Spiritual guidance... in the workplace?

Companies that hire workplace chaplains find that besides helping employees, they may help their bottom line, too.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the middle of a winter night last year, the family of a forklift operator in Danville, Ill., suffered two devastating blows. In a fire that destroyed their home, the Kemps also lost their youngest child. While the family had no pastor, priest, or rabbi to turn to, someone came to their aid immediately: the chaplain at McLane Co., David Kemp's employer.

Cleveland Taylor arrived amid the fire trucks, helped the family get clothing and meet its needs over many weeks, and held the funeral service for the baby.

As fewer Americans attend houses of worship on a regular basis, more people are receiving the compassionate help one might expect of a minister from corporate chaplains - professionals hired by companies to be a listening ear, a quick responder in crises, an arm to lean on through difficult challenges.

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It's not that businesses are trying to take on a religious role. Corporate chaplains serve people of any or no faith, and the use of their services is voluntary. But business leaders increasingly recognize that employees who face crises often can't help bringing their personal difficulties to work, and job performance can suffer. Making provision to care for their workforce becomes a part of good business practice.

Bringing chaplains into the company "takes issues away from managers that they don't know how to handle and gives them to those that do," says Tim Embry, CEO of American LubeFast Inc., based in Duluth, Ga.

As a result, many employees are getting support that can make a significant difference in their lives, while companies say they're seeing a more satisfied, even more productive workforce.

When Coca-Cola Bottling Consolidated of Charlotte, N.C., tested a pilot program for chaplains at its Nashville, Tenn., plant, it measured changes in productivity, safety, quality, profitability, and employee perspective. "All objective criteria got better," says vice chairman Ron Pettus Jr. Along the way, "two people were talked out of suicide and are leading productive lives; several rocky marriages were reconciled; and many were helped out of financial problems and to resolve issues with their children."

The great surprise came, though, when the employees told management that, if necessary, "they'd take less benefits in order to keep the chaplain program going," Mr. Pettus says. Coca-Cola Bottling now has 25 chaplains serving employees at 58 sites.

Human resource departments used to be places to seek help, some observers say, but they've tended to become policy offices that are less in touch with day-to-day employee needs.

"If an employee has a substance abuse problem, or their husband is abusing them at home, or they're going through some trauma, most are not likely to go to the HR department and say, 'Would you just listen to me for a while?' That's where a chaplain fulfills a need," says David Miller, executive director of Yale University's Center for Faith and Culture. Last month, the center held a national conference in New Haven, Conn., on workplace chaplaincy as a developing service and career.

Speaking at the conference, Mr. Embry explained that he engaged chaplains at his oil-change business because he thought it might help the young kids who worked for him get on the right track.

Many were in their first or second job, and "they often didn't make good decisions for their lives, and would end up in the ditch," he said. Despite being "on the edge" financially, he made the investment.

Not only did lives turn around, but so did his company. Employee turnover dropped dramatically, to well under the industry average; "shrinkage" (disappearance) of equipment dropped from 2.5 percent to 1 percent; and American LubeFast, with 70 stores and 500 employees, is now profitable. "It changed the heart and soul of our company," Embry says.

Some businesses use "outside chaplains" - contracting with firms that can provide trained individuals in many parts of the country. Coca-Cola Bottling hired Corporate Chaplains of America, of Wake Forest, N.C.; American LubeFast worked with Marketplace Ministries, of Dallas. Chaplains get to know employees by spending regular periods at offices or plants and then are available 24/7, whenever needs arise.

Others hire their own chaplains: Tyson Foods, Inc., a major food supplier, has 127 part-time chaplains serving at 76 sites. Charles White, who trains and supervises Tyson chaplains, moved into the workplace after pastoring in a Baptist church in Kentucky for 20 years.

He made the switch, he says, because "there are millions of people the institutional church will never touch." Walking production lines where employees process chickens enabled him to build relationships that made it easier for people to come to him for help. He supported one family through their baby's surgery and then the wrenching decision to remove life-support. "You are helping people who are really hurting," he says.

Some business people are even making the career change. As a manager in the electrical industry, Ralph Atkinson saw the need and went to seminary for pastoral training. As a contract chaplain with Chaplain Associates in Buford, Ga., he currently makes his rounds at four businesses. Some 650 employees have his cellphone number.

"I'm dealing with lots of family issues - challenges with children or with aging parents - and also stress management," he says.

Fidelity Bank in Atlanta recently had several robberies, and bank tellers often move on after such incidents. But Mr. Atkinson's work with staff has kept that from happening. "Ralph is there for every employee who needs him," says Kathy Bennett, bank payroll administrator.

Sometimes a chaplain agency even responds to financial needs. Shannon Miller, a medication aide at Bickford Cottage, an assisted-living facility in Omaha, Neb., lost her teenage son when a van caught fire. She was without insurance. Marketplace Ministries wrote a check for $5,000 to pay for the funeral. "I don't know how he would have gotten buried without them," she says.

Corporate chaplains have been around a while: Gil Stricklin, an Army chaplain for 22 years and then a businessman, founded Marketplace Ministries in 1984. But changes in society - with millions of people divorced and single parents having to work - have increased the need, he says. Now serving 268 firms in 35 states, "we're on track this year to sign between 60 and 80 new companies," he adds.

While chaplains have long been accepted in the military and hospitals, the workplace poses sensitive issues, from concerns about proselytizing, to serving a diverse population, to limits on confidentiality.

Chaplains are committed to confidentiality. "Most people in America don't have anyone with whom they can share a deep dark secret," says Mark Cress, founder of Corporate Chaplains of America.

But they also face difficult pressures, such as how to handle a situation if they learn about undocumented workers at the plant or a safety defect in a product.

Some observers express concern that major chaplain agencies are founded by evangelicals, and that such chaplains will press people inappropriately to convert. Some, such as Mr. Cress, acknowledge that conversion is their ultimate hope (he sends a daily e-mail to chaplains asking if anyone has converted). But these chaplains also insist they are living their faith by example rather than actively proselytizing. There has never been a legal complaint lodged against their services, they add. Still, at the conference, Jewish chaplain Shira Stern emphasized the importance of "learning how others hear what you say."

Chaplain agencies commit to caring for everyone. When appropriate, they will refer someone to an imam or rabbi in the community, just as they send people to counselors when it's called for.

The prognosis for growth is strong. While workplace chaplains aren't likely to be "the next big thing in corporate America," Mr. Miller says, he predicts the service should "continue to grow annually by double digits." It's very popular in privately held family businesses, he adds. He expects corporate chaplain programs to grow at a slower pace among publicly traded companies.

Wherever the workplace, Chaplain Taylor says, "We try to be there for people and help lift the burdens."

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