The Rise Of the Corporate Chaplain

A growing number of company clergy are counseling American workers, one desk at a time

By Mark Oppenheimer

Bissell, at Driver’s Village in Cicero, N.Y.


Roger Burdick knows how to sell cars. Driver’s Village, his gigantic sales outlet in Syracuse, N.Y., is housed in a former shopping center, Penn-Can Mall, which went out of business in 1996. Four years later, Burdick bought the 80-acre property and in 2003 moved his dealerships to the building’s perimeter. As you circle the former mall you encounter one showroom after another, 360 degrees of cars. You can buy an Audi, BMW, Buick, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, or Ford — and that’s just through the letter F. Inside the facility there are now about two dozen “shoppes,” including car rental agencies, a driving school, and law offices.

A portly, slow-talking, exceedingly polite Baptist, Burdick is the father of two children, whose mother he has married twice, once when he was still leading an un-Christian life — which led to their divorce — then again after he recommitted to the church. He subscribes to a literal reading of the Bible: He believes that God created the earth in six days, around 6,000 years ago, and that dinosaurs were wiped out by the Flood. Charles Darwin is “just a man that had a theory, and somehow the theory got into our textbooks as fact.” Burdick’s faith is integral to the way he runs his businesses. He closes his dealerships on Sundays. He says religious Christians gravitate toward his business, as customers and as employees, because they know of his beliefs. The most surprising evidence that Driver’s Village is a Christian business may be the eight part-time chaplains, six men and two women, who roam the dealerships offering employees friendship, advice, and — if asked — the good news of Jesus.

“We believe that God is real,” Burdick says, sitting behind his desk deep in the mall’s interior. “We believe that the Bible is His Word, and that because of man’s fallen nature, God sent his son Jesus Christ to die and pay for our sins. Our chaplains believe that, too. They don’t proselytize, but if employees want to know more, they’ll tell them.”

On her morning rounds, the Driver’s Village head chaplain, Elise Bissell, the 54-year-old wife of a Southern Baptist preacher, hands out her business card to employees who don’t know her yet, offers hugs to many who do, and listens intently as people whisper their troubles in her sympathetic ear. Bissell works for Marketplace Chaplains USA, an agency that provides chaplains to more American businesses than any other provider, but most of her time is spent at Driver’s Village, and her heart belongs to its workers. This is more than an assignment to her.

Workplace chaplains like Bissell can be found at more than 1,000 companies in the U.S. and Canada. These chaplains are a rising regiment of corporate America’s human-resources army, as employers have found that a pastoral touch is often more appealing to workers than an impersonal hotline of the sort included in many benefits packages. A 2008 study by the Families and Work Institute found that more than 97 percent of companies with payrolls larger than 5,000 offer employee assistance programs, with anonymous counseling and referrals available by phone. Yet employees are “dramatically” more likely to use workplace chaplains than standard mental-health benefits, according to preliminary results from an ongoing study by David Miller and Faith Ngunjiri of Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative. At least half of 1,000 employees surveyed have used the services of a workplace chaplain — far more than those who use standard assistance programs.

At many companies the chaplains are in-house, their salaries paid by the boss. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco hired its first “pastoral counselor” in 1949 and kept the program through the 1990s. Tyson Foods, the Arkansas-based conglomerate, employs 120 chaplains. But the recent growth is driven by chaplaincy agencies.

Marketplace, founded in Dallas in 1984, supplies chaplains to businesses — including Roger Burdick’s car dealerships — on a contract basis. Marketplace employs 2,700 chaplains, up 50 percent since 2005. Its part-time chaplains, such as Rene Luevano and his wife Ada, serve 500 companies, including Pilgrim’s, the U.S. branch of the world’s second-largest chicken producer, and McDonald’s. Another Marketplace client, Austaco, which owns 77 Taco Bell restaurants, receives spiritual help from chaplain Beth Howard, who has been counseling fast-food employees in West Texas since 2003. Corporate Chaplains of America, in Wake Forest, N.C., hires full-time chaplains to serve 760 businesses across the country. Its corps grew 20 percent last year alone. At these, the two largest nonprofit agencies, the chaplains are evangelical Christians.

