Peeling back the corporate chaplain story

the officeI first heard of the “booming business” of corporate chaplains in American companies on The Economist‘s podcast Friday afternoon. I hadn’t heard a word about this trend for years. Since when does a British magazine break news on American business and religion trends?

The story raises some important points that one would think would receive a thorough scrubbing in publications like Business Week, but my limited search has only turned up stories that are surprisingly similar to The Economist‘s and from a number of years ago. Here’s the news from The Economist:

Corporate chaplains are a booming business in America. There are roughly 4,000 of them (precise numbers are hard to come by) working everywhere from giant multinationals to tiny family firms. And their numbers are growing. America has several thriving rent-a-chaplain companies, and two seminaries that offer degrees in corporate chaplaincy, yet demand still exceeds supply.

Some companies prefer to rely on in-house chaplains. Tyson Foods, a meat-processing giant, employs 128 chaplains to minister to 85,000 employees in the United States, Mexico and Canada. John Tyson, the company’s boss, also employs an ordained minister as an executive coach to help him wrestle with ethical questions.

But most firms outsource their spiritual guidance. That makes it easier, of course, to get rid of surplus chaplains in a downturn. But it is also arguably better for the workers who seek their counsel, in that the chaplains work for a third party rather than the boss.

In 2002 The Christian Science Monitor published a story about how corporate chaplains were having to deal with the emotional stresses encountered in the office after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington. A more recent article in U.S. News & World Report (dated January 2005) tells us that there are 4,000 corporate chaplains in America but the numbers are growing. Where did I see that claim before? We’re also told the same thing about how these chaplains are often “for rent” and can be laid off on a whim.

The article has some slightly dated numbers on the two big corporate chaplain businesses out there: Marketplace Chaplains in Dallas and Corporate Chaplains of America in North Carolina. We’re told about the same thing as in The Economist article on the issues raised by caring for workers’ souls in the workplace. Here’s The Economist:

Why the chaplain boom? People in the business point to the practical advantages of having a company cleric. Many workers are cut off from their geographic and religious roots. Corporate chaplains can perform the role of traditional village priests. People in the business also argue that corporate chaplains can boost productivity. Art Stricklin, of Marketplace Chaplains, claims that the turnover rate at Taco Bell outlets in central Texas dropped by a third after they started employing chaplains. More objective evidence is hard to find, but it is notable that companies have taken to advertising the fact that they employ chaplains in promotional literature.

Another reason is the growing intrusion of faith into the workplace. Once-closeted bosses are coming out as evangelicals (see article). Bible-study classes are proliferating across corporate America. Texas Instruments offers “serenity rooms” where employees can go to pray and meditate. Lawsuits from outraged secular employees are probably only a matter of time.

Rhymer Rigby of the Financial Times wrote about the same Tysons Foods on July 30 and Melissa McEver had the same story in The Monitor (in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley).

The most serious coverage of this trend is in The Economist, but that’s only because it included an independent (but non-attributed) analysis. It’s difficult to prove anything in this case, but it’s curious that a handful of stories essentially carrying the same basic facts and companies made it into the news this summer. Yes, it is summer and stories aren’t exactly abounding.

The issue I have with these stories is the weak attempt to look beyond the basic canned facts presented by whoever provided them. The emphasis here is canned. Cans rattle, and these stories are starting to rattle quite loudly. Why aren’t there any examples of legal challenges? Are they kept quiet? Are there labor issues involved in hiring these chaplains for rent? Do they have other jobs? Where are these chaplains coming from? What types of certifications must they have, if any?

Note on the photo: I cannot wait for the one-hour premier of NBC’s The Office on September 27.

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  • Mattk

    I wish the story had gone into what the chaplains actually do. My uncle is a corporate chaplain for a very large bakery in Oakland, California. In his short time there, he has helped employees work through marriage problems, visited them in hospitals, met with an emplyee every day to pray for her during her cancer treatments, visited one employee’s son in jail, and begun a prayer campaign to help the comapny find alternatives to transfats.

