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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.

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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.

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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."