When the Movement Mortgage office chaplain stops by Felicia Powers’ desk, she doesn’t have to worry that the conversation will be about work.
Instead, chaplain Maureen Palmer, who goes by Moe, may ask Powers how her day is going, or how she could pray for her that day.
“Moe remembers everything you say every week,” says Powers, a processor who has been with the Indian Land, S.C.-based company since June. “You always know that she’s listening.”
“...You’re not asking about my files or my production. You’re asking about my life.”
While having chaplains in the workplace is not a new or necessarily widespread practice, the concept works for some companies that consider it a part of employees’ benefits.
At times, the presence of chaplains inside workplaces has raised concerns about proselytizing and serving diverse workforces fairly. But supporters say employees choose whether they want to talk. And when they do, it’s on virtually anything – marriages, births, deaths, even work stress. Chaplains can refer employees to outside resources for help, from getting out of domestic violence situations to dealing with grief.
They can also pray privately with an employee, or even use a Bible if the worker gives permission to do so, perhaps opening with, Can I share with you a couple verses from the Bible on this subject?
“We allow them to lead the conversation,” Palmer says.
“I like to ask them: ‘How are things in your world?’ ” Palmer says. “They can open up and talk as much or as little in that invitation.”
“...They ask questions, try to get to know me as I get to know them. It’s really a sacred space, to walk in the life with people. So whatever challenges they face and bring to work with them, we’re able to talk through those challenges.”
A federal court ruling essentially gave the go-ahead for religious presence in the workplace. In 1988, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit court ruled that a private manufacturing company could continue to hold weekly devotional services, as long as it allowed an atheist employee to sit them out.
With the exception of the faith angle, what chaplains do is “very similar in nature to what employee assistance programs would provide,” according to Edward Yost, an employee relations expert with the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management.
“Anyone who feels a little bit prickly about religion in general might be a little apprehensive” at first, says Aimee Dodson, who heads employee engagement programs as Movement's Thrive director. But eventually, “concern slides away.”
Movement Mortgage, Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated and 21 other companies in the Charlotte area work with Wake Forest-based Corporate Chaplains of America, which serves approximately 425 companies in more than 1,000 locations across the U.S., according to Jeff Brown, who handles client and donor relations.
While Corporate Chaplains describes itself as an “openly Christian ministry,” it is nondenominational, Brown says. Its chaplains work only with employees who give them permission to do so. “...We know that employees of all faith backgrounds or no faith background find great value in knowing someone is there to care for their needs through the difficult times of life,” Brown said via email.
Reaching different faiths
Leaders at Movement Mortgage and Coca-Cola Consolidated openly emphasize faith in their workplaces.
Priorities: God, Family, Community, Business reads a culture statement on the wall at Movement Mortgage.
In a promotional video on the Corporate Chaplains website, Coca-Cola Consolidated executive Dave Katz explains how chaplaincy ties in with the corporate culture: “I go back to our company purpose statement, which starts with honoring God in all we do.”
Pharr Yarns, located in McAdenville since 1939, has had a full-time chaplain for decades, at one point hiring an Hispanic assistant chaplain to serve its increasingly Latino workforce, according to a 2002 Observer story.
Workplaces like these, where top executives’ faith beliefs are evident, are the best settings for chaplaincy programs to work, according to Richard Boyce, dean and associate professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte.
“I would commend companies for giving consideration to the spiritual dimension of their workers’ and employees’ lives,” Boyce says.
“I think that’s a commendable stance for employers to take, and an increasingly infrequent one.”
That’s due to workplaces not wanting to alienate their increasingly diverse workforces, Boyce says. Businesses’ cost-cutting mode is another factor: “The spiritual aspect of people’s lives is seen as expendable.”
And there’s debate about what freedoms a private employer has in exercising faith while running a business.
“Most religions have that aspect to them. They call to bring others. But from a legal perspective…(employers) have to be careful about that,” says Yost, the human resources expert.
Another key, according to Yost, is for employers to be consistent in the way they treat employees of varying faith backgrounds. Accommodations could range from providing conference room space for a lunchtime Bible study group, to adjusting a Muslim employee’s break times to allow for prayers at certain times of the day. “You want to be as accommodating as possible to allow the individuals to express their religious observance,” Yost says.
As Palmer walks through the Movement Mortgage office floors on a recent morning, she greets and waves back at people.
“Nice shoes,” she says to one woman. “How’s it going?” to another employee.
She’s been here for more than a year. In early November, chaplain Hank Fields joined her to cover the workforce of about 720 at the Indian Land office. Even when they’re not in the office, they’re still available by phone 24/7. Movement’s 4,000 employees nationally have access to the Corporate Chaplains network through a hotline.
Dodson says a Baltimore employee tapped that network when his mother, in St. Louis, fell and broke a bone in her neck. He couldn’t get to her right away. Dodson contacted the company, and a chaplain four hours from St. Louis drove in and spent the day with his mom. The chaplain returned months later when she had her surgery. “I can’t tell you how profoundly grateful he was,” Dodson says.
Dodson says the chaplains’ influence even won over an atheist colleague who was “resistant and skeptical’ about their presence when the company brought on corporate chaplains 2 ½ years ago. Eventually, she realized it wasn’t anything that was going to make her feel uncomfortable.
“They have, in many ways, become a confidante and counselor to many employees.”
Observer researcher Maria David contributed.