Not just for the military: More chaplains come to employees’ aid

Why We Wrote This

How can a diverse workforce, with a changing set of concerns, be best supported? Some point to chaplains, seeing their potential to provide more holistic care and build a more harmonious workplace.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Chaplain Roger Haber visits Globe Composite Solutions in Rockland, Massachusetts, Sept. 20, 2011. Mr. Haber, who is with the Marketplace Chaplains organization, prays with senior buyer Miriam Kiesel in her office.

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Jeff has had a lot to deal with. Both his parents as well as his father-in-law died, and he says his daughter has been in an abusive relationship – a situation that has involved court proceedings.

One person who’s helped him is workplace chaplain Jim Emery, who has attended the court hearings. “He knows these things can be very traumatic, so he’s there for moral support,” Jeff says. “His presence is comfort.”

Mr. Emery is one of an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 workplace chaplains in the United States. Though chaplaincy is normally associated with the military or hospitals, private sector chaplaincy has existed for nearly a century – and is enjoying a new wave of growth as companies search for ways to provide more holistic care for a workforce that is increasingly diverse.

Advocates of chaplaincy see wide-ranging benefits to businesses, such as building a more harmonious workplace. Chaplaincy “is a way to build a positive organizational culture,” says Faith Ngunjiri, director of the Lorentzsen Center for Faith and Work at Concordia College. “We like to say chaplaincy is an ecumenical employee care service.”

On a chilly morning at a publishing company here, chaplain Jim Emery begins to make his rounds. He starts with the IT department, but he doesn’t get far before an employee stops to thank him for help he gave to a family member. In the back shop by one of the printing presses, Mr. Emery asks workers about their family members, and in return they ask about his.

On other days at this company, Mr. Emery holds one-on-one meetings with employees. In those confidential conversations he helps workers deal with some of life’s toughest challenges.

“I love talking to people. ‘Who are you? Tell me about your kids. How long have you been married?’” Mr. Emery says.

Chaplaincy is normally associated with the military (think Father Mulcahy on “M.A.S.H.”) or with hospitals. Private sector chaplaincy has existed for nearly a century, but is enjoying a new wave of growth as companies search for ways to provide more holistic care for a workforce that is increasingly diverse.

Advocates of chaplaincy say its benefits to businesses include building a more harmonious workplace, helping to reduce turnover and absenteeism, and improving productivity due to increased worker well-being.

Chaplaincy “is a way to build a positive organizational culture,” says Faith Ngunjiri, director of the Lorentzsen Center for Faith and Work at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. “When you listen to business leaders who are very invested in chaplaincy, the motivation is not, ‘Let’s take care of the spiritual needs.’ It’s more like, ‘Let’s take care of the needs of our employees, whatever they might be.’”

Lee A. Dean
Greg Boisture (left), Michigan director for Marketplace Chaplains, deploys chaplains such as Jim Emery (right) to a variety of businesses in the state. Marketplace Chaplains and similar organizations provide chaplaincy services to companies as a way to provide another level of employee care.

The total number of workplace chaplains in the United States is between 3,500 and 4,000, Dr. Ngunjiri estimates. Marketplace Chaplains, one of the largest chaplaincy providers in the U.S., serves approximately 250,000 employees and 1,000 companies.

“We’re getting more leads, more contacts, and more calls than we can process,” says Doug Fagerstrom, executive president and CEO of Marketplace Chaplains, who notes that his organization is growing about 15% to 20% a year.

Mr. Emery was one of the first to join the new wave of chaplaincy. He was planning on a quieter life after years working on church pastoral staffs and as a teacher. Then, in 2006, he was contacted by Marketplace Chaplains.

“They said they wanted me to be a chaplain. I said, ‘Are you kidding? I’m 70 years old and I don’t want to punch a clock,’” Mr. Emery says.

“And he’s been punching one ever since,” says Greg Boisture, executive director of operations for the Michigan division of Marketplace Chaplains.

