Finding Jesus at Work

Why are more and more companies offering access to chaplains as an employee benefit?

Nejron Photo / bikeriderlondon / L.F / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Pastors have long hung out with workers. During the Industrial Revolution, they would preach from factory floors. Nineteenth-century Catholic teachings declared it the Church’s duty to support the working poor. And in the Great Depression, industry titans hired chaplains to visit workers on the Hoover Dam.

But in recent years, a number of companies have gone one step further: They’ve hired spiritual leaders to serve on their staffs. Though slightly less trendy than nap rooms and yoga classes, workplace chaplaincies are another attempt to make workers more productive by catering to their “whole” selves. Sometimes, these chaplains serve as spiritual social workers, advising staffers about everything from divorce to cancer. They might conduct weddings or funerals; they’ll often refer people to local churches and, at times, professional psychologists.

People find Jesus everywhere, cubicles and factory lines included. But why would a corporation bother providing guidance to workers as they search for him? What’s in it for them?

The potential for profit doesn’t hurt. According to David Miller, a Princeton professor who studies faith and work, these chaplaincies add value to companies, potentially helping create lower turnover rates, increased levels of focus, and reduction in stress-related illnesses.

“Human beings still have problems in life—we get cancer, we get divorced, we have workplace accidents,” Miller said. “In different situations we seek and heal through different kinds of help and services. Sometimes it’s a medical service, sometimes it’s just a friend to cry on their shoulder, and other times there’s a spiritual dimension to it.”

For many people, particularly in the United States, religious leaders and institutions often offer that support structure. For those who don’t have that kind of independent community, work is a logical place to look for help—and some employers seem to be recognizing that. As Miller put it in a 2013 paper, “Due to people not having sufficient social support networks, whether at church, in the family, or community, it has become necessary for the work organization to become the new community.”

It’s hard to know just how many workplace chaplains are employed around the U.S., partly because many of them work at privately owned, small- or medium-sized businesses. It’s not just an American phenomenon—Miller has studied initiatives in the U.K., Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and Hong Kong. Many programs are contracted out through non-profit organizations such as Marketplace Ministries, a global, Protestant non-profit that claims to be the largest provider of workplace-chaplaincy services in the U.S. According to its CEO, Doug Fagerstrom, the organization added more new companies to its roster in 2015 than ever before.

Tyson Foods is a rare example of a publicly traded company that runs its own in-house chaplaincy program, which was started 16 years ago and was recently featured in a documentary on PBS. According to Miller’s research, Tyson Foods “is the largest known private-sector corporate-chaplaincy program,” with more than 115 chaplains based in different factories around the country. Company-wide, this works out to roughly one chaplain on staff for every 1,000 Tyson employees.

“When I first started here, John Tyson said something to me,” said Mike Tarvin, a former military chaplain who directs chaplaincy services at the company. “He wanted people to be able to bring their whole selves to work. We provide our team members at Tyson Foods an opportunity to bring that whole self, including that spiritual side, and not [feel] like that they have to check that at the door.”

From executives to people hanging chickens on the line, chaplains want to help employees determine their meaning in life.

Being able to bring one’s “whole self” to work, though, often depends on whether it’s convenient for employers to accommodate that “whole self.” Especially in factory settings, workers often come from a wide range of religious and cultural backgrounds. This can lead to conflict: In December, for example, a company called Cargill Meat Solutions fired roughly 190 Muslim immigrants from Somalia after they protested the company’s break policies, which affected workday prayer time. Or, to take a case from retail: Samantha Elauf, a Muslim teen, was turned down for a job at Abercrombie because of her headscarf. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled nearly unanimously that the company had discriminated against her.

These are dramatic examples of something that probably happens on a micro level at workplaces everyday: People feel like it’s awkward, impolite, or unwelcome for them to openly express their religious beliefs, particularly if they’re different from those of their peers. Even though the United States is a thoroughly religious country, people’s beliefs and practices are often only expressed privately, confined to homes and houses of worship.

Having a chaplain around can soften some of these potential conflicts, Tarvin said. He told stories about a chaplain in Iowa who helped organize a funeral after a Buddhist worker from Burma died, and a chaplain in Arkansas who coordinated transportation to and from work for employees from the Marshall Islands. Neither chaplain necessarily shared the faith or cultural background of those workers. But, Tarvin argued, they were able to play those supportive roles because of their distinctive positions. In this way, workplace chaplaincies tend to function like similar programs in the military: Chaplains will serve anyone, but often refer people to an outside priest or rabbi if workers want theologically specific guidance. “You can’t have a little mini-United Nations of 52 chaplains representing 52 tribes of Baptists,” Miller said. “There’s an element of common sense that goes into it.”

