Saturday, May 17, 2003
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.
Carol Hall's warm smile and lilting Australian accent form a spiritual magnet, drawing people from every direction and helping explain why they are comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts.
Such finesse is critical for Hall's work as a corporate chaplain, a guidance counselor who offers workers a ministry but cannot offend an employee's spiritual sensibilities for fear of breaking religious harassment laws.
Lisa Ganz, a senior accountant at Fort Smith-based MacSteel, said she was twice-divorced and depressed in 1995 when she called Corporate Chaplaincy Services, the fledgling organization hired that year to tend to MacSteel employees' personal needs.
"She used lessons from the Bible that helped me get closer to other people -- which helped me meet Paul, who works on the plant floor -- without feeling I need a man to survive," Ganz said. "It's been seven great years since Carol married us."
Hall and other corporate chaplains believe the workplace is the best place to minister to people like Ganz -- employees who have often lost touch with their local churches because they work so much.
And a growing number of employers recognize this trend, believing chaplaincy, by providing workers with spiritual guidance and limiting their stress, makes them more productive.
"They say you need to leave problems at work at work and problems at home at home, but realistically you can't do it," said John Fisher, plant manager of 400 employees at MacSteel. "If they come to work and aren't thinking about making steel, we're in trouble."
Fisher said $1,200, or $3 per employee, is a tiny monthly price to pay for a spiritually healthy work force. Hall and her seven chaplains have been hired by nine western Arkansas companies to be available for ministry to about 3,500 employees and their families 24 hours a day.
But serving as a corporate chaplain includes an inherent conflict in their duties. They must follow the practices of secular Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, until they get an open invitation for spiritual guidance.
"You have to be extremely oblique and careful not to force religion on employees," Hall said. "As a Christian and an ordained minister, I believe God holds the answers to life, but I do not have a secret agenda. When people ask for spiritual help, I give it, but if they don't ask I don't push the point."
At the same time, companies typically hire chaplains over their non-religious counterparts precisely because they may eventually convert employees.
For example, Russ Barr, a supervisor at MacSteel in Ohio, said Hall's chaplaincy gives the Arkansas plant a distinct advantage over the steel mills he knows outside the Bible Belt.
"For me as a devout Christian, employees who are Christians should be better, more productive workers with fewer problems," he said.
But no matter how welcoming her client companies are, Hall must continue her balancing act with the employees.
"Some people come to me for help, but up front they say, 'I don't believe in that,"' Hall said. "They're just looking for somebody to listen and be objective. By the rules of chaplaincy, I have to honor that. If they never in my lifetime want to talk about Christianity, I will still demonstrate the love of God as a chaplain."
Corporate chaplaincy grew out of the more traditional military, hospital and prison models, first in England's early Industrial Revolution factories and rejuvenated in the early 1990s when technology blurred the lines between work and home life.
The National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains, NIBIC, follows military chaplain standards to train about 150 corporate chaplains or organizations to properly address the needs of employees of other faiths.
Fisher emphasizes that confidentiality rules prevent him from knowing which of his employees are seeing Hall or the other ministers at Corporate Chaplaincy Services.
He said he still offers employees secular counseling from another company, but he added he likes that Hall's chaplains have become far more popular at his plant and that steelworkers are writing Bible verses on their hard hats.
The chaplains also run an early-morning weekly prayer group at MacSteel. Attendance is voluntary, but Fisher, the boss, is at every meeting.
Louis Maltby, executive director of the civil rights advocacy group National Work Rights Institute, said that can send mixed messages. He said employers should be commended for bringing clergy to their employees, but even the best of intentions can lead to religious harassment.
"Employers forget how much power they have over employees," Maltby said. "There's no such thing as a suggestion when it comes from your boss. I doubt any of them would tell their employees, 'Convert to my faith or you're fired.' They don't have to. All they have to do is suggest, and they've crossed the line."
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has generally shied away from religious harassment cases, especially since 1995 when Republicans in Congress were able to squelch new guidelines for religious expression in the workplace, noted Steve Clark, a professor at Albany (N.Y.) Law School.
"Religion in the workplace has become the third rail of harassment law," Clark said. "There are debates on both sides, with one saying employees shouldn't be subjected to proselytizing and the other saying their right to religious expression can't be infringed upon."