Mr. Emery, now in his 80s, says he decided to take the plunge because chaplaincy fit into his skill set. “If I were going to be reincarnated, I’d come back and work with families,” he says.

“His presence is comfort”

One person Mr. Emery has assisted is Jeff (whose last name is being withheld due to confidentiality). Not only has Jeff dealt with the deaths of his parents and father-in-law, but he’s also discussed his daughter being in an abusive relationship. That situation has involved court proceedings.

“Though he’s not required to be there, Jim will show up at the hearings,” Jeff says. “He knows these things can be very traumatic, so he’s there for moral support. His presence is comfort.”

Mr. Emery has also organized a small group to help young men successfully make the transition from the educational system to the workplace. And he’s working to form a group for single parents.

“We work with human resources departments to make sure we’re meeting the needs of their staff,” says Mr. Boisture.

Noordyk Business Equipment in Grand Rapids has used chaplains for three years. Owner Bill Noordyk believes the chaplains help provide an outlet for his employees to express concerns and needs that they may not be able to bring directly to him.

“The chaplain can say things to the employee that I as the business owner probably can’t,” Mr. Noordyk says.

One chaplain visiting the business learned that an employee’s marriage was in danger of falling apart. The chaplain kept meeting with the employee and eventually referred him to a faith-based counselor. Though all these conversations were confidential, the employee eventually confided in Mr. Noordyk after the crisis had passed.

“He came into my office and said that he had been married a long time but that his marriage had never been stronger. To have an employee come up and share that with me ... I’m welling up just thinking about it,” says Mr. Noordyk. “You can’t put a price tag on that. If we ever had to make budget cuts or changes, there’s a thousand other things that will go before this program ever goes.”

“Ecumenical employee care”

Chaplains with organizations such as Marketplace Chaplains don’t hide their religious allegiance but do not proselytize.

“We like to say chaplaincy is an ecumenical employee care service,” says Dr. Ngunjiri at Concordia College. “We say it’s ecumenical from the get-go, because if somebody does not have that perspective, it would be very difficult for employees today because of all their allegiance diversities.”

Mr. Emery, a Baptist, says he has provided care to married same-sex couples with foster children, Muslims, Hindus, and those with no religious affiliation. He recalls an exchange with a Muslim employee from Kenya at a holiday gathering. “His family had just had a baby, and that opened up a whole new area of conversation. Every week, I would ask about the baby. So at the gathering, he met my wife and I at the coffee bar. I introduced her; he shook her hand and said, ‘I love your husband because he actually talks to me.’”

Despite the growth of workplace chaplaincy, only a sliver of U.S. companies use the service, and Mr. Fagerstrom estimates less than 1% of the nation’s workforce benefits. Chaplaincy providers must overcome objections from both labor and management. Despite the promise of confidentiality, workers can still be wary that chaplains will share their conversations with management.

“It takes six to nine months for people to start opening up,” Mr. Boisture says. “The company says it’s not working and I say, ‘Yes, it is. You have to give it time.’”

Introducing religion and spirituality into the workplace is another roadblock for some companies. In a volatile political environment, companies may be reluctant to add another potential hot-button topic. This reluctance is one reason chaplains are sometimes called “care providers” as a way to soften the religious connotation.

An additional objection is the perception that existing human resources and employee assistance programs are sufficient and that chaplains represent a superfluous layer of care.

Many chaplains, such as Mr. Emery, are retired pastors or former church staff members. Others are active ordained clergy. Laypersons are also a significant portion of the chaplaincy ranks. Marketplace Chaplains provides training for all its recruits before their initial assignments and then provides ongoing training.

“Chaplains don’t need to be seminary-trained,” says Mr. Fagerstrom. “Sometimes, seminary-trained people don’t make the best chaplains because we don’t want them to just be ‘answer’ people. What’s important is that they can help people navigate through their lives.”

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