IN TODAY'S shaky economy, the nightmare of job-loss haunts the American worker, for whom the end of the regular paycheck can be a catastrophe. Richard Nelson Bolles understands that anguish--it happened to him. But unlike most, his anguish eventually led to national fame and fortune.

Back in 1968, Bolles, who had been an Episcopalian priest for 16 years, was fired as canon pastor of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in what he calls a "budget crunch," the sort of cutback that is happening in government and business across the country these days. Money was tight in the church, he says, and somebody had to go. He was that somebody.

Bolles was 41 at the time, approaching the age when jobs are harder to find. He had a wife and four kids and little in the way of savings from a $9,000-a-year salary, though his parishioners had managed to scrape up $800 in severance pay. And if one personal disaster at a time wasn't enough, "We'd just been burned out of our house. We were still living in a motel."

It was a time in his life, he recalls, when "I was reading Job with great interest."

Out of these ashes, he began a six-month job hunt that, in the long run, brought astonishing results. Dismayed at the confusion and difficulty he encountered in the search, he went on to write and self-publish what has become the country's best-selling guide to finding a job, the mischievously titled "What Color Is Your Parachute?" It is a book that celebrates a fable for all times: to rise from misfortune to triumph.

"Parachute" hit The Washington Post's Book World best-seller list for trade paperbacks on April 9, 1978, and has continued to appear there frequently ever since--112 weeks in the past four years. To the unemployed, it offers morale-boosting sermons of hope while detailing the steps Bolles says have proven most successful for finding the right job in the shortest amount of time.

After its appearance in 1970 as a Xeroxed 182-page booklet, it went on (with annual revisions) to sell almost 2 million copies up to now, or about 300,000 a year currently. Since 1972, it has been published by Ten Speed Press of Berkeley (which got its start with a bicycle repair guide). It has grown now to 350 pages, at $7.95, and has become a bible for professional career counselors.

When Ten Speed picked up "Parachute," Bolles, who aimed it originally at other out-of-work clergy, revised it completely for the general public. "The book just sort of hung there like a kite for a couple of years, and then in 1974 all of a sudden it just took off. I don't know why. There was a recession, to be sure, but nobody knows why."

Bolles has since dedicated himself to researching the job market and spreading the gospel of what he calls the "Parachute Process" through lectures, workshops, a newsletter and two other career books, "The Three Boxes of Life" (education, work, retirement) and "Where Do I Go From Here With My Life," co-authored with career counselor John C. Crystal of New York.

Now 55, Bolles is a huge, lumpy man with a rough, craggy face and bushy gray eyebrows. The effect is one of easy amiability. He is deeply shy, he says, even after years as a popular lecturer. If this is true, he manages to hide it well. Years of psychotherapy, he explains, have helped him "to compensate."

He laughs easily, and explains that he is always looking for the zany in life. That's how "Parachute" got its name. "It's typical of the way I think. I love off-the-wall humor. It seemed a nutty title." The hazard of this is that in bookstores sometimes, "I find it filed under 'Sports.' They think it's a book on parachuting."

With the nation's unemployment figures now the highest since the Depression, Bolles' job expertise is in frequent demand on radio and TV talk shows, which is what brought him to Washington recently from his home in Walnut Creek, Calif. He is amused that he was able to delay the early hour he originally had been asked to appear. "I don't get up at 7 o'clock for God."

At a lunch break at his hotel, he jumps at the opportunity to dine out-of-doors, choosing a sunny table near the swimming pool and tennis courts where he slouches comfortably into a lawn chair. At home, he says, he has converted his garage into an office so he can be almost outside most of the day.

When Bolles began his forced job hunt, he invested his entire $800 severance in seeking help from an executive search firm. "They collected $800 from me and gave me nothing," he says. The memory is bitter. The firm had helped him write a re'sume', and he mailed it out to 900 addresses. Friends advised him, however, that it was poorly done, and they were right. The response was meager.

In the weeks that passed, he perused the want ads and tried a placement service with equal failure. Eventually, through his network of friends in the church, he was hired by the United Ministries in Education to work with other clergy facing job loss at the time. He became director of the association's National Career Development Project, a clearinghouse for career information. It is a position he still holds. Though he remains a priest, he has not had a parish since 1968.

Not surprisingly, Bolles dismisses the traditional job-hunting methods that failed him, a position that makes his book controversial in the job-advice profession. Ours is a "Neanderthal system of job-hunting," he charges. "There's a disfunctionality in the way job-hunters and employers link up with one another. Employers are just as baffled as the job-hunters are." He cites one study that suggests that only 1 in 1,470 re'sume's mailed out ever lands somebody a new job.

To test newspaper want ads, at one point he began to answer them. Once he replied to an advertisement seeking to fill the position of career counselor. He wrote a letter outlining his qualifications and wrapped it around a copy of "Parachute," noting that he was the author. First he got a reply acknowledging his application. That was followed by a note informing him that the vacancy had been filled by someone else. He determined to find out why he, the nationally known career expert, had been rejected.

As it turned out, "The person had been chosen a year in advance." Because the job involved federal money, however, it had to be advertised publicly. "They went through the Mickey Mouse of hunting for a candidate." Why, he asks, "would I want to spend a lot of time using a method I know is rigged?

"Actually, if the truth were known," he says, American workers are "hoping for that miracle, you know the one: that if we just sit tight a little longer, we won't have to go job-hunting. The job will come hunting for us."

The "Parachute Process" advocates what Bolles terms "creative job-hunting," a method he says can be repeated whenever a worker changes a job (an average of about once every 3.6 years in this country). This involves determining "just exactly what you want to do" and "just exactly where you want to do it" and then researching in depth the organizations that interest you. Finally you approach the one individual or committee there "who has the power to hire you for the job that you have decided you want to do."