Employees say they appreciate, or at least aren’t offended by, the chaplains, who are usually ordained ministers. (Female chaplains from denominations that do not ordain women may be Sunday-school teachers or other church workers.) And employers like the regular reports chaplains provide, which can reveal the level of employees’ concerns about everything from salaries and overtime to troubles at home. Because chaplains are proactive, doing outreach rather than waiting for complaints to filter up, they hear more, and sooner, than do typical human resources professionals. “When gas first went over $3, the financial stress was showing up in the chaplains’ reports,” says Daniel Jones, chief executive officer of Encore Wire in McKinney, Tex. So one day, as employees were leaving work, they got $25 gas cards. “It didn’t cost a lot,” Jones says, “but it meant a lot to them.”

Chaplains haven’t replaced human resources departments; rather, it’s often HR leaders who invite chaplains to work alongside them. Miller says chaplaincy is a natural extension of HR. “In the old days, companies didn’t want to know about your personal baggage,” Miller says. “You were just supposed to show up and do your job. HR offices all say we are now treating people holistically. They want people to bring their whole self to work.” In a country where, according to Gallup, more than 90 percent of people say they believe in God, bringing one’s whole self to work means bringing religion, too.

Even so, corporate chaplaincy presents an ethical dilemma. Ministers are supposed to have only one boss: God. When their paychecks come from a company, even indirectly through a nonprofit agency, their loyalties are bound to be conflicted. The bosses hire chaplains to make employees feel better, but what if an employee is underpaid or overworked? What would Jesus do? Charles Campbell, a Presbyterian minister for 30 years and a Duke Divinity School professor, says, “It’s obvious the chaplain is working for the boss. Is a person being paid by management going to take a prophetic stance when they hear about horrible workplace conditions, when they hear about inadequate pay, when they hear about a group that wants to unionize?”

Of course, bosses don’t hire chaplains to act as employee advocates. If anything, chaplains are supposed to help companies avoid conflict and keep everyone happy. Take it from Ed Bonneau, a retired sunglasses importer for Wal-Mart Stores and other retailers, whose company first hired chaplains back in the 1980s. “Chaplaincy is one way I had of hugging the people,” Bonneau says. “It says, ‘I may not be able to pay you $20 an hour or more, but we care about you.’”

Talk to Gil Stricklin, and he’ll punch you in the arm. Not in a mean way, but in a how-ya-doin’, power-of-positive-thinking, manly American way. Before founding Marketplace in 1984, Stricklin was a military chaplain, a Southern Baptist preacher, and a motivational speaker. For about seven years in the 1970s, he was the man the legendary Zig Ziglar sent on the road when he got too busy to accept yet another speaking invitation. Now 77, Stricklin still looks capable of kicking some ass.

“How ya doin’!” Stricklin says at the door to his conference room, throwing a signature arm punch. On the wall are portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee praying with chaplains. For our meeting, Stricklin invited Bonneau, the sunglasses man, who was his first client and is now a board member, to join us. The pair trade lines like an old married couple.

“I met Gil when he was speaking at a Zig Ziglar conference,” Bonneau says. “I got him to come out to our company and do some things, and then he came out to our church to do some things. One day we were having lunch, and he said, ‘I have this dream.’”

Stricklin interrupts, “I’d like to point out that I said, ‘I’d like to buy you lunch,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’ve never had a minister buy me lunch!’ So, on the 17th of December, 1983, we had lunch.”

At that lunch, Stricklin, just retired from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, told Bonneau his idea for importing a model of military chaplaincy into the workplace. He had already met with 10 Southern Baptist business owners, all of whom rejected the idea as unworkable or possibly illegal. Still, Bonneau was impressed by Stricklin’s proposed ministry. “He’d come in and help if people had death, or divorce, or problems in the family,” as Bonneau recalls. “He had a passion for doing it in a company. And I had a company that had kinfolk in it, friends in it, and we’d gotten really big.” Bonneau, who worried his small company was losing its personal touch, was sold. “I butted in and said, ‘Gil, that is exactly what I have wanted to do, and I don’t care what it costs.’”

So Stricklin started coming by. For the first couple weeks, nothing much happened. He hung around a lot. Finally he said to Bonneau, “Why don’t you give me a job?” So Bonneau put him to work in the warehouse, packing sunglasses. “And that was magic,” Stricklin says. “It made the preacher real.” Another month went by, and a worker approached him. “You’re that preacher,” she said. “My mother had a stroke, and I can’t go see her until tonight. Can you go see her?” The employee’s mother died two weeks later, and Stricklin officiated at the funeral.

