Why are more and more companies offering access to chaplains as an employee benefit?
Pastors have long hung out with workers. During the Industrial Revolution, they would preach from factory floors. Nineteenth-century Catholic teachings declared it the Church’s duty to support the working poor. And in the Great Depression, industry titans hired chaplains to visit workers on the Hoover Dam.
But in recent years, a number of companies have gone one step further: They’ve hired spiritual leaders to serve on their staffs. Though slightly less trendy than nap rooms and yoga classes, workplace chaplaincies are another attempt to make workers more productive by catering to their “whole” selves. Sometimes, these chaplains serve as spiritual social workers, advising staffers about everything from divorce to cancer. They might conduct weddings or funerals; they’ll often refer people to local churches and, at times, professional psychologists.
People find Jesus everywhere, cubicles and factory lines included. But why would a corporation bother providing guidance to workers as they search for him? What’s in it for them?
“Human beings still have problems in life—we get cancer, we get divorced, we have workplace accidents,” Miller said. “In different situations we seek and heal through different kinds of help and services. Sometimes it’s a medical service, sometimes it’s just a friend to cry on their shoulder, and other times there’s a spiritual dimension to it.”
For many people, particularly in the United States, religious leaders and institutions often offer that support structure. For those who don’t have that kind of independent community, work is a logical place to look for help—and some employers seem to be recognizing that. As Miller put it in a 2013 paper, “Due to people not having sufficient social support networks, whether at church, in the family, or community, it has become necessary for the work organization to become the new community.”
It’s hard to know just how many workplace chaplains are employed around the U.S., partly because many of them work at privately owned, small- or medium-sized businesses. It’s not just an American phenomenon—Miller has studied initiatives in the U.K., Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and Hong Kong. Many programs are contracted out through non-profit organizations such as Marketplace Ministries, a global, Protestant non-profit that claims to be the largest provider of workplace-chaplaincy services in the U.S. According to its CEO, Doug Fagerstrom, the organization added more new companies to its roster in 2015 than ever before.
Tyson Foods is a rare example of a publicly traded company that runs its own in-house chaplaincy program, which was started 16 years ago and was recently featured in a documentary on PBS. According to Miller’s research, Tyson Foods “is the largest known private-sector corporate-chaplaincy program,” with more than 115 chaplains based in different factories around the country. Company-wide, this works out to roughly one chaplain on staff for every 1,000 Tyson employees.
“When I first started here, John Tyson said something to me,” said Mike Tarvin, a former military chaplain who directs chaplaincy services at the company. “He wanted people to be able to bring their whole selves to work. We provide our team members at Tyson Foods an opportunity to bring that whole self, including that spiritual side, and not [feel] like that they have to check that at the door.”
Being able to bring one’s “whole self” to work, though, often depends on whether it’s convenient for employers to accommodate that “whole self.” Especially in factory settings, workers often come from a wide range of religious and cultural backgrounds. This can lead to conflict: In December, for example, a company called Cargill Meat Solutions fired roughly 190 Muslim immigrants from Somalia after they protested the company’s break policies, which affected workday prayer time. Or, to take a case from retail: Samantha Elauf, a Muslim teen, was turned down for a job at Abercrombie because of her headscarf. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled nearly unanimously that the company had discriminated against her.
These are dramatic examples of something that probably happens on a micro level at workplaces everyday: People feel like it’s awkward, impolite, or unwelcome for them to openly express their religious beliefs, particularly if they’re different from those of their peers. Even though the United States is a thoroughly religious country, people’s beliefs and practices are often only expressed privately, confined to homes and houses of worship.
Having a chaplain around can soften some of these potential conflicts, Tarvin said. He told stories about a chaplain in Iowa who helped organize a funeral after a Buddhist worker from Burma died, and a chaplain in Arkansas who coordinated transportation to and from work for employees from the Marshall Islands. Neither chaplain necessarily shared the faith or cultural background of those workers. But, Tarvin argued, they were able to play those supportive roles because of their distinctive positions. In this way, workplace chaplaincies tend to function like similar programs in the military: Chaplains will serve anyone, but often refer people to an outside priest or rabbi if workers want theologically specific guidance. “You can’t have a little mini-United Nations of 52 chaplains representing 52 tribes of Baptists,” Miller said. “There’s an element of common sense that goes into it.”
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