The Rise of the Corporate Chaplain

“Bloomberg Businessweek”

Roger Burdick knows how to sell cars. Driver’s Village, his gigantic sales outlet in Syracuse, N.Y., is housed in a former shopping center, Penn-Can Mall, which went out of business in 1996. Four years later, Burdick bought the 80-acre property and in 2003 moved his dealerships to the building’s perimeter. As you circle the former mall you encounter one showroom after another, 360 degrees of cars. You can buy an Audi, BMW, Buick, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, or Ford—and that’s just through the letter F. Inside the facility there are now about two dozen “shoppes,” including car rental agencies, a driving school, and law offices.

On her morning rounds, the Driver’s Village head chaplain, Elise Bissell, the 54-year-old wife of a Southern Baptist preacher, hands out her business card to employees who don’t know her yet, offers hugs to many who do, and listens intently as people whisper their troubles in her sympathetic ear. Bissell works for Marketplace Chaplains USA, an agency that provides chaplains to more American businesses than any other provider, but most of her time is spent at Driver’s Village, and her heart belongs to its workers. This is more than an assignment to her.

Workplace chaplains like Bissell can be found at more than 1,000 companies in the U.S. and Canada. These chaplains are a rising regiment of corporate America’s human-resources army, as employers have found that a pastoral touch is often more appealing to workers than an impersonal hotline of the sort included in many benefits packages. A 2008 study by the Families and Work Institute found that more than 97 percent of companies with payrolls larger than 5,000 offer employee assistance programs, with anonymous counseling and referrals available by phone. Yet employees are “dramatically” more likely to use workplace chaplains than standard mental-health benefits, according to preliminary results from an ongoing study by David Miller and Faith Ngunjiri of Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative. At least half of 1,000 employees surveyed have used the services of a workplace chaplain—far more than those who use standard assistance programs.

Marketplace, founded in Dallas in 1984, supplies chaplains to businesses—including Roger Burdick’s car dealerships—on a contract basis. Marketplace employs 2,700 chaplains, up 50 percent since 2005. Its part-time chaplains, such as Rene Luevano and his wife Ada, serve 500 companies, including Pilgrim’s (PPC), the U.S. branch of the world’s second-largest chicken producer, and McDonald’s. Another Marketplace client, Austaco, which owns 77 Taco Bell restaurants, receives spiritual help from chaplain Beth Howard, who has been counseling fast-food employees in West Texas since 2003the two largest nonprofit agencies, the chaplains are evangelical Christians.

Employees say they appreciate, or at least aren’t offended by, the chaplains, who are usually ordained ministers. (Female chaplains from denominations that do not ordain women may be Sunday-school teachers or other church workers.) And employers like the regular reports chaplains provide, which can reveal the level of employees’ concerns about everything from salaries and overtime to troubles at home. Because chaplains are proactive, doing outreach rather than waiting for complaints to filter up, they hear more, and sooner, than do typical human resources professionals. “When gas first went over $3, the financial stress was showing up in the chaplains’ reports,” says Daniel Jones, chief executive officer of Encore Wire (WIRE) in McKinney, Tex. So one day, as employees were leaving work, they got $25 gas cards. “It didn’t cost a lot,” Jones says, “but it meant a lot to them.”

Chaplains haven’t replaced human resources departments; rather, it’s often HR leaders who invite chaplains to work alongside them. Miller says chaplaincy is a natural extension of HR. “In the old days, companies didn’t want to know about your personal baggage,” Miller says. “You were just supposed to show up and do your job. HR offices all say we are now treating people holistically. They want people to bring their whole self to work.” In a country where, according to Gallup, more than 90 percent of people say they believe in God, bringing one’s whole self to work means bringing religion, too.

Talk to Gil Stricklin, and he’ll punch you in the arm. Not in a mean way, but in a how-ya-doin’, power-of-positive-thinking, manly American way. Before founding Marketplace in 1984, Stricklin was a military chaplain, a Southern Baptist preacher, and a motivational speaker. For about seven years in the 1970s, he was the man the legendary Zig Ziglar sent on the road when he got too busy to accept yet another speaking invitation.

“How ya doin’!” Stricklin says at the door to his conference room, throwing a signature arm punch. On the wall are portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee praying with chaplains. For our meeting, Stricklin invited Bonneau, the sunglasses man, who was his first client and is now a board member, to join us. The pair trade lines like an old married couple.

“I met Gil when he was speaking at a Zig Ziglar conference,” Bonneau says. “I got him to come out to our company and do some things, and then he came out to our church to do some things. One day we were having lunch, and he said, ‘I have this dream.’ ”

Stricklin interrupts, “I’d like to point out that I said, ‘I’d like to buy you lunch,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’ve never had a minister buy me lunch!’ So, on the 17th of December, 1983, we had lunch.”

