Preachers on the Payroll

When any of the 400 or so over-the-road truckers at the Reimer Express Line of Winnipeg, Manitoba, face a crisis as they drive along the long, lonely highway of life, they have access to a resource no other carrier in Canada offers: a full-time corporate chaplain.

The Rev. Ken Heppner, Reimer's mobile chaplain, is on the road year round with his wife. Crisscrossing the country in their mobile home, they call at each of the company's terminals, from Vancouver to Quebec City, twice a year, for visits lasting from a single day to as long as two weeks. He performs weddings and funerals, makes hospital visits, counsels those with drug and alcohol problems, helps with financial planning, and offers guidance to employees as they cope with what he calls "the four big issues: loneliness, emptiness, guilt, and fear." Employees, he says, "need to know that they are loved and valued."

It doesn't sound exactly glamorous. "We park at the terminals," says Mr. Heppner. "We hear the banging of the dock doors, the trucks going all night. Some of those terminals run 24 hours a day." But being present right at the terminals - to meet with people early in the morning, or late at night, or whenever - counts for much in his line of work. "We constantly need to be available, to be visible," he says. "We have to walk around letting people know we're there."

Heppner has been on the job at Reimer for nearly three years, but the company program goes back to 1978. F.F. Reimer, the founder of the line, which employs about 1,600 people, decided he "should have a preacher on the payroll," as Heppner puts it.

Heppner, who had spent 18 years ministering to congregations on both sides of the US-Canadian border and then seven years as a trucker himself before joining Reimer, may be unique in Canada. But corporate chaplaincy in various forms is an important segment of what might be called the spirituality-in-the-workplace movement.

The Rev. Diana Dale of Houston, who heads the National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains, estimates that there are about 4,000 corporate chaplains in the US. Some of them are full-time employees of one organization, as Heppner is at Reimer. The United Auto Workers has a corps of chaplains on staff, for instance. Others, such as those working with Dr. Dale's own Institute of Worklife Ministry, are involved in individual workplaces as outside contractors.

Similarly, Marketplace Ministries, based in Dallas, provides chaplaincy teams to 148 companies in 35 different states. Its staff is also Protestant clergy but the company has a resource staff of 1,000 representing additional faith traditions, including Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Buddhism.

In addition to these formally trained chaplains is another group of in-house consultants - no one knows how large - who see their work as having a specifically spiritual element.

"My job title is executive coach," one woman said as she introduced herself during a conference workshop here recently, "but my unofficial job is as the corporate chaplain."

Martin Rutte, a consultant based in Santa Fe, N.M., and the author of "Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work," identifies two elements of the modern workplace that are making a place for the corporate chaplain. "The world of work is in trouble.... Even successful firms are downsizing," he said, speaking last month at what was billed as Canada's first conference on spirituality in the workplace. On the other hand, he said, "personal spirituality" as a field of inquiry and activity is burgeoning. People are finding "their jobs are too small for their spirit," he said.

The same wave of downsizing and outsourcing that has affected employees in recent decades has affected corporate chaplaincy itself. In its modern form, corporate chaplaincy goes back to the immediate postwar era, according to Dr. Dale. Ex-soldiers coming back into the civilian work force in many cases brought their war-related problems to work with them, including alcoholism and combat fatigue. Alert chief executives recognized the need and hired former military chaplains.

This model broke down during the 1970s, in part because of concerns about whether even an ecumenical chaplaincy was appropriate in the ever more diverse workplace. Chaplains became employee-assistance counselors - and many of them got outsourced themselves. "Their employee assistance programs became an 800 number," Dale says, speaking of the telephone counseling services many companies provide through their health-insurance program.

Dale speaks of a "paradigm shift" within her field, as chaplains, working as independent contractors, become more entrepreneurial and learn to respond to a market demand. "Companies are looking for value added" from counselors, she says: "We're doing mediation training, cultural diversity, win-win negotiations. And it's all very spiritually based."

Anything that smacks of religion in the workplace makes some people nervous. But there is widespread consensus among corporate chaplains that they are there to present spiritually based alternatives, not to push religion. "My faith is not an instrument to offend you," says Gil Stricklin, president of Marketplace Ministries. "It's an instrument for me to love you."

Corporate chaplains generally have a combination of clerical credentials and real-life work experience. In addition, Dale's organization puts special emphasis on clinical training.

Last December, Dale got an early-morning phone call from the Houston branch of a high-tech communications services company. The No. 2 executive in the branch had just committed suicide; his live-in companion, also a senior official in the firm, had been the one to find him in the bathtub.

The surviving executives were traumatized, but no provision had been made for emergency counseling. A woman in the personnel department paging through the directory of clinical employee-assistance counselors ran across Dale's name and decided to call. "She saw that 'DMin' after my name and knew she would be getting a spiritual person," says Dale.

Dale herself wasn't quite sure what she was getting into. She arrived in the boardroom and was presented to the executives: "The reverend is here."

She counseled with them and helped them "They told me, 'We never could have had the healing in our company that we did without the combination of elements you brought.' "

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