By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 3/24/2005 6:09:31 PM ET 2005-03-24T23:09:31

If business is going down the road of faith, it only stands to reason that faith would find its own business avenue.

Tyson Foods, the Fortune 100 meat producer with headquarters here, is by no means the only prominent company to offer chaplain services to employees. But it is one of the very few that developed, administers and pays for its program itself. Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., the Pittsburg, Texas-based processor that is Tyson’s biggest competitor in the poultry sector, goes the more common way: It outsources its program to one of the two companies that dominate the growing field of corporate chaplain providers.

Like Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride has grown supersonically in recent years by buying up competitors. It’s acquisition of the poultry group of ConAgra Foods Inc. in 2003 doubled the company’s revenues overnight and culminated a period of growth in which its workforce tripled in five years. The first benefit it extended to the 16,000 new workers it took on was the chaplain program, said Jane Brookshire, Pilgrim’s senior vice president for human relations.

Why outsource?
Pilgrim’s Pride contracts with Marketplace Chaplains U.S.A., of Dallas, the biggest player in the corporate chaplain field, with 1,629 chaplains.

Gil Stricklin, the founder and president of the company’s parent, the nonprofit Marketplace Ministries, said he admired John H. Tyson and the chaplaincy program he had built at Tyson. But Stricklin says his approach has advantages for companies looking to open their workplaces to faith.

“What we do is cost-effective. You don’t have to pay benefits to our chaplains. It’s more cost-effective to do it with a third-party service contract.” 

And Stricklin adds, “it may be hard to fire the chaplain if he’s working for you, but with us, we have a contractual agreement, and that chaplain can be released on a moment’s notice on our contract.”

Dwayne Reece, the national director of field operations for Marketplace’s biggest competitor, Corporate Chaplains of America, identified another advantage: confidentiality.

“We’re not employees of the organization. We can’t breach confidentiality because there’s no employee fiduciary responsibility to the company,” Reece said from his office in Wake Forest, N.C.

Reece said all chaplain communications with workers were strictly confidential unless the worker revealed that he was a threat to himself or others. There is no exception — CCA says its chaplains would remain bound even if a senior executive, for example, were to reveal that he was defrauding the company.

“When a person is on staff, the line gets kind of blurred as to which side of the equation the weight falls to,” Reece said. “Does it fall to confidentiality or fiduciary responsibility of the employee to the company?”

Brookshire said confidentiality was a primary reason Pilgrim’s Pride founder Bo Pilgrim agreed to hire Marketplace 10 years ago after a “quite a few visits” from Stricklin. “Partners [workers] are more confident that with an outside chaplain, their confidentiality is going to be kept,” she said.

The confidentiality protects Pilgrim’s Pride as well as its employees, she said, because “it’s really a great relief for our HR managers to be able to say to a partner who is very nervous about disclosing a personal issue: ‘You can go talk to the chaplain. You don’t have to tell me about it.’ And I think our partners appreciate that, too.”

Reaching out past their horizons
Marketplace and CCA do business in another way, however, that bothers advocates of workers rights and religious pluralism: Both companies hire only evangelical Protestant chaplains.

Workplace chaplaincies are “a curious and problematic intersection” of workplace spirituality and Christianity, the Rev. Daniel A. Hicks, director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond, writes in “Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, Leadership.” He has argued that the approach of hiring exclusively evangelical chaplains reinforces the dominance of “culturally established Christianity,” leaving little room for effective ministering to people of other beliefs.

Both companies say their commitment to serve people of all faiths is nonnegotiable. They both maintain extensive networks of contacts in faith communities wherever they operate and say they see to it that a worker is put together with a local representative of whatever faith is appropriate. If a Jewish worker needs help, it’s their job to find a rabbi. If a Muslim is in need, they find an imam.

“We don’t go in there to set up church,” insisted Stricklin, 70, who was an Army chaplain for 22 years before retiring to go into business. There’s no need.

“People really do not care what you are,” he said. “They don’t care if you are a Buddhist or a Baptist, because 70 percent of the workforce today does not have a religious faith that they practice. They’re not agnostic, or they’re not even atheist. But they don’t go to the Catholic church or they don’t go to the Methodist church or the synagogue or the Muslim mosque. They don’t go to any place.

“So those people don’t care what you are. You want to know what they want to know? Are you genuine? Are you real? And secondly, can you help me?”

The sound business of good works
Reece said that while CCA was an explicitly evangelical organization, it “stays very focused” on its role as a nondenominational service. Adopting some of the language championed by leading faith-at-work theorists who identify the movement as an element of business success — not the other way around — Reece said CCA placed equal emphasis on its chaplains’ business backgrounds and religious training.

CCA, which was founded in 1996 by Mark Cress — who built Success Stories, a business that made video productions for local businesses, into one of the fastest-growing private firms in America before selling — remains a small operation. It has 75 chaplains now.

Its stringent requirements give it a very small pool of candidates to choose from: In addition to holding a master of divinity degree, CCA chaplains have to have 10 years of real-world work experience, or seven years in addition to a business degree.

And unlike Marketplace, which sends part-time chaplains into a company, CCA offers a full-time presence, which means its chaplains must commit to the job exclusively, including extensive quarterly continuing education.

“We’re looking for uniquely wired individuals,” Reece said, but still, there is no shortage of candidates — “they come to us.”

A rising tide, floating all boats
Notwithstanding how differently they do business, leaders in the corporate chaplaincy field say they aren’t really competitors, even with corporations that spurn their services to offer chaplains in-house.

“We’re really good friends with Marketplace Ministries,” Reece said.

“Doing chaplaincy is kind of like kissing an old maid. There’s no wrong way to do that, whether they do it in-house or they do it outside with a contract with us,” Stricklin said.

“In this service to people, there is no competition,” he added. “I hope [Tyson] hires 10,000 chaplains. I hope Mark Cress gets 500 more companies and hires a thousand more chaplains. I hope he does. Because if you’re caring for them or I’m caring for them, it doesn’t make any difference. There are so many needs today and so many hurts and so much pain out there that it takes everybody.”

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