At that lunch, Stricklin, just retired from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, told Bonneau his idea for importing a model of military chaplaincy into the workplace. Bonneau was impressed by Stricklin’s proposed ministry. “He’d come in and help if people had death, or divorce, or problems in the family,” as Bonneau recalls. “He had a passion for doing it in a company. And I had a company that had kinfolk in it, friends in it, and we’d gotten really big.” Bonneau, who worried his small company was losing its personal touch, was sold. “I butted in and said, ‘Gil, that is exactly what I have wanted to do, and I don’t care what it costs.’ ”

So Stricklin started coming by. For the first couple weeks, nothing much happened. He hung around a lot. Finally he said to Bonneau, “Why don’t you give me a job?” So Bonneau put him to work in the warehouse, packing sunglasses. “And that was magic,” Stricklin says. “It made the preacher real.” Another month went by, and a worker approached him. “You’re that preacher,” she said. “My mother had a stroke, and I can’t go see her until tonight. Can you go see her?” The employee’s mother died two weeks later, and Stricklin officiated at the funeral.

Death is straightforward work for a chaplain. Things get trickier when an employee wants to talk about addiction or an abusive spouse. While Marketplace says its chaplains observe a code of strict confidence, there are exceptions. They are legally mandated to report certain types of information, such as when an employee threatens to harm herself or others or reveals a case of child abuse.

Marketplace does not let women minister to men or vice versa. Separate chaplains are assigned for gents and for ladies. In May, I sat in on an orientation session conducted by a trainer named Dan Truitt. He was talking with seven of his chaplains, three by teleconference, about confidentiality. After discussing standard legal exceptions to the confidentiality policy, he offered the kicker, that final exception, which is “when harm to the client company or its well-being is about to occur.”

And the chaplains, professing “neutrality,” are careful not to get in the middle of worker/management conflict, which may be the primary source of stress in the workplace. When asked what she would do if an employee were being mistreated, Bissell, the Driver’s Village chaplain, said, “I’d probably go with them to the employer or encourage them to. Otherwise I wouldn’t get involved. It’s not my place.”

Back in Syracuse, Bissell is finishing her rounds. These quick chats are not when the most important chaplain work takes place, Bissell says. They’re just preludes to the longer conversations on breaks or after hours. “I got a call last night from a woman who was let go,” Bissell says, as she strolls the mall’s interior. She said she would keep up with the ex-employee.

Circulating among some clerical workers in a Driver’s Village office, Bissell has a quiet conversation with a young woman excited to show off pictures of her children. The chat then takes a dark detour, as the woman confides in Bissell about her marriage. “We fight and then we get over it,” she tells the chaplain. “It takes a day or two. I have to cool off. And I want him to be in the right frame of mind, because he can be a little hot-headed.” Bissell nods sympathetically, then leaves the woman to her work.

The chaplains help productivity—that’s another reason company executives who have hired chaplains are often ecstatic. Sometimes it’s the CEOs themselves who benefit from the chaplains. Several years after bringing in Marketplace, Daniel Jones, the Texas wire baron, found himself using their services. “My father died in 2003,” Jones says. His mother was distraught. “Her three sons, we’re racing to the hospital, we show up, she’s hysterical. I called the chaplain on my cell phone, and I said, ‘My dad just died—what do I do?’ He said, ‘You do these three things, and I’ll do the rest.’ ” And Gary Martin, a Dallas venture capitalist, says his chaplain from Marketplace helped persuade an employee’s husband not to commit suicide. “And he’s alive,” Martin says, “and they’re living happily ever after.”

Emergency Alaska Preacher: The “EAP” of the Last Frontier


In Alaska, where long, dark winters and a sense of isolation are piled onto everyday work-life stressors, one employer is taking the unusual step of bringing chaplains into the workplace.

Houston-based Hilcorp Energy Co. enlisted Marketplace Chaplains USA to provide in-house chaplain services to its 150 workers in Alaska. Marketplace Chaplains, which was founded in 1984 and operates in nearly all 48 lower states, serves more than a half-million employees and their families.

Greg Lalicker, president of Hilcorp Energy, says the chaplain service is “a great way to promote well-being among our employees.”

Hilcorp has an employee assistance program in place, but Lalicker says such plans may not be able to react quickly enough, given the remote settings.

“Our people can rely on the chaplain service to be there in situations where a traditional EAP wouldn’t be able to help,” Lalicker says.

Jennifer Linnell, one of the chaplains working at Hilcorp, agrees.

“An EAP comes in after a crisis,” Linnell says. “Chaplains can be there to head off a crisis because we are on-site prior to things happening. If there’s trouble in a marriage, it can be talked through before a divorce.”

A chaplain has been on-site at Hilcorp offices in the Alaskan cities of Kenai and Anchorage about once a week since February. The chaplain typically gets acquainted with workers and offers counseling to those who seek it out. The chaplains also attend monthly all-staff meetings.

