More Local Businesses are Hiring Chaplains to Work with Employees
February 8, 2007 • By Laura Isenee
Once a week, Terry Spears makes the rounds at Choate Ceramic Laboratory in Conroe.
He stops by nearly all 24 employees while they work on teeth models and make crowns at the dental lab.
The visits are simple and short. First, a friendly hello. Then a chat on anything from the grandchildren to grieving the loss of a loved one. Finally, Spears rests his hands on the employee's shoulder, a subtle sign of encouragement, before he continues his rounds.
On Sunday, Spears serves as pastor at Grace Calvary Baptist Church in Spring.
During the week, however, he goes to work as a chaplain with Marketplace Chaplains USA and makes weekly rounds at Choate and other companies in Montgomery County.
"When they come in, it helps brighten the day," said Gwen Hill, an employee of Choate Ceramic Lab. "If we have a problem, they're ready to listen and they're encouraging," she said.
Those problems may include marriage issues, an illness or death in the family, problems on the job or with drugs.
A business chaplain's work, however, begins with a relationship.
"We go into a company on a weekly basis and we build relationships with the employees that are there. We don't set up an office time where the employees come to us," said Nancy Graves, chaplain and area team manager for the Gulf Coast Division of Marketplace Chaplains USA.
Business chaplains differ from licensed counselors. At Marketplace Chaplains USA, they are all evangelical Christians and have trained as chaplains.
"What we hope to accomplish is we see people before they need a counselor," Drake said.
That way, the chaplain can help the employee work through an issue before it escalates or refer the employee to professional help.
National chaplain services also say their approach is more active and relationship-based than a traditional employee assistance program.
Other tenets are that everything an employee discusses with a chaplain remains confidential and any visit with a chaplain is totally voluntary.
Gil Stricklin, a former U.S. Army chaplain and one-time assistant to evangelist Billy Graham, founded Marketplace Chaplains USA in Dallas in 1984 with one chaplain — himself — to serve a company with 150 employees.
Now his company has grown to serve nearly 300 companies and nearly 400,000 employees and family members.
Marketplace Chaplains has about 55 employees in the Gulf Coast area and several clients in Montgomery County, including David Weekely Homes, Caldwell Watson Real Estate Group, Choate Ceramic Laboratory and Blue Magic Inc. as well as several Taco Bells in Willis and Conroe, said Brian Horner, Marketplace's division director for the Southwest Region.
Many of its chaplains are part time and have other jobs. Local chaplain Carol Hurley, for example, is a special education teacher with Conroe Independent School District.
Similarly, Corporate Chaplains of America, based in Raleigh, N.C., has grown since it started in 1996 under its motto of "Caring in the Workplace."
It has almost 100 full-time chaplains and grew 58 percent from 2005 to 2006, said Dwayne Reece, vice president of field development for Corporate Chaplains of America.
Two factors are driving interest in business chaplains, Reece said. One is the transience of society, in which people often move and relocate from their hometown.
The other is declining religious involvement, whether it's at a church, synagogue or mosque, he said.
"Our chaplains are able to step in that gap," Reece said.
As a rule, chaplains don't bring up religion, unless asked by an employee, and they don't carry around a big Bible or preach.
They do however, bring with them a Christian background and chaplain training.
"We're not really desiring to set up church at the workplace. Our desire is to help them connect into a church. We're really about relating to people on an individual basis," Graves said.
If an employee requests a rabbi, imam or other religious leader, the chaplain will refer one to them, she said.
Still, faith-related questions do comes up during visits.
"It's a great opportunity to share the Gospel, and that's what everybody needs on the bottom line. They need the Gospel," said Spears, a former Baptist missionary to the Philippines.
He said faith-related talks begin with a relationship and questions by an employee.
"We're not going to cram anything down anyone's throat ... There has to be an appetite," Spears said.
Helping people cope
When chaplains began coming to Blue Magic's manufacturing facility in Conroe in 1999, some employees felt a little intimidated or uncomfortable at first, said Cheryl Maxwell, Blue Magic's production supervisor.
"That didn't last very long," said Maxwell, of New Waverly.
"We're pretty much a family and they're part of it," said John Moore, of Willis, the company's quality control supervisor.
When Moore married his wife, Debora, Hurley gave him a corsage for his bride and Spears married the couple.
A year later, Spears helped bury Debora, who passed away from cancer.
Available by pager 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the chaplains are often called by a company or employee in case of an emergency.
When a Blue Magic employee committed suicide, Spears came and held a meeting and said a small prayer, said president David Bell.
"I think it's great. When you have family members that are sick, they give you a little shoulder to lean on and put a little prayer out for them," said Pam Radford of Willis.
Radford, who has worked for Choate for 10 years, said several times she has asked chaplains Spears and Hurley to pray for her mother-in-law, who was very ill with cancer.
Caring for workers
Local companies say chaplain services help them take care of their employees and their overall business at the same time.
"Occasionally through life there are things we need help with, and they're there at that time to do that," said Jimmie Durham, one of three partners at Choate Ceramic Laboratory, which started using Marketplace Chaplains USA in 2005.
"To me, it's kind of like insurance ... You may not need it very often, but it sure is good to have it" Durham said.
From a business perspective, the chaplains pay for themselves at $10 a month per employee by keeping turnover low and employees more productive, Durham said.
Bell said chaplains help resolve personal issues that can be a distraction in the workplace and also take a load off of him.
"The father in me says 'I know my employees are being taken care of so I don't have to worry about it,' " Bell said.
At David Weekely Homes, the chaplains have produced results.
"It's really changed the flavor and the culture around the company," said David Weekely, founder and chairman of the company.
His company has been named five times as one of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" by Fortune Magazine.
In addition to weekly visits, chaplains at David Weekely Homes send out a monthly inspirational e-mail and often at company events, they will do a devotion, Weekely said.
"Many times they say keep your personal life personal and don't bring your personal life to work. But if you have sick parents or trouble with kids, there's no way we can't have that not affect our work," Weekely said.
Fred Caldwell, president and chief executive officer of Caldwell Watson Real Estate Group, said since Marketplace Chaplains USA starting coming to its offices about six months ago, it has helped show employees the company cares about their welfare. His employees still can access counseling through the company's health care plan in addition to talking with chaplains.
"Their ministry has a lot to do with encouraging people," said Caldwell, who is a founding member of Terra Verde Community Church in Hockley.
"In the business world, there can be conflict and things that are way out of your control. (The chaplains) are a great reminder that at the end of the day God is in control," Caldwell said.