A New Breed: Corporate Chaplains

Corporate chaplains Carol Hall, center, and Barry Poche, left, visit with Air Systems Inc. employee Tommy Myers inside the plant in Fort Smith, Ark., Tuesday, April 22, 2003. The chaplains visit several plants weekly, but are on call 24 hours a day. AP

Lisa Ganz, an accountant at a Fort Smith steel mill, struggled with personal problems, including two divorces and a growing sense of depression. She tried to talk about her problems with co-workers, but often wound up in tears.

The counseling offered by MACSTEEL'S employee assistance program, or EAP, did not seem to help. But then, in 1995, a new alternative caught her attention.

She started talking to Carol Hall, a minister whose Corporate Chaplaincy Services had been hired as a spiritual alternative to the secular EAP. While Ganz did not consider herself religious, she found what she needed.

Hall "used lessons from the Bible that helped me get closer to other people - which helped me meet Paul, who works on the plant floor - without feeling I need a man to survive," Ganz said. "It's been seven great years since Carol married us."

Hall and other corporate chaplains believe the workplace is the best place to minister to people like Ganz - employees who have often lost touch with church because they work so much.

But these chaplains walk a fine line, ministering to workers while trying to avoid offending an employee's spiritual sensibilities or breaking religious harassment laws.

A growing number of employers believe chaplaincy, providing workers with spiritual guidance and limiting their stress, makes them more productive.

John Fisher, plant manager of 400 employees at MACSTEEL, said the $1,200 a month his company pays - $3 per employee - is a tiny price for a spiritually healthy workforce.

"They say you need to leave problems at work at work and problems at home at home, but realistically you can't do it," he said. "If they come to work and aren't thinking about making steel, we're in trouble."

Hall and her seven chaplains have been hired by nine western Arkansas companies to be available to about 3,500 employees and their families 24 hours a day.

The chaplains have to follow the secular protocol of an EAP - which means no talk of religion until they receive an employee's open invitation for spiritual guidance.

"You have to be extremely oblique and careful not to force religion on employees," Hall said. "As a Christian and an ordained minister, I believe God holds the answers to life, but I do not have a secret agenda. When people ask for spiritual help, I give it, but if they don't ask, I don't push the point."

Some companies, however, hire chaplains precisely because they may eventually convert employees.

Russ Barr, a supervisor at MACSTEEL, said Hall's chaplaincy gives the Arkansas plant a distinct advantage over the steel mills he knows outside the Bible Belt.

"For me as a devout Christian, employees who are Christians should be better, more productive workers with fewer problems," he said.

Corporate chaplaincy grew out of the more traditional military, hospital and prison models, originating in England's early Industrial Revolution factories. It gained new life in the early 1990s, when technology increasingly blurred the lines between work and home life.

The National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains, based in Houston, follows military chaplain standards to train about 150 corporate chaplains or organizations to address the needs of employees of other faiths. Among the topics of study: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal statute that prohibits religious discrimination by private companies.

"A chaplain is trained to find the right resource, not to replace the clergy of another persuasion," said David White, executive director of the Military Chaplains Association near Washington.

A corporate chaplain must also refer employees to psychologists or certified therapists if they show symptoms of depression.

The chaplains run an early-morning weekly prayer group at MACSTEEL. Attendance is voluntary, but Fisher, the boss, is at every meeting.

Louis Maltby, executive director of the civil rights group National Work Rights Institute, said that can send mixed messages. While providing clergy for workers is commendable, he said, it must be handled carefully.

"Employers forget how much power they have over employees," he said. "I doubt any of them would tell their employees, `Convert to my faith or you're fired.' They don't have to. All they have to do is suggest, and they've crossed the line."

The two largest corporate chaplain groups in the country are Marketplace Ministries of Dallas and Corporate Chaplains of America near Raleigh, N.C.


By David Hammer
  • Francie Grace

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