Chaplains in Alaska serving Hilcorp say the response from workers has been positive.

“They are stunned that the company would provide this,” Linnell says. “People aren’t used to receiving care so freely.”

Linnell, who before becoming a chaplain worked in human resources for another oil and gas company in Alaska, said there are unique challenges to living in the Last Frontier.

“Moving to Alaska, there are things you have to deal with,” she said. “You can’t drive to the next state, for instance.”

There are the long, dark winters, as many as 24 hours of daylight in the summer, the remoteness and the transient nature of many residents who move in and out frequently, Linnell and other chaplains say.

Many employees at Hilcorp in Alaska travel off-site to remote locations to work on oil and gas pipelines, far from family, for weeks at a time.

“Oftentimes folks that work in remote locations cannot be with family in times of need,” Lalicker says.

That’s where the chaplains come in. The chaplains are available around the clock to employees and family members.

“Having the chaplains available any time and anywhere allows them to offer comfort and assistance to their loved ones when he or she may otherwise be unable to do so,” Lalicker says.

Marketplace Chaplains, which is based in Plano, Texas, charges on a per-employee basis of about $5 to $10 per worker, depending on the size of the company, according to a company spokesman.

Brian Horner, division director for Marketplace Chaplains, said the chaplain service fills a gap that traditional EAPs may not be able to fulfill.

“The reality is people don’t have connections they once did with a pastor, rabbi or priest,” Horner says. “Here comes a person with no agenda except offering counsel, to lend an ear.”

The chaplains also are attuned to business-world concerns, he adds. “We know what it means that a person has to get out payroll or meet a deadline.”

Teresa Cappell, another chaplain working at Hilcorp who previously counseled women in prison and correctional officers, said the remoteness of Alaska causes immense pressure. “Here in Alaska, so many workers have to take long flights and spend two weeks or more away from their families. It’s a big stressor.”

The first day at Hilcorp, Cappell heard about illnesses, concerns for other employees and questions about different belief systems. “Generally it was getting to know them and building trust,” she says.

Being a familiar face around the workplace is important. “Sometimes you don’t even have to say anything; you can just be a presence,” she says. “Listening is one of the biggest parts of our jobs, and asking questions that will bring out what the real issue is.”

The chaplains interviewed for this story said that some employees questioned whether they were there to proselytize, but such worries were quickly eased when the purpose of the program was explained.

“The reception is very warm and welcoming,” says Levi Smith, a pastor in Anchorage for the past 12 years who recently signed on with Marketplace Chaplains. “People seem to be impressed that the company cares about them to this degree.”

Lalicker says he hopes the service will benefit employees.

“We all have challenges in our lives,” he says. “If having the chaplain service helps just one employee—and it has—we feel it’s an important part of our organization.”

Lay Your Burdens Down on Company Time

“The Virginian-Pilot”

When Johnnel White got married this month, he didn’t have to look for a minister, even though he doesn’t attend church.

White, a salesman for Herr Foods in Hampton, knew a guy from work who’s “always positive. Even if you’re having a bad day, he has words of wisdom to cheer you up, so you’re not down 24/7.”

That guy was the Rev. Walt Kriner, who isn’t full time at Herr’s but stops by weekly to check on the workers. That was enough for White to establish a bond with him. “During the service, it felt like he knew everybody and everybody knew him,” White, 27, said.

Kriner works for Marketplace Chaplains USA, which sends more than 2,560 chaplains to nearly 485 businesses, including the Herr distribution center in Hampton.

A small but growing number of companies are employing workplace chaplains like Kriner – not, managers say, to bring  religion to their workers but to provide comfort during crises “Everybody has problems that can carry over into the workplace,” said Richard White, senior vice president for human resources for Herr’s in Pennsylvania, which deploys 25 chaplains to its work sites. “If we can help them in any way, we believe the program is good for the employees and for  business.”

Listening and helping with the problems of a diverse community

“The New York Times”

One morning, Mary Jones sat by Mr. Willis’s desk and cried softly. She had lost her car and was on the verge of losing her house, her job and her grip on a life that had taken so long to build. Mr. Willis helped her secure her house and then found people to replace her leaky roof for free.

“No one never done anything like this for me before,” she said.

Search for the next Leader of Marketplace Ministries Underway

Marketplace Ministries is seeking God’s person to serve as its Executive President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO).   This senior leader is responsible for all managerial and ministry aspects of the organization and its endeavors, and will function as the public image and the personification of Marketplace Ministries.  Additionally, the CEO is the visionary and chief architect for all activities and expressions of chaplains caring for workers and their families.

With oversight from the Governing Board, this leader will direct how the ministry’s mission is carried out on a day-to-day basis, serving as the overseer, catalyst and shepherd for all areas of ministry, while making decisions, influencing direction and leading the expansion and quality of ministry services.

