine my suitability for work there. How surreal is it that a former intelligence officer who held a sensitive high-level security clearance for over two decades, and who helped to create the department, couldn’t get permission to work there?

The company kept me as busy as they could, but there were times when I didn’t have work, and didn’t get paid. By the time I finally got into DHS, the leadership opportunity had passed me by, and eventually that contract ended, and I was laid off again, the third time in three years.

Prior to that time, I had made the decision to run for office again because I was convinced it was a task I needed to complete. After the third layoff, however, my pastor persuaded me to abandon this folly, because it was destroying my family. I let a lot of people down, and it was very hard for me to do because I was passionate about politics, but in my heart I knew it was the right thing to do. In my selfishness, I had neglected my family, especially my wife, and that was unconscionable. I had work to do if I was going to keep them.

I didn’t receive a regular paycheck for over a year, and even with my wife working, we had 80% less income than before. We hadn’t recovered from our past debts, and it was only my wife’s teaching salary and the benefits her job accrued to us, our retirement savings, and the generosity of friends that kept us from going bankrupt.

I did some freelance consulting work, wrote my book, and briefly received unemployment benefits, which I eventually abandoned because even the limited income from my consulting work was greater than the meager benefits I was receiving, and I rightly didn’t receive benefits when my consulting work paid me. I read a lot about people living on unemployment benefits, but, based on my own experience, I don’t know how that’s possible.

I applied for work, too, and I had some odd experiences. In one case, I interviewed with practically all the senior executives of a small firm in a four-week time frame, and they said they loved me and told me to expect an offer letter within a week. The letter never came, and I never heard from them again. Another company declined to consider me because they feared my public political views would alienate their clients. In another instance, I practically carpet-bombed one company over a four-day period with my cover letter and resume, and I contacted them by email, fax, phone and FedEx. I never even got an acknowledgment.

I became discouraged and eventually decided my only options were to try and build my consulting business, promote my book, and apply for jobs outside of the profession in which, up to this point in my life, I had made a good living and provided well for my family. It appeared that the doors to that world were now closed to me.

By now, the pride had been beaten out of me. At one point, I was folding laundry, engaged in one of my feeble and sporadic attempts to help around the house while my wife worked, an endeavor at which I mostly failed because I was too busy feeling sorry for myself, and for which I owe my wife my deepest apology. I was listening to worship music on my iPod Shuffle, trying to praise God in the midst of my circumstances, when I broke down and sobbed like I hadn’t done since the night I lost the election, pouring out to God years of anguish dating back to my days in government. I was a failure as a man because I couldn’t provide for my family, I couldn’t fight my way out of the depression I was in, and I had unintentionally yet deeply hurt my wife, my friend and lover of over two decades. I was worthless.

Dean Akers, my boss at Liberty University, has often shared with me this quote from C.S. Lewis:

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

I had two choices. I could let the pain of my circumstances crush me, or I could learn from it. I didn’t know it at the time, but God needed me to get to that point in order to get my attention. Over a long period of time, I learned what it meant to be totally dependent on God’s provision, to persevere in spite of tough times and, most importantly, to live in each day, discarding the regrets about a past I can’t change and the anxieties about a future I can’t see. My empathy for the suffering of others increased, and I became more placid in my demeanor.

I learned that it was unrealistic of me to expect the world to be fair when even Jesus Christ, the sinless One, God poured into man, was persecuted and eventually executed. I could, however, count on God’s presence in tough times if I humbled myself and ran to Him. We leaned on the generosity of His church and the compassion of His people, and they never let us down.

I grew in patience and learned to find pleasure and give thanks in the small things that happen to us every day, things I didn’t acknowledge before because I was too busy trying to save the world. I also surrendered daily to God, saying, “I have no idea what is going to happen today, but I know it’s impossible for you to do anything but good, so please lead me to the goodness you have in store for me.”

On a sunny Friday in May, I drove down to Liberty University with a close friend. I had been invited to do a book signing, and she was planning to visit her son just before finals. She suggested we pay a courtesy visit to Dean Akers, who both of us had met previously. We had a wonderful conversation and, as it progressed, he began asking me questions about what I did for a living and what my family was doing. My friend knew right away what was happening, and she chimed in that I wasn’t doing anything that would bind me to where I was. Before I knew it, he was offering me the opportunity to apply for a position I’d never before considered. Three months after that courtesy visit, I was a newly minted associate dean and assistant professor of government in the Helms School of Government.

I recall something my oldest daughter said to me before she left for California to pursue her career. It went something like this:

You know, Dad, even though you lost, if you hadn’t run for office, you’d have never made the contacts in the political world you made, and you wouldn’t have met Lori (Note: Lori is the friend who accompanied me to Liberty University, and a partner in numerous endeavors to promote individual liberty, free markets and limited constitutional government).

If you hadn’t met Lori, you’d have never become this popular blogger that all these people like to read, and you wouldn’t have been encouraged to write a book. If you hadn’t lost your job, you wouldn’t have had time to finish your book and get it published. I see it as a God thing.

Coming from my daughter who, like many young people, was still working out her faith, this was a moment of stunning revelation. I’d add that if it wasn’t for the book, I wouldn’t have been in Dean Akers’ office that sunny Friday in May, and I wouldn’t have been hired for a job which surpasses anything I’ve ever done in my professional life, even if it pays only forty percent of what I was earning at my peak. Yes, it is definitely a God thing.

The story continues. We still have a lot of hurdles to overcome, and not a lot of answers. We are in a place where God has shown Himself to be faithful, but He hasn't relieved us of all our burdens. We don't have the luxury of saying, "Thanks for getting us out of that jam, Lord. We'll take it from here." As the Lord told Paul when he asked to have the thorn in his side removed, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

For us, He has left enough unresolved in our lives that, try as we might, we can't fix it ourselves. We have to turn to Him once again, and the lesson is that He is to be glorified, by us in our inability to do anything without Him, and by all who witness His miraculous provision and protection in our lives. We must truly arrive at that point where we can say to others who marvel at our rescue, "I had nothing to do with it. It was all God, all the time."

Yes, there is practical advice for the jobless in my experiences. Pursue your passion while you’re looking for work. Engage in your hobbies. Read more. Grow closer to your family and friends. Take life a day at a time. Serve others who are going through tough times. Connect with a community of care. For me, it was my church, but if you’re not part of a group of people who do life together, find one. Do everything you can to take the focus off of yourself.

Most of all, have faith that this, too, shall pass.

These are uncertain times, and the rules of the game have changed. By the world’s standards, I did everything right. I got my bachelor’s degree, added a master’s degree to it, served in the military with distinction, and showed leadership and was granted increasing responsibility  in the private, public and non-profit sectors, and every job came with an increase in pay. Then the bottom fell out.

In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps. ~ Proverbs 16:9

It is during this season, however, that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, “God with us,” and He wants to be with us, especially when we’re hurting. We have to want to be with Him, though. He will never go where He is not welcome.

It is because He lives, and loves us through our pain, that I can find joy this Christmas. My prayer is that you will find a quiet place to meet with Him and accept his gift of joy in the midst of trials.

Merry Christmas!