That's precisely the method used by Bolles' co-author and colleague Crystal, whose name in the career advice profession is almost equally well-known. Home from the war in 1946, Crystal, an ex-intelligence officer who spoke seven languages, devoted weeks of futile effort in a traditional job hunt. Then he decided to scout out the job market, researching it as he did other foreign cultures when he was a counterspy in Europe and North Africa. At the same time, he decided he wanted to go back to Europe where he could use his language skills.

What Europe needed after the war was the bare necessities, he concluded, such as socks and shoes, pots and pans. And who could provide them? His research suggested Sears, Roebuck. The problem now was to convince Sears to accept his scheme and send him abroad as its representative. Reaching friends who had contacts at Sears, he was able in a matter of days to get an interview with Sears' chairman. With facts and figures at hand, Crystal sold him on the idea of opening markets in Europe. And he got himself hired as the company's representative there, staying for nine years.

Eventually, Crystal set up his own career-counseling business using his maverick job-hunting technique as an example. Bolles became interested in Crystal's methods while he was researching what became "Parachute" and incorporated many of Crystal's thoughts in the book. Bolles is careful to point out that many of "Parachute's" concepts have not originated with him; that he is, rather, a "reporter," he says, sifting out the ideas of career experts he talks to continually.

Bolles was devastated by his dismissal from his position at Grace Cathedral, which caught him as unprepared as thousands of Americans being fired are today. "It doesn't matter what the reason is," he says, sipping from an ever-present glass of Coca-Cola. "It hurts. You can't help but take it personally."

It is lonely, he writes in the aftermath of his experience, to be unemployed, "especially if you were formerly a success, and didn't ask for this to happen to you. It is hard to admit to your family, your friends, and the people at the church that you are--that horrible-sounding word--unemployed. Even if you know that there are 4 or 5 million other people--or maybe even 10--who are in the same boat with you. It's still difficult to have to readjust your budget downward, tighten your belt, notify the church treasurer that you'll have to reduce, or cancel, your pledge . . ."

For the first two years after losing his job, he traveled 65,000 miles throughout the country interviewing job-hunters, counselors and employment experts trying to find the search techniques that worked. The result was the first edition of "Parachute." "I just flopped into this field," he says, as if he still can't believe the success of the book that currently earns him more than $200,000 annually in royalties. "I wrote something I thought would be helpful to my friends."

From the beginning, "Parachute" enjoyed a modest success at $5 a copy. He mailed it out to clergy and college counselors, and, to his surprise, large institutions such as the Air Force and General Electric began ordering quantities. Once, Bolles recalls, he had only $5.18 to carry his family over the weekend. So he prayed for a sale, and got two. The mail brought in an order for one book and a walk-in buyer paid for a second copy.

In his research, Bolles has found that the most successful job-hunters make their search a full-time job. "Two-thirds of all job-hunters spend less than five hours a day during the job hunt and see an average of six employers a month. That's ridiculous. If you put in a 40-hour week, "you'll increase your contact with employers from 6 to 42 or 48 a month. Inevitably you're going to find a job faster. The more no's you get out of the way, the closer you are to yes."

Even in a tight job market, work can be found. "Somebody dies, somebody retires, somebody becomes terminally ill and creates a vacancy. There are a lot of jobs folding, where people were accustomed to looking for them," he says, such as in the auto industry. But "there are a lot of jobs opening up where people are unaccustomed to looking," to meet the demands of new technology or the needs, for example, of an energy crisis.

If he could change the job-hunting system, "I really think we would do well to abolish all ads in the paper, all private employment agencies, all federal and state employment agencies, so the individuals needing a job would know they had to go out and do the job themselves.

"I also would make it mandatory that nobody goes job hunting unless they have four people in a support community such as a job club , whom they can see on a daily basis for warmth and hugs so the search isn't solitary. If their mate is a hugging person, that's fine."

It's easier, he advises, "to find a job than keep your esteem up during a job hunt."

Bolles was born in Wisconsin but grew up in New Jersey, the son of an Associated Press editor. His brother Don was the son who followed in the father's footsteps. An investigative reporter for The Arizona Republic, Don was killed by a car bomb in 1976.

Bolles entered Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1946 intending to become a chemical engineer, graduating instead with a degree in physics from Harvard--and a wife. But a sermon heard one Sunday altered his life. The minister informed the congregation that in those post-war years 900 churches might have to close because they didn't have ministers.

"Here I am in chemical engineering, which had people to burn and those fabulous salaries. I felt the inappropriateness of that statistic. It was a sample of how skewed the values are in our culture." He decided to enter the seminary.

Over the years, he performed the duties of a parish priest, counseling congregations first in New Jersey and then in California. He is writing a new book, "The ABCs of Relationships: A Children's Book for Adults," based on these experiences. "Relationships are my great interest," he says, and then grins, adding, "No one has made more mistakes." By this he means he has been "twice-married, twice-divorced, for openers." He separated from his second wife in 1975 and was divorced three years later.

For the present, he doubts the likelihood of a third marriage. "Economically, I'm very vulnerable if I make a mistake." And: "My whole goal was to marry successfully. I don't like my track record."

Two other books are in preparation: "Survival Job-Hunting," a compact guide for the searcher at the end of his or her resources ("Keep at it," is the advice) and "The Parachute Coloring Book," an accompanying workbook to the basic text.

Meanwhile, Bolles has cut back his traveling and lectures and begun to enjoy "Parachute's" royalties. Two years ago he bought his first house. Before he had always lived in rented apartments or the church manse. He recently took a Caribbean cruise and is planning a Hawaiian getaway to devote to the upcoming books.

As for "Parachute," he sees no end in sight for future editions. His research files grow and grow. "People," he says, "would probably kill for them."