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GLOBAL REPORT, Ministers tend the flock at work sites

Companies see benefits in hiring chaplains to help employees with personal issues.

By Rhymer Rigby, Financial Times

July 30, 2007, From the Los Angeles Times, Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

Employees at Tyson Foods Inc. experiencing the kind of problems they might not want to take to their managers have someone else they can approach — the corporate chaplain.

"We have 125 chaplains, mostly part-time, working in the U.S., Canada and Mexico," says Alan Tyson, director of chaplaincy services. "They are out in the workplace providing a ministry of availability and presence."

Corporate chaplaincy is big business in the U.S. Organizations such as Corporate Chaplains of America and Marketplace Chaplains USA, which provide pastoral care in the nation's factories and offices, have thousands of chaplains on their books.

"Our organization was founded in 1984 by a military chaplain, who had seen how helpful he could be to military folk," says Dan Truitt, vice president of international ministries at Marketplace Chaplains. "Then he looked at private business and found a need there." He cites occasions in which chaplains have found medical help for workers' families or even conducted funerals.

Although nowhere near as widespread as in the U.S., corporate chaplains can be found in Britain too. The Rev. Mike Coley is one of them. "Basically, I'm there for people to talk to," he says. "People from the shop floor to senior management find they can open up to me. I hear about relationships, family, problems with children. Some of the stories are heartbreaking." But there is a lighter side to the work. "I married one couple recently," he says.

Chaplaincy in Britain tends to be ad hoc, but in the U.S., chaplains are normally assigned to the company and appear regularly, depending on employee needs. They build a rapport with the staff and management and let them know that, if they need to talk, a chaplain is available.

Chaplains are not employees of the companies to which they minister, giving them a neutral status. Typically, the company will pay a fee — in the U.S., as much as $20 an employee a year — to the organization, which then pays the chaplain. Most are Christian, but some are from other faiths too. Chaplains tend to have some formal training but not necessarily.

"What we are really looking for is someone with a pastor's heart to care for folks," Tyson says.

Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School in Britain, says the concept is neither new nor American. "We had corporate chaplains 40 years ago in the U.K. All we are doing is reviving this," he says, adding that job insecurity, long hours and stress could mean the time for corporate chaplains has come again.

Those who use them point to obvious benefits: The workforce that has someone to talk to about its problems is generally happier. "We have recently started using Mike Coley," says Chris Merideth, general manager of the Bristol, England-based Metal Centre. "At first there was a bit of 'What's all this?' But now people expect to see him and know they can talk openly with him." He thinks it helps that, as well as being a minister, Coley has a background in engineering and so is not seen as a mere do-gooder.

Truitt thinks Britain could soon be seeing more chaplains in the workplace, with Marketplace Chaplains considering setting up a sister organization.

"We are still in the exploratory phase, but we have visited the U.K. and we know that people are interested. But we wouldn't transplant ourselves. It would have to be a U.K. organization led by U.K. people," he says.

The chaplains insist that they are not missionaries and will discuss matters of faith only if the employee brings them up.

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