Death is straightforward work for a chaplain. Things get trickier when an employee wants to talk about addiction or an abusive spouse. While Marketplace says its chaplains observe a code of strict confidence, there are exceptions. They are legally mandated to report certain types of information, such as when an employee threatens to harm herself or others or reveals a case of child abuse.

Marketplace does not let women minister to men or vice versa. Separate chaplains are assigned for gents and for ladies. The company doesn’t do much training; it hires people who have gone to seminary or Bible college. They receive two half-days of online classes, followed by periodic continuing education. In May, I sat in on an orientation session conducted by a trainer named Dan Truitt. He was talking with seven of his chaplains, three by teleconference, about confidentiality. After discussing standard legal exceptions to the confidentiality policy, he offered the kicker, that final exception, which is “when harm to the client company or its well-being is about to occur.”

Put another way, if you confess to the chaplain that you’re stealing from the company, he’ll likely rat you out to management. While employees are encouraged to talk to corporate chaplains as the religious figures they are, the chaplains themselves are not bound by the rules of confidentiality that most clergy honor. “We had a case in another state of an architecture firm where an employee said he was going to take some secrets with him to another firm,” Truitt said. “Now that was an illegal act, but it was also harm to a client company, and it had to be reported.”

Later, Truitt clarified that particular case. He was the chaplain involved, he said, “12 or 15 years ago.” As he recalled, several men had left to start their own firm. Truitt did not learn about it until it was too late to act, he said. “But if we saw that coming — and that nearly destroyed the company — that may be something we would act on.”

Chaplains are rarely in such a bind. In fact, no other chaplain I spoke with remembered a case in which a breach of confidentiality was required. But it is not surprising that Marketplace would put the company’s welfare first; its Christianity fits comfortably with the needs of business. You won’t hear a lot from Stricklin’s people about fair pay, for example. Ed Bonneau says, “The way I’ve always looked at wages, the marketplace sets the wages.”

And the chaplains, professing “neutrality,” are careful not to get in the middle of worker/management conflict, which may be the primary source of stress in the workplace. When asked what she would do if an employee were being mistreated, Bissell, the Driver’s Village chaplain, said, “I’d probably go with them to the employer or encourage them to. Otherwise I wouldn’t get involved. It’s not my place.” Lillian Daniel, a Chicago-area minister active in workers’ rights, worries about whether chaplains like Bissell can balance their companies’ work and God’s. “This kind of chaplaincy treats religion as filling just another human need or lifestyle choice,” Daniel says. “Your workplace gave you a health club, it gave you a credit union, now it gives you a pastor. But that’s not how religious lives are truly lived. They are lived in community with other believers.”

Back in Syracuse, Bissell is finishing her rounds. These quick chats are not when the most important chaplain work takes place, Bissell says. They’re just preludes to the longer conversations on breaks or after hours. “I got a call last night from a woman who was let go,” Bissell says, as she strolls the mall’s interior. She said she would keep up with the ex-employee.

Circulating among some clerical workers in a Driver’s Village office, Bissell has a quiet conversation with a young woman excited to show off pictures of her children. The chat then takes a dark detour, as the woman confides in Bissell about her marriage. “We fight and then we get over it,” she tells the chaplain. “It takes a day or two. I have to cool off. And I want him to be in the right frame of mind, because he can be a little hot-headed.” Bissell nods sympathetically, then leaves the woman to her work.

The chaplains help productivity — that’s another reason company executives who have hired chaplains are often ecstatic. Sometimes it’s the CEOs themselves who benefit from the chaplains. Several years after bringing in Marketplace, Daniel Jones, the Texas wire baron, found himself using their services. “My father died in 2003,” Jones says. His mother was distraught. “Her three sons, we’re racing to the hospital, we show up, she’s hysterical. I called the chaplain on my cell phone, and I said, ‘My dad just died — what do I do?’ He said, ‘You do these three things, and I’ll do the rest.’” And Gary Martin, a Dallas venture capitalist, says his chaplain from Marketplace helped persuade an employee’s husband not to commit suicide. “And he’s alive,” Martin says, “and they’re living happily ever after.”

What of the concern that chaplains may not stand up for employees? Not a problem, according to Corporate Chaplains founder Mark Cress. “We just don’t see cases where there is injustice in the employers we are dealing with,” Cress says. “Our view is that universally the companies that would bring us in after a good due-diligence search are pretty good companies. They are already treating their employees pretty well before we ever get there.”


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