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Chaplain Services, EAPs Compete for Employer Market
Employee assistance programs and chaplains debate which provides best services

By Dana Wilkie   7/24/2013

When one of Mike Shipman’s vice presidents got a phone call years ago informing her that her husband, who was traveling in St. Louis, had suffered a heart attack, she jumped on a plane for Missouri with no clue how to get to his hospital.

Shipman contacted Marketplace Chaplains USA, a Texas-based counseling service that the North Dallas Bank Corp. CEO has contracted with for 17 years. A chaplain met the vice president at the airport, took her to the hospital and stayed by her side after her husband died.  

Shipman asserts that chaplain services are more personal and flexible than the traditional employee assistance program (EAP)—something EAP groups challenge as the two compete for contracts in an economy where benefits such as helping employees with life challenges can be nearly as important as salary.

In fact, the debate over the two types of employee assistance plans has, at times, become prickly. George Martin, president of the 1,000-member Employee Assistance Society of North America (EASNA), called it “an insult” when California-based Chaplains Inc. suggested that chaplain EAPs are “proactive,” while traditional EAPs are “reactive.”

Martin said he was “disturbed by some of the points” that Chaplains Inc. made in its 2011 “Business Case for Corporate Chaplaincy.” The paper asserts that chaplaincy programs “connect with everyone,” whereas EAPs “serve very few,” and that the latter try to solve “problems via phone as quickly as possible,” while the former “is engaged … helping everyone communicate and work together more effectively.”

Dick De Witt, president of Marketplace Chaplains USA, countered: “In all the new employee orientations I’ve conducted, never has a hand been raised when I asked, ‘How many of you have ever called the 800 number given to you by HR in a time of crisis?’ But most of the time [after orientations] someone comes up to one of the chaplains with a problem.”

The Biltmore Co. and Taco Bell are among the businesses that hire chaplaincy organizations to help their employees through sickness, death, divorce, financial hardship and other life crises.

Some companies offer chaplaincy services as well as EAPs; others offer one or the other. There are perhaps a half-dozen chaplaincy organizations in the nation that contract with companies, said Marketplace Chaplains spokesman Art Stricklin. Marketplace Chaplains is among the largest, he said, with nearly 2,800 chaplains serving more than 3,000 locations in 988 cities and 44 states.

The EASNA represents 45.1 million covered employees, mostly in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, according to Executive Director Bob McLean. Its sister organization, the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, represents at least 100 million employees, said EAPA CEO John Maynard. Together, the two serve 85 percent to 90 percent of corporate America’s workers, Martin said.

There are appreciable differences between EAPs and chaplaincy services.

EAPs tend to offer services outside the office; chaplains may do the same, but they often visit workplaces to get acquainted with employees, De Witt explained. “They’re establishing a relationship and rapport,” he said. “The employees develop trust over a period of time.”

Martin is skeptical of this practice: “If I’m wandering a hall and stopping by offices and knocking on doors, how do I shift from the helpful visitor to the therapeutic counselor? If I move into counseling in a corporate setting, is that a misuse of the company’s time or intruding into the work routine? Those are roles that I think need to be separate.”

Shipman said that Marketplace Chaplains can always call on counselors nationwide  who will provide services that traditional EAP counselors can’t—such as meeting Shipman’s employee at the airport or staying at her side after her husband’s death. But Martin noted that many EAPs have international networks of counselors who can provide similar services.  

Chaplains Inc. claims that only 5 percent to 7 percent of workers take advantage of traditional EAPs, while 55 percent to 95 percent use chaplaincies.

Maynard disagreed with that statistic, saying that, in reality, 5 percent to 15 percent of workers use EAPs and that chaplaincies include in their percentages “relationship building, such as a conversation or a meeting in the cafeteria.”

“The only time an EAP counts a contact is if there’s an assessment and some service is initiated,” explained Maynard, who disputes Shipman’s contention that chaplaincies are more personalized than EAPs. “If they need a hospital, that’s where they go. If they need a specialist, that’s where they’re referred. If it’s clear the employee would benefit from a faith-based approach, that’s the referral the EAP makes. But to make the jump and say every employee’s first point of contact should be faith-based—I think that would make most employees uncomfortable.”  

The Marketplace Chaplains website states that “chaplains will not preach” or “promote a church” when working with company clients. However, one of De Witt’s chaplains recounts in a written testimonial that he “began to present the unconditional love God had for” a woman who was suicidal. The result, the testimonial states, is that the client asked God “to be her Lord and Savior of her life.”

Asked if Marketplace Chaplains’ policy is to encourage faith in God among clients, De Witt said that conversations during counseling are “controlled by the employee. Any faith discussion … is only done when requested.” He added that his chaplains come from 93 Protestant denominations. Strickland said the organization can call on Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist faith leaders. They are not part of the regular network of chaplains, he said, but are used for special requests, such as when a client asks that a priest administer last rites.

Martin, who is a chaplain, a former marriage and family therapist and now CEO of a Georgia-based EAP called CorpCare Associations Inc., said it’s hard for employees to “separate the message from the messenger.”

“I don’t think there’s any way a chaplain, just like a mental-health therapist, cannot represent what they actually intend,” said Martin, who added that he’s lost only two clients to chaplaincies. “And what happens to the employee who has other beliefs or no beliefs?” Shipman’s bank pays Marketplace Chaplains about $30,000 a year to cover 150 workers in its Texas branches, along with the premiums it pays for an EAP under the health insurance it offers employees.

Martin called this fee “extravagant” and said his members would likely charge less than $5,000 for the same service.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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