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Spiritual guidance... in the workplace?

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

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 1, 2005


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.

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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.

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.