Peeling back the corporate chaplain story

the officeI first heard of the "booming business" of corporate chaplains in American companies on The Economist's podcast Friday afternoon. I hadn't heard a word about this trend for years. Since when does a British magazine break news on American business and religion trends? The story raises some important points that one would think would receive a thorough scrubbing in publications like Business Week, but my limited search has only turned up stories that are surprisingly similar to The Economist's and from a number of years ago. Here's the news from The Economist:

Corporate chaplains are a booming business in America. There are roughly 4,000 of them (precise numbers are hard to come by) working everywhere from giant multinationals to tiny family firms. And their numbers are growing. America has several thriving rent-a-chaplain companies, and two seminaries that offer degrees in corporate chaplaincy, yet demand still exceeds supply.

Some companies prefer to rely on in-house chaplains. Tyson Foods, a meat-processing giant, employs 128 chaplains to minister to 85,000 employees in the United States, Mexico and Canada. John Tyson, the company's boss, also employs an ordained minister as an executive coach to help him wrestle with ethical questions.

But most firms outsource their spiritual guidance. That makes it easier, of course, to get rid of surplus chaplains in a downturn. But it is also arguably better for the workers who seek their counsel, in that the chaplains work for a third party rather than the boss.

In 2002 The Christian Science Monitor published a story about how corporate chaplains were having to deal with the emotional stresses encountered in the office after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington. A more recent article in U.S. News & World Report (dated January 2005) tells us that there are 4,000 corporate chaplains in America but the numbers are growing. Where did I see that claim before? We're also told the same thing about how these chaplains are often "for rent" and can be laid off on a whim.

The article has some slightly dated numbers on the two big corporate chaplain businesses out there: Marketplace Chaplains in Dallas and Corporate Chaplains of America in North Carolina. We're told about the same thing as in The Economist article on the issues raised by caring for workers' souls in the workplace. Here's The Economist:

Why the chaplain boom? People in the business point to the practical advantages of having a company cleric. Many workers are cut off from their geographic and religious roots. Corporate chaplains can perform the role of traditional village priests. People in the business also argue that corporate chaplains can boost productivity. Art Stricklin, of Marketplace Chaplains, claims that the turnover rate at Taco Bell outlets in central Texas dropped by a third after they started employing chaplains. More objective evidence is hard to find, but it is notable that companies have taken to advertising the fact that they employ chaplains in promotional literature.

Another reason is the growing intrusion of faith into the workplace. Once-closeted bosses are coming out as evangelicals (see article). Bible-study classes are proliferating across corporate America. Texas Instruments offers "serenity rooms" where employees can go to pray and meditate. Lawsuits from outraged secular employees are probably only a matter of time.

Rhymer Rigby of the Financial Times wrote about the same Tysons Foods on July 30 and Melissa McEver had the same story in The Monitor (in Texas' Rio Grande Valley).

The most serious coverage of this trend is in The Economist, but that's only because it included an independent (but non-attributed) analysis. It's difficult to prove anything in this case, but it's curious that a handful of stories essentially carrying the same basic facts and companies made it into the news this summer. Yes, it is summer and stories aren't exactly abounding.

The issue I have with these stories is the weak attempt to look beyond the basic canned facts presented by whoever provided them. The emphasis here is canned. Cans rattle, and these stories are starting to rattle quite loudly. Why aren't there any examples of legal challenges? Are they kept quiet? Are there labor issues involved in hiring these chaplains for rent? Do they have other jobs? Where are these chaplains coming from? What types of certifications must they have, if any?

Note on the photo: I cannot wait for the one-hour premier of NBC's The Office on September 27.

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