Working in concert with other key members of the executive leadership team, the CEO will establish the spiritual culture of the ministry in every consideration and action.  As the shepherd of the ministry, he will help nurture and support all who serve in the ministry with total dedication to prayer and holy living with the hopeful expectation of thousands recognizing Jesus Christ as their Savior. The CEO will be expected to deliver excellence and hold all others to the same standard while striving to create a biblical culture in which all recognize God’s role and their role in fulfilling God’s call to impact the workplace for Christ.

The CEO will lead the executive leadership team to determine and implement wise strategic options as Marketplace Ministries seeks to continue expanding, both nationally and internationally.  In addition, the CEO will oversee efforts to recruit and continually train new and veteran chaplains to do a Christ-honoring job in touching the lives of people who are served by Marketplace Ministries.

Click here for details.

Business Journal

“Buffalo Business First”

“I wanted to show my employees that I care about them in some different ways,” said Robert Zima, Aqua systems & Irrigation. “When they (chaplains) first came in, they (employees) were a bit apprehensive.” But once the employees understood the chaplains weren’t there to recruit or convert them, they began to develop relationships on their own and began turning to them for help. “The reasons varied: For some it’s marital problems or custody issues, while for others it was for a death in the family or dealing with conflict between employees.”


“U.S. News & World Report”

“Recently, we had an employee who was so upset about a conflict with his supervisor he was in tears, but we couldn’t get at what was going on,” says Dave Butters, human resources manager at Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Marshville, N.C. “The next day, I saw the employee talking to one of the chaplains. Later that day, he was smiling and gave me a big thumbs up. I don’t know what happened, but it was obviously something good.”

The Marketplace

“The Wall Street Journal”

Herr’s Foods 35 outsourced chaplains (from Marketplace Chaplains USA) also lend an ear as workers of all faiths speak candidly about finances, unruly children, illnesses or even mundane topics such as next weekend’s deer-hunting trip.

“It really helps. It gives you someone to talk to,” says 24-year-old Don Whittaker, a Herr’s route salesman. “Sometimes you can’t talk to your spouse about certain things.”

Chaplains-for-hire Provide Services in Workplaces

“USA Today – Money”

In what may be a sign of more spiritual-or simply more stressful-times, more employers are bringing chaplains into the workplace to offer counseling, training programs and spiritual help. The increase is being driven by a rise in independent chaplains-for-hire. They offer affordable and flexible services.

Washington, D.C. – Business

“The Economist”

Marketplace Chaplains USA, based in Dallas, Texas, is America’s biggest provider of corporate chaplains, employing 2,100 of them at 300 companies in 46 states. The company was founded in 1984 but has enjoyed its most rapid growth over the past six years: it has doubled in size since 2001 and is currently adding a new client every seven days. Its customers range from banks to construction companies to Tyson’s main rival, Pilgrim’s Pride.

Some Companies are Hiring Professional Listeners for the Job

“CNN American Morning”

At Herr’s snack factory in Nottingham, Pennsylvania you have potato sorters, chip line workers, pretzel people and a chaplain. He presides over funerals, weddings and makes home and hospital visits. Quality assurance manager Missy Twyman says the program has not only helped her family, but says it’s brough her closer to God. “Our primary mission is to care for people. We want to show love and compassion for those employees,” said Chaplain Don Kreider.

They Make the Rounds with a Listening Ear

“The St. Petersburg Times”

Marketplace Chaplains USA, based in Dallas, said the demand for its services has grown quickly since the Sept. 11 attacks and high-profile corporate scandals. Marketplace serves more than 300 companies and founder Gil Stricklin said that 70 of them have been added since the start of 2006. “Our associates tell me its one of the best benefits we offer,” said John McKibbon CEO of McKibbon Hotel Management in Tampa.

More Local Businesses are Hiring Chaplains to Work with Employees

“Houston Chronicle”

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 with which we need help, and they’re there at that time to do that,” said Jimmie Durham, one of the three partners of Choate Ceramic Laboratory which began using Marketplace Chaplains USA in 2004. “To me, it’s a bit like insurance. You may not need it very often , but it sure is good to have it.”

At Davie Weekley Homes, the chaplains have produced results. “It has really changed the flavor and the culture around the company.” said David Weekley, founder and chairman of the company.

Faith and Work: Businesses See the Benefits of Chaplains

“Atlanta Journal Constitution”

Tim Embry, CEO of the Deluth-based American LubeFast decided three years ago to hire Marketplace Chaplains. “There has been a more positive attitude and a changed heart,” said Embry, who has 700 employees in his 70 stores. “People spend time on the job worrying about things. With this program, they can go to someone for mature, solid advice. Our guys love the chaplains.”