Faith is finding its way onto the payroll as members of the clergy increasingly use their experience for a stint at the 9-to-5 grind.
These contracted employees are not arriving to show off a new business degree or attend a management meeting. The workplace chaplains are looking to use a different skill set to help the bottom line -- solid morals and a patient ear.
In between meetings, client calls and routine daily tasks, some companies are giving their employees the option to chat with a chaplain.
"Human resources managers are realizing that employees, especially at a time of crisis, have needs that a chaplain or a spiritual person can address," explained Michigan-based chaplain Ron Klimp.
And recognizing those needs makes good business sense, according to Klimp, whose clients have noticed an increase in loyalty and a drop in absenteeism after employing the pastor's nonprofit group, Workplace Chaplains. His business has gone from servicing four companies when it started in 1999 to the current slate of 24 clients.
The Protestant pastor decided to leave the familiarity of working in a church to walk through offices, assembly lines and work spaces and reach out to anyone interested in the support. "We have dealt with people who were suicidal and intervened in a way that prevented the suicide, we have dealt with a person who was threatening workplace violence and engaged him in a conversation with his management folks until the issue got resolved," said Klimp.
You may think of work and religion as two separate parts of your life, but there's a growing movement to encourage people to merge the two. There are annual conferences promoting faith in the workplace, a range of books published on the topic and Web sites provide tips for mixing faith with the workday. Workplace chaplains have slowly increased their place in the business world. Dallas-based Marketplace Ministries began 20 years ago and now sends 1,500 chaplains into offices across the country.
The decision to literally bring religion into an office is a thought-provoking idea that could easily raise the ire of staffers who do not think religion has a place at their job site.
But as the nation becomes more ethnically diverse, an increasing mix of religions is already arriving at work each day.
"Businesses are just beginning to understand that this is something that needs to be addressed," said Joyce Dubensky, executive director of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, which promotes religious tolerance in the workplace.
She consults with major corporations to help them tackle religious issues in their offices and said it "makes sense" that corporate chaplaincy programs are taking off. "Employees don't leave their religion at the door, or their other life problems," said Dubensky.
What's interesting to note about the current faith and work movement is this underlying mindset among its fans that bringing religion into the office and addressing the personal needs of a staff is merely an additional strategy for running a booming business.
And it's not just happening in the Bible belt states of the South. One proponent lives in the more liberal-leaning Northeast. "We have seen the movement grow pretty dramatically in the past 10 years," said Drew Crandall. He runs a nonprofit group, Northeast Christians at Work, and notes, "there has been a change in the culture here and it's not perceived to be as out of whack as it used to be."
Crandall is convinced that following the basic religious tenets of the Ten Commandments will help any business flourish because it dictates that employers and their staff deal honestly and fairly.
The chaplaincy programs do not all have such an obvious religious overtone, but their role in coming to work is also intended to help the bottom line. Klimp said that while his organization stems from a Christian orientation he writes it into the contract that he "will not proselytize or evangelize, we're there to help the company succeed," said Klimp.
The chaplains are on-call 24 hours a day, visiting employees in the hospital and even conducting weddings and funerals when asked. They include men and women, and they are typically trained in Christian denominations, although not exclusively. Tyson Foods, which considers itself a faith-friendly company, employs 112 chaplains in 70 locations and recently hired a Muslim chaplain in Tennessee.
Klimp occasionally refers staffers to clergy of different faiths, but has not had enough demand to warrant employing them. He visits job sites weekly and has found that the process of developing personal relationships is key in helping a staffer deal with a trauma like a divorce or an illness in the family.
"Everyone is healed to get through the process more successfully, which means they get back to work more quickly," said Klimp.
While many companies offer Employee Assistance Programs to provide psychological counseling for their staff, one of Klimp's clients said his employees turn out in larger numbers for meetings with the chaplain because they are literally bringing the support to their job site and could not afford to do the same with a mental health professional.
"It's like bringing in better food in the vending machines," explained Dale Rosser, vice president of human resources for Avon Automotives, based in Cadillac, Mich. "Employees are so valuable so you have to provide multiple services."
While some offices turn to chaplains as a source of psychological support for their staffers, there is always the potential for the religious thinking to encroach on the workplace.
"I think you have to be careful as an employer in doing a good job of assessing what the approach of the workplace chaplaincy program is going to be in your area," said Rosser. "I have to assume that different chaplains come at it with a different fervor."
Dubensky recalled learning of an incident this past Christmas where a chaplain sent an e-mail to the staff of a client encouraging them to "believe in Jesus." She agrees there can be benefits to hiring chaplains, but cautions human resource managers to look for those who "understand and appreciate religious diversity.
"There are employees who are atheists and agnostic and all of them need to be treated respectfully," she said.
Those kinds of concerns have led one human resources group to offer stronger cautions toward these programs. "Employees are at work to work. Employees who have problems can be referred to an objective, third party for additional help," said Rebecca R. Hastings, commenting over e-mail for the Society for Human Resources Management.
"People of all types of beliefs, including non-belief, do come together in the workplace, and need to be able to work peaceably side by side," said Hastings. "Religion is grounded in deep values and beliefs that can clash at work if not handled with care … Introducing religion in an official staff capacity works against this goal."
The struggle to find a comfortable place for religion in the workplace is not a new debate. Business has been questioning this topic for decades. "There used to be a time in America when factories would have pictures of Jesus on the wall, there's beautiful artwork," said Laura Nash, professor of corporate values and leadership at Harvard University.
Nash, who researches business ethics and has written about faith in the workplace, said she uncovered articles from the 1950s depicting "businessmen on their knees, people praying at work."
Such overt religious practices disappeared in the 1960s because of "diversity problems," according to Nash.
She noticed religion return in the 1990s as part of a larger shift in thinking among managers who began recognizing there are many factors that affect the performance of an employee. That included their health and fitness, so "smoking is up for grabs," said Nash, who noticed more offices running anti-smoking campaigns.
At the same time, several groups began more aggressively marketing the workplace chaplaincy programs and found clients. While Nash warns of the potential pitfalls of bringing chaplains to work, such as questioning what would happen if a manager refused to bring the pastor into a department, she was pleasantly surprised by what she found when studying the movement.
"Watching some of these groups in action -- what has struck me is so many of them are genuinely sincere," said Nash. "Trying to recover a sense of purpose of what they're doing at work, 'help me use this job and my work to make a difference in the world.'"
And others who promote bringing religion to work, like Crandall, will say it's in everyone's best interest as it provides a solid ethical framework for transactions. "I think a lot of the damage from the accounting scandals would not have happened if they had not had a disconnect between their faith and the workplace."