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Hot Issues, Best Practices in Workplace Chaplaincy Explored

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications

Before the final panel presentation got under way at the Aug. 17-19 Workplace Chaplaincy conference at Yale Divinity School, Imam Yusuf Hasan of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York quietly handed each person in the audience a two-sided sheet of paper. On the paper were translated Arabic phrases such as “As Salaam mu Alaikum,” “Sub hana llah,”and “Ja za ka llah.” (“Peace be unto you,” “Glory to Allah,” and “May Allah reward you.”)

The panel was on the topic “Mutifaith & Ethical Issues of Workplace Chaplaincy,” and when it was Hasan's turn to speak he told members of the audience that the list was intended to facilitate communications with Muslims—a community he described as “stressed from one side of the country to the other side of the country.”

From across the United States, and from locales as far-flung as British Columbia, some 120 corporate chaplains, businesspersons and lawyers descended on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle to discuss “hot issues and best practices” in the expanding world of workplace chaplaincy. Historically, chaplains have proliferated in places like hospitals, the military and universities. But, increasingly, business leaders have come to embrace the concept of chaplains in the workplace—which they have learned is not only a way to provide for the spiritual wellbeing of employees but can also be an effective strategy for improving the bottom line.

All too often, Hasan observed, Muslim immigrants who arrive in the United States expecting to find the “American dream” are instead confronted with the “American nightmare,” particularly in the past several years. “After 9/11, people are afraid to say they're Muslim,” Hasan said. “Many Muslims after 9/11 put out American flags just to feel comfortable and not be attacked.”

Problems on the homefront can easily spill over into the workplace, making it especially critical for Muslims to feel accepted and respected on the job, he noted.

When it comes to faith and the workplace, even the “little things,” like subtle shifts in language, can make a big difference, the audience was assured.

Rabbi Shira Stern, treasurer of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, told the predominantly Christian audience that something as simple as use of the word “we” can be critically important.

“We are all brothers and sisters,” she said, hastening to add, “But we are not all brothers and sisters in Christ.” Careless use of “we” can then create barriers, warned Stern. “When we say ‘we,' we need to include all of us.”

Giving Jewish employees flexibility about celebrating religious holidays, for example, is extremely important, or making sure that kosher food is available. For Muslims, setting aside time and space for them to pray during the workday is important, as is accommodating Muslims fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

“It is unbelievably affirming when we know that our bosses recognize our needs,” said Stern. “Sweat the small stuff. The small stuff counts. Big time.”

Use of religious symbols and imagery is also important to consider. If an employer provides space for employees to worship or pray, for example, faith-specific symbols such as crosses may have to be covered or removed at times when non-Christians are using the space.

“It will feel like you are giving up things,” said George Handzo '73 M.Div., a chaplain and clinical director of Healthcare Chaplaincy, Inc. who moderated the panel. “There are things you will not be able to do.”

The gathering—“ Workplace Chaplaincy: Hot Issues and Best Practices” —was a first-of-a-kind event, according to David Miller, executive director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, the YDS-affiliated center that organized the conference. Never before, Miller said, has there been a national conference of this scope focused on chaplains in business settings.

The primary sponsor of the three-day conference was Tyson Foods of Springdale, Arkansas, one of the largest corporate users of workplace chaplains. Support also came from several organizations that provide workplace chaplains: Marketplace Chaplains USA, Inc.; Corporate Chaplains of America; and Chaplains Associates, Inc. A number of topics were covered, including subjects like “Thorny Legal Issues of Workplace Chaplaincy,” “Chaplains in the Newsroom,” and “What Makes for the Most Effective Workplace Chaplaincies?”

There was also some heartfelt testimony by people in the world of business who have tried chaplaincy programs and are committed to the idea—from top executives at large corporations such as Tyson Foods to businesspersons at much smaller operations, like Tim Embry, CEO of American LubeFast, a Georgia-based chain of 70 oil change and auto maintenance shops in the South that employs about 500 persons.

At an annual cost of $60,000, LubeFast has chaplains in each of its markets who visit the company's shops once every two weeks and minister to men and women who spend most of their day under the chassis of automobiles.

Embry reported that since he implemented the chaplaincy program through Marketplace Ministries, based in Dallas, TX, his employee turnover rate and product shrinkage (losses due to theft) declined dramatically.

He described the chaplaincy program as “an employee assistance plan on steroids” and recommended that other business leaders involve their companies. Said Embry, “Do it. You will be rewarded.”

Chaplains in the workplace are part of the broader “faith at work” movement that seeks to bridge the so-called “Sunday-Monday gap” that often separates worship life from the workaday world, including life in the world of business. At YDS, the Yale Center for Faith & Culture has a major initiative exploring this area of inquiry – the Ethics and Spirituality in the Workplace program, the mission of which is “ to help people integrate the claims of their faith with the demands of their work.”

David Miller, executive director of the Center for Faith & Culture, described what he called the “compartmentalizing” of faith and work by a majority of people in a speech earlier this year. “This schizophrenic alternative seeks to honor each area but finds no way to integrate them,” Miller said. “Businesspeople and others in he world of work often live a bifurcated life in which faith and work, the spiritual and the material, Sunday and Monday are unrelated. This is one of the great tragedies of the modern church.”

After the conference, Miller said, “ At its core, a faith-friendly policy is about honoring employee's desire to live integrated lives, where they do not have to hide their spiritual side, and respecting the many faith traditions represented in companies today. Being a faith-friendly employer is another way of helping employees overcome what many refer to as the ‘Sunday-Monday gap.'”

Miller identified five issues that surfaced repeatedly during the conference that he believes merit further study and discussion:

  • Inappropriate proselytizing, possible religious-based harassment and consequent disruption to business.
  • Creating internal chaplaincy programs versus use of third-party chaplaincy resources.
  • Possible friction between local religious bodies and chaplains who might be viewed as being in competition with those bodies.
  • Difficulties associated with measuring the success of chaplaincy programs in terms of typical cost/benefit assessments.
  • Pluses and minuses of creating a chaplaincy accreditation process.

Miller said the conference achieved its primary goals, including providing a forum for exchange of ideas and generating enthusiasm for continued development of chaplaincy programs. “Yet the conference also raised as many questions as it answered, as it pointed to the wide spectrum of views and approaches to workplace chaplaincy,” noted Miller. “This will be a fertile area for further study and theological reflection.”

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