In searching for a personalized yet affordable way to help employees deal with personal issues that can influence their performance, a growing number of business owners, leaders and HR managers are turning to chaplains who undergo specialized training beyond their seminary education to enter into workplaces.

“Chaplains fill a gap that often exists within the work environment – a non-career-impacting place to mitigate the difficult personal and professional struggles and frustrations that all employees face. I often refer to chaplains as another form of employee assistance program,” says Naomi Paget, a board-certified chaplain and co-author of the 2006 book “The Work of the Chaplain,” a guide to chaplaincy in a variety of workplace settings. These struggles can include everything from those which all workers face, such as emotional problems, health concerns and family crises, to manager- and director-level concerns like layoffs, restructuring, mergers and meeting critical deadlines.

Although workplace chaplains have garnered more press and attention of late – a 2005 Science & Theology News article attributes this to their more visible role alongside police and firefighter units after the 9/11 attacks – their history in the U.S. traces back to before the country was founded. Paget’s book – which is co-authored by Janet McCormack, an active-duty chaplain in the U.S. Air Force for over 20 years – documents their first role in this country as a form of aid to employees in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who were required to work Sundays, circa 1640.

Through the years, their presence expanded to labor-intensive work settings such as textile mills, construction sites, industrial and food-processing plants and auto manufacturers. By the 1980s, chaplains were seen in software and media companies. Today, it’s tough to name a work setting where chaplains aren’t providing assistance. “There are ski chaplains who offer services on mountaintops and … RV park chaplains and motorcycle gang chaplains,” Paget says.

Just how many companies have one or more chaplains on the payroll? David Miller, executive director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, recently told the New York Times he estimates that the number of U.S. companies with chaplaincies has doubled in the past five years, to around 700 today. That translates to more than 4,000 certified chaplains working in businesses across the country, according to the Texas-based National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains.

The proliferation of chaplains in workplaces is due to a variety of factors, including religious institutions seeking to expand their role beyond their communities and places of worship and, synonymously, the rise of corporate chaplain organizations like Colorado-based Marketplace Samaritans, Inc., and the Corporate Chaplains of America, based in North Carolina. The biggest factor, however, appears to be companies’ determination to balance their employees’ work and personal lives without breaking the bank – or the backs of their HR staffs and managers.

Jo Schrader, executive director of the Association of Professional Chaplains, a professional chaplaincy membership organization headquartered in Schaumburg, IL, says the benefits of chaplains serving in the workplace include “a more productive workforce, less down time for accidents, absenteeism and health issues as well as [improved] morale and general health.” Although some organizations employ chaplains full time, many work part time, and some of them are shared between several companies, saving each of them money while still providing needed support. “This often happens in small rural health care facilities or hospice environments,” Schrader says.

According to Paget, chaplains may serve as the company “expert” or consultant on matters of religion, morals, ethics, morale and accommodation, as these issues impact the company or the employee. The majority of workplace chaplains receive an education in the Christian faith. And although CEOs sometimes hire chaplains based on their own beliefs, seeking to send a message to customers about how their workers live and the way in which their companies do business, some chaplaincy programs have imams and rabbis. However, regardless of a chaplain’s background and training, in the workplace they remain religiously impartial. “All board-certified chaplains adhere to a very strict Code of Ethics that prohibits proselytizing,” Schrader says. “If the employee wishes to bring their faith basis into the conversation, then the chaplain is able to integrate that.”

Their power to help and heal weary workers is undeniable. Alan Tyson, the director of chaplain services for Tyson Foods’ 252 North America locations – who is not related to the company’s founders – reports that he hears “a lot of stories from plant management that indicate that our two full-time and 124 part-time chaplains have a positive effect on retention, turnover and morale.”

‘Value Partners’ a Hybrid of Chaplaincy and an EAP

Joe Perez, VP of Pastoral Services for Valley Baptist Health Systems in Cameron County, TX, helped pilot a program at a local bank three years ago called “Value Partners.” The program, which provides the health care organization’s workplace chaplaincy services to the county’s business community, has proven successful, evolving from beyond the pilot stage at First Community Bank to presently serve a total of four companies.

“We had the vision that the local business community would value this kind of program, which provides a whole – body, mind and spirit – human resources benefit to their most important asset: their people,” Perez says. “A challenge I see is that workplace chaplain companies market themselves as a better service than traditional employee assistance programs [EAPs]. Our Value Partners program is a collaboration of the two professional skills instead of a competition.”

The program involves Perez visiting the bank’s six branches, where he touches base with each available employee. He says many of the visits are brief, while some are longer as he follows up on concerns employees have voiced during past visits. “Over time and the demonstration of reliability, many of the employees have developed a trust level with me,” he says. Perez believes this trust foundation may have its greatest impact if the bank ever faces a major crisis, such as a robbery that results in employee injury or death.

Beyond setting up a trust foundation, the Value Partners program has resulted in some tangible, shorter-term benefits. “It occurred to me that the bank’s repeat customers are relationships built on familiarity. Therefore, they would know if their customers had a loss during the past year,” Perez says. “I did a brief in-service in early December for the [bank’s] employees on how to provide basis support to the grieving.” Time will tell if this employee training will increase customers’ trust – thereby helping to retain their accounts – but Perez believes it already has. “We plan to do this in-service in early November this year.” He says.