That being said, workplace chaplaincies do seem to be overwhelmingly Christian. When I asked Fagerstrom about the diversity of Marketplace Ministries’ staff, he clarified that they have “over 50 different denominations represented” among their roughly 2,800 chaplains—they’re all Protestant, in other words. In its mission statement, the company says it “[exists] to share God’s love through chaplains in the workplace.” And Fagerstrom said he and his staff try to hire folks who have biblical training—“it helps them to be able to answer or direct some of those tough questions.” One of their closest competitors, Corporate Chaplains of America, has a similar mission: to “build caring relationships with the hope of gaining permission to share the life-changing Good News of Jesus Christ in a non-threatening manner.”

There’s nothing wrong with Christian chaplains, of course. But there is something specifically Protestant in the notion that spiritual fulfillment—that “whole self” someone can bring to work—is best attained through intellectual and emotional coaching, rather than the physical ritual of religious practice. “Whether it’s … one of those executive folks, or whether it’s somebody that’s hanging chickens on the line, we try to develop that relationship with them,” Tarvin said. Chaplains try to “find out where they’re coming from, so that we can help them determine on their own what they see as their meaning in life or purpose in life.” Conversion isn’t the focus, and most chaplaincies seem to avoid specifically theological language as a matter of policy. Then again, someone like Fagerstrom, who is an ordained preacher and graduate of a Baptist seminary, wouldn’t necessarily be disappointed if his chaplains helped employees find Christ. They “never say the name Jesus,” he said. “But all the sudden, over time, that employee knows: ‘This is a spiritual person that I really trust.’”

Marketplace Ministries was founded in the 1980s, at a time when these kinds of workplace-chaplaincy services were basically nonexistent. As the company says in its history, “almost everyone said developing a business model of corporate chaplains caring for workers, as well as their families, in the secular workplace was impossible.” Clearly not. Even as the portion of religiously affiliated Americans has contracted over the past three decades, the number of the company’s U.S. chaplaincies has grown, and in 2006, it began providing services internationally.

There is something specifically Protestant in thinking spiritual fulfillment comes from intellectual and emotional coaching.

The expansion of workplace chaplaincies is also connected to shifts in business practices, Miller said. “Frankly, [these are] things that HR used to do, before HR became bureaucratic machines that focused on other things,” he said. Some companies have tried providing other kinds of emotional-support services: Many offer employee-assistance programs, or EAPs, as a benefit to employees. These tend to involve forms of counseling—a hotline for workers to call if they’re experiencing personal problems, or a handful of free sessions with a psychiatrist.

According to the latest available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half of all public-sector workers and a quarter of private-sector workers had access to EAPs in 2008, a fairly significant increase compared to the late ’90s. But, Miller said, “The dirty little secret of EAP is that … it’s just a minuscule percent who would ever actually pick up the phone and call that 800 number and avail themselves of [counseling services].” Chaplains tend to be more present in workplaces, he said, which makes their services seem more personal.

No matter what kind of EAP they choose, businesses have incentives to offer these kinds of services. “Everyone now gets it that if your employees are healthy—physically, psychologically, and now we can maybe argue spiritually—they’re better employees,” Miller said. Fagerstrom said his clients have reported increased worker productivity because of their chaplaincy programs, although he was slightly sheepish about it—“That’s not the reason to bring us in,” he said, “that’s just one of the delightful outcomes.” And particularly at a place like Tyson Foods, chaplains might be able to provide an ethical vocabulary for people trying to cope with the nature of their work. Many employees probably crave a sense of meaning in their daily labor, especially when they kill chickens for a living. “A lot of workplaces are really tough to work in, even for smart, college-educated people,” Miller said. “I’m surprised more companies haven’t experimented with [these programs].”

He’s right: Work, and life, can be painful. These chaplains may be able to provide much-needed comfort to people who need it and can’t find it elsewhere. But it’s comfort with a trade-off: It means making work an even bigger part of life, and relying even further on an employer with a profit motive as a benevolent provider of meaning. Workplace chaplaincies seem to be a great personnel solution, so long as workers live their lives as personnel, rather than persons.