The Atlantic asks great question: What if your corporate chaplain needs a prayer rug?

Anyone who has walked the religion-news beat for even a year or two knows that it's amazing how often questions of a truly theological nature can show up in daily life -- including in the workplace.

I've been meaning to pass along an interesting piece in The Atlantic about the rise of corporate chaplains in major businesses and industries. It's all part of trying to increase worker wellness and the story does a good job of taking this concept seriously.

That's where the theology comes in. The following passage really surprised me with its dead-on accurate reflection on whether all faiths are created equal when it comes to the ability to practice them freely in a corporate space.

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.
... 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.

This leads us to the following observation:

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.

Precisely. What are the fire insurance risks of candles and incense, for example (I ask as an Eastern Orthodox guy). What about prayer rugs and facilities for the washing of hands and feet? There are religions built on the practice of worship rites that involve the whole body.

While this recent essay lingered in my folder of GetReligion guilt, The New York Times provided the perfect example of this theological headline affecting a story in the modern workplace:

FORT MORGAN, Colo. -- The work is far from glamorous: The thermostat for much of the slaughterhouse is set near freezing, the clatter of machinery is almost deafening, and there is the matter of slicing cattle carcasses every day, eight hours a day.
But for the Somali refugees who settled in this community on Colorado’s eastern plains, jobs at Cargill Meat Solutions had become a path to the American dream. The positions started at $14 an hour, required little English and, for the most part, allowed time for prayer, in accordance with workers’ Muslim faith.
“If I can pray, I will do whatever they need,” said Abdukadir Ali, 28, who used to cut fat five days a week, wearing a metal protective vest and gloves three layers thick.

You know what is coming, right?

In mid-December, a dispute erupted between Muslim employees and Cargill managers over the role of prayer in the workplace. Employees say top managers told them that their religious breaks -- previously allowed once or twice per shift, in 10-minute segments, after explicit permission from a supervisor -- would be severely curtailed.
The company said no such change had been announced. But dozens of workers walked out in protest and, days later, Cargill fired 150 of them for abandoning their jobs.

This is precisely the kind of issue that created harmony, believe it or not, in the Clinton White House era as a broad coalition of religious groups, left and right, united on issues such as Equal Access laws and practical questions about faith in the workplace.

At the moment the issue is Islam, as the Times piece noted (and briefly mentioned the Cargill dispute and others like it). In one case, managers told workers they could only pray on the company's break schedule, not at the times in the day required in their faith.

I kept wondering: What would happen if Eastern Christians and Roman Catholics showed up in a few corporate towers or factories with prayer rugs, icons (or statues) and candles and asked for some space in which to use them?

This brings us back to the Atlantic piece and the work of the Protestant corporate chaplains. Also, there is an interesting note about the role of workplace chaplains in Catholic history. Whatever happened to priests playing this kind of role in public life, or did that totally fade out as the number of available priests declined? Maybe this would be a promising place for permanent Catholic deacons to expand their reach?

Journalists! Spot any potential stories near you in the follow chunk of the Atlantic essay?

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.”

But there's the rub: Can all paths to wholeness and the meaning of life be equal in a corporate -- as opposed to tax-dollar supported -- environment?

Much to ponder here for professionals on business and religion pages.

Please respect our Commenting Policy