  • Rebecca Hughes

    Possibly you haven’t heard of any legal challenges because there haven’t been any. I’m personally acquainted with a chaplaincy program. It is COMPLETELY optional and is used by employees voluntarily. What is DOES do is decrease absenteeism and increase productivity. In the same way that a faith based organization can care for the mental or emotional health of Katrina victims with grant funds, why not allow a chaplain to assist employees who DESIRE that assistance, thereby acheiving a healthier, more productive staff with higher morale? No one is forced to see a chaplain. Chaplains are simply available when needed. The employee who desires no interaction with a chaplain need not have any. The employee who does recieves help and care. The employer recieves happier, healthier employees. I have yet to find a loser in this situation.

  • Jerry

    Why aren’t there any examples of legal challenges?

    Maybe because there are none or very few? A few seconds with google found that someone talked about the possibility of a lawsuit of a company president runs a Bible study group and that is reasonable since there’s the possibility of religious discrimination in the workplace. But sue about a corporate chaplain does not seem likely although in our society presumably someone would try a lawsuit.

  • dpulliam

    Thanks Rebecca and Jerry for your expert analysis. My point isn’t that there should be or that there is examples. The point is that if this is an issue, give us a tangible example of it. If there is not a tangible example, then state that.

  • Eric G.

    My educated guess would be that as long as the program is optional, that the program is set up in such as way that it doesn’t instill a climate of discrimination for nonbelievers, and that one’s participation has no bearing on one’s employment status, there would be no contestable legal issue.

    Where I work, any employee can avail him/herself of a secular personal counselor (a psychologist) for a certain number of visits (I think four) with no charge and for basically any reason. The program is through a third party and is set up so that the employer doesn’t know who uses the service. I would assume that some of the chaplaincy programs are set up the same way.

  • Julia

    I’m wondering how a generic “chaplain” can work with Lutherans, Episcopalians, LDS, 7th Day Adventists, Methodists, all stripes of Baptists, Jews, Bahai’s, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox and non-denominationals? Are these chaplains really social workers or life coaches? How would they know what to say or advise or pray in all cases?

    Why is that question not addressed? It fairly screams out to me.

  • Jerry

    Thanks Rebecca and Jerry for your expert analysis.

    The invoice for my services will be sent shortly. There will be no extra charge for assisting you in clearing up the point that confused me.

  • Laurie Goodstein

    If you’d like to read another story on corporate chaplains, my colleague, Neela Banerjee, wrote one that ran last December 4, 2006. She reported from a Tyson poultry plant in Virginia, but takes into account the national trend:
    “At Bosses’ Invitation, Chaplains Come Into Workplace and Onto Payroll”

    The corporate chaplains story is not a new phenomenon, and it’s a stretch to claim that The Economist “broke” this story. They just wrote another one.
    - Laurie

  • Julia

    Let me ask again. Is a corporate chaplain religious? And if so, how does that translate into his/her working with people of different faiths in the workplace? Or is it like “higher power” advice? Where are corporate chaplains trained?

  • danr

    “Lawsuits from outraged secular employees are probably only a matter of time.” That’s clearly an op-ed claim, rather than one from a “journalistic article” as it sells itself. I think dpulliam’s point was just that – everyone’s got an opinion, but if you’re going to make such a journalistic claim, back it up. Could be idiosyncratic of British journalism, mixing fact-reporting with opinion.

    It got me thinking, if the U.S. govt/military can have chaplains funded by taxpayer money, without violating the establishment clause, why would it be lawsuit-material for a privately owned company to likewise offer such voluntary services? Understood, there need to be chaplains available for every “reasonable” religion in military, but my cynical side says that another non-Christian religious person would be much less likely to complain (or sue) about lack of a non-Christian chaplain in a corp. than would a secular person who just doesn’t like the idea.