A demanding time for chaplains who give at the office

Where to turn to talk about the boss who just won't let up? Or about the new hire who doesn't respect you as a manager? Or even about your home, when your kids won't do their homework?

For those who would seek the counsel of a chaplain, they might look for that help in an unexpected location: the workplace.

Pushed into a new prominence during this time of employee unease, workplace chaplains are busier than they've been in years. The events of Sept. 11, not to mention increased downsizing and corporate belt-tightening, have intensified worker demand for a prayer-based approach to such challenges - and businesses are responding by contracting out for chaplains.

"A lot of us got a lot busier on Sept. 11," says Diana Dale, executive director of the National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains (NIBIC) and a corporate chaplain herself.

The rising profile of "business chaplains" is a reflection of a broader trend of a more overt spirituality in the workplace. In recent years, workers have begun to organize voluntary, lunch-hour Bible study groups or prayer sessions. Business leaders, too, have given more time to workplace discourse on ethics and core values.

Workers themselves seek faith-based support for a variety of reasons.

One senior manager, who had just been laid off, "started talking up front about religious themes, and invited that from me," says Dr. Dale of NIBIC, which sets standards and provides certification for workplace chaplains. "In a crisis time in your life, you're wondering what it's all about."

'It was so comforting'

Donna Craft, an assistant supervisor at Town North National Bank in Dallas, found solace at work in the days after Sept. 11.

After the attacks, one of the bank's two chaplains (who visit the office weekly under a contract with chaplaincy provider Marketplace Ministries) held a voluntary prayer meeting, at the request of the bank's CEO.

"We talked about supporting the country and praying for those who lost loved ones," says chaplain Ann Forester, a Southern Baptist, who led the meeting.

For Ms. Craft, a Roman Catholic, it was an enormous support. Her brother, a New York City firefighter, had been working on the recovery operation at ground zero. "It was so comforting to have her here," Crast says. "I don't have any family here. Sometimes you really need somebody to go to."

Corporate chaplaincy is modeled after military or hospital chaplains. Most workplace chaplains are ordained or commissioned by their denominations, and the majority represent Christian faiths. Of an estimated 4,000 chaplains who work with businesses, most are contracted out through worker-assistance programs or chaplaincy organizations.

The goal of corporate chaplains is simple: to support workers. Chaplains are to refrain from promoting any one religion or from preaching to workers. Employees' contact with chaplains is voluntary and confidential.

There is no Bible-toting, hymn-singing, or robe-wearing. In fact, the topic of spirituality doesn't come up, chaplains say, unless a worker initiates it.

"You are to offer care in such a way that you reflect back to the person their own spiritual heritage," says Tim Bancroft, who is endorsed by the Mormon church and works for Employee Services Inc. in Wellsville, N.Y., a program that provides counseling to employees. "If a Buddhist comes to me, my job is to make them a content, happy Buddhist." Sometimes, he says, that means putting employees in touch with someone of their own religious affiliation.

Private companies are free to offer faith-based services in the workplace, but corporate chaplains and the businesses that hire them must walk a very fine line to steer clear of legal troubles.

"It's a very good thing employers are doing, but they need to be very careful," says employment attorney Heather Gatley, a partner with Miami-based Steel Hector Davis. Companies, she says, must reasonably accommodate workers of all faiths. "You certainly don't want to do anything mandatory," she says. "And you don't want to subject other employees to anything that might be harassing or offensive or proselytizing."

Evangelical chaplaincy on the rise

It can, indeed, be a fine line. Marketplace Ministries, an evangelical chaplaincy group with more than 1,000 chaplains working with 240 companies nationwide, does ask its chaplains to sign a specific doctrinal statement.

"We do not go into the workplace to preach or proselytize," says Gil Stricklin, president of the Dallas-based organization. But if a worker asks one of the chaplains a "theological question," he says, "what we want answered is what we agree [with]." Marketplace Ministries' chaplains also make available (only if workers ask) a booklet called "Daily Bread," which contains Bible verses. It also outsources chaplains from other denominations if an employee specifically requests someone.

For a growing number of corporate chaplains, the work goes beyond counseling to working with management and helping to shape the corporate environment. An increasing percentage of chaplains have credentials in career counseling, mental health, and change management.

Take Salco Products Inc. in Tomball, Texas, which makes rail-car parts. For three years, Dale has worked with the company. She's counseled employees, led stress-reduction workshops, and, most recently, helped the company through a downsizing that cut its workforce of 108 by half over the past six months.

"She came in and defined the emotional aspects of being laid off, which helped prepare myself and the [layoff] victims and their managers," says executive vice president Mike Ott. He acknowledges he was at first a bit concerned about the religious nature of her credentials, but now knows they "enhanced the services she has provided."

At the same time, Mr. Ott says, "her personality and presence assured me that we didn't need to worry about [her] converting our employees to Christianity."

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