Chaplains at the Ready

By Robert J. Grossman Dec 1, 2008
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​​​​Clergy from Marketplace Chaplains USA, shown here—and ministers from similar organizationsassist employees in a variety of industries.

Whether faith-friendly, faith-focused or faith-frosty, the following companies all welcome religion and spirituality. Regardless of perspective, they all are benefiting from chaplain programs. Here’s how.

​The Biltmore Co.

Ann Ashley, senior vice president of HR at The Biltmore Corp. in Asheville, N.C., is quick to explain what her decision to install a chaplaincy is about—and not about: “It’s not about religion; it is about the hospitality business. We’re a secular, for-profit business that seeks to do the right thing. We have a set of core values that promotes caring for each other and our guests on the estate. You have to take care of things that weigh on them. It may be physical, emotional or spiritual.” The company is in tourism, running an historic mansion, a hotel and a winery.

When Ashley brought in chaplains, Biltmore, once a small family operation, had grown to more than 1,800 employees. The company was losing the personal touch that had characterized its relationship with workers. “How do you keep the smallness? How do you assure that someone notices if you’re having a bad day?” she asked.

The employee assistance program (EAP), still in place, was excellent, but people in need weren’t calling; they also weren’t tapping the Biltmore Fund at Asheville’s Eblen Foundation, set up to help needy workers with heating oil, groceries and medical care for children.

Biltmore turned to Marketplace Chaplains USA in Dallas, a not-for-profit, faith-based organization that helps employers reach out to workers. Modeled after the chaplaincy of the U.S. Army, the company’s chaplains are evangelical Christians, many with parishes.

“You get to see me every week. I’ll ask about your mother, check about how your wife is doing. Tell me anyone who will go on a Saturday morning with a mother and three kids to help her load her stuff up and move to a better apartment. We bury them, marry them and when their son goes to prison, we go see him,” says Gil Strickland, chairman and chief executive officer.

“They’re a contractor built on an evangelical Christian faith, but the work they do is not as evangelicals,” Ashley says. “They’re here to help our people, not to proselytize. If someone asks a chaplain a specific question about religion, his first response will be, ‘Are you sure you want to know?’ Only if the answer is ‘yes’ will they express themselves.”
Strickland adds, “We’re stealth as to the faith perspective. I don’t want to be embarrassed about who I am or deny it; if you come to me as the chaplain and ask about a question of faith, you have initiated it and I will respond.”
What if an aggressive chaplain goes over the line? “We would pull the plug,” Ashley says. Marketplace Chaplains has been around since 1984, and Strickland says the organization has never been sued. Today, 2,500 chaplains serve 402 employers with more than 500,000 workers.
Ashley signed on with Marketplace Chaplains USA for a three-year pilot. At first, “People heard the word chaplain and it created a quiver of fear. They were afraid we were bringing religion into the workplace, and they didn’t want it,” Ashley says. She handled each complaint personally, explaining the role chaplains were hired to perform. Among the metrics she has set to gauge success are the following:

  • Turnover rate. Are fewer people indicating dissatisfaction as a reason for leaving in exit interviews?
  • Sick or emergency leave. Is the company spending less?
  • Employee surveys. Are satisfaction percentages trending up?
  • EAP utilization. Are more people taking advantage of the EAP program?
  • Foundation applications. Are more people taking advantage of assistance grants?

Ashley examined the field of chaplain services before choosing the international Marketplace Chaplains. “It gives me comfort to know that when an employee has a death in the family in another part of the country or even overseas, a chaplain has been there almost immediately.”

Tyson Foods

At Tyson Foods, 120 part-time chaplains, hired directly by the company, cover 265 of 300 locations in the United States and Mexico. Managers at each location have the option to offer the program. “We hire people who can be sensitive and can work within a multicultural and multi-faith environment,” says Alan Tyson, director of chaplain services. They come from a variety of faiths and demographics; 11 percent of chaplains are female, 42 percent bilingual.

“The program is part of our DNA,” says Rod Nagel, senior vice president of human resources. 
Tyson introduced chaplain services in 2000 under the influence of owner John Tyson (no relation to Alan). Faith was a big part of his life experience, and he wanted to extend the opportunity to workers. Tyson says the program is proactive. “We minister by wandering around, informally making ourselves available. People talk to us about everything—parenting, depression, anxiety. The percent of spiritual matters is a small part.”

Pilgrim’s Pride

Pilgrim’s Pride has about 300 chaplains from Marketplace Chaplains working at chicken and deli-food plants in the United States, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

“The chaplains are faith-based, but in their contract, they have to reach out when employees request spiritual guidance from a representative of a different religion,” says Jane Brookshire, executive vice president of Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. in Pittsburg, Texas. “We’re able to mirror the diversity we have in our own workforce—female chaplains, chaplains of various ethnic backgrounds—they try to make sure at least one person who visits a site is someone every employee can identify with.”

Brookshire says the 24/7 availability of the chaplains and their constant presence in the facilities is invaluable. “It has been very helpful to have the chaplains available in times of tragedy,” she says. When a worker’s parent dies, the chaplain goes to the funeral. “It shows,” she says, “how much the company cares about our employees.”

Columbia Forest Products

Don Carter, vice president of HR at Columbia Forest Products in Greensboro, N.C., says “eyebrows were rai​sed” when he hired Corporate Chaplains of America in Raleigh, N.C., to augment the company’s EAP. Initially, company officials were “afraid the chaplains would be standing on a soapbox and pounding a bible.” But now, the response is more positive. “I knew the EAP program wasn’t cutting it; it had a participation rate of less than 5 percent, which meant many people in crisis were falling through the cracks,” he says. The annual usage rate of Columbia’s chaplain program is 60 percent to 70 percent. Chaplains serve employees in North Carolina, Oregon and Virginia.

“Most of what they deal with is not spiritual,” he says. “If faith comes up, it’s an opportunity for the chaplain, but he doesn’t initiate it.”

​The author, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.​

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