It’s noon at the Tyson Foods plant in Sanford, N.C., and Lucrecia Hall stands at an assembly line, straightening plastic bags packed with tortillas.
From the corner of her eye she spots the Rev. David Mateo winding his way through the production floor. She nervously waits until he reaches her station.
“How are you doing today?” Mateo asks.
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Without hesitation, the words tumble out. Life’s been a struggle, the 32-year-old single mother sighs. It’s difficult holding a full-time job and caring for four young children. She confides she’s lonely and praying for a husband.
Mateo nods as he listens, staring at Hall’s face as a tear trickles down her cheek. Calmly, he reassures her she’s doing a good job taking care of her children. Just before leaving, he promises he will pray for her.
“It’s a blessing to have someone to talk to,” Hall says as Mateo moves on to the next employee working the line.
That’s the response Tyson hoped for when it created an in-house chaplaincy program five years ago.
The program now includes 128 chaplains, most part-time, at 78 of the company’s more than 300 plants and offices. Nearly all are Christians. One is an imam.
Besides providing chaplains, Tyson offers a free, downloadable prayer booklet on its Web site. Consumers also can request the 20-page pamphlet. The company had mailed more than 35,000 copies.
“This is an invitation for people to get a better glimpse of who we are as a company and what we stand for,” said Bob Corscadden, Tyson’s chief marketing officer, who helped create the prayer booklets with Tyson CEO John Tyson and David Miller, director of the Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture.
Faith-based workplace programs have been around for decades, but exploded in the 1990s. Pressures of downsizing in a global economy is proving fertile ground for spiritual soul searching, those involved in workplace ministry say.
Americans are working longer days. A survey by the Conference Board, a N.Y.-based corporate think tank, showed only 50 percent are happy with their jobs, down from 59 percent a decade ago.
“Religion is important to many people’s lives and they want to at least be able to talk about that part of their life and not feel like they have to hide around a corner,” said Os Hillman, president of the International Coalition of Workplace Ministries, an Atlanta-based group made up of 1,300 ministries and businesses.
But blurring business and faith is controversial. Some scholars claim companies are using spirituality to sell products. Others criticize chaplaincy programs as proselytizing.
Corscadden said that’s not the case with Tyson, the nation’s largest processor of chicken, beef and pork. He said the company offers the programs because it cares about employees. The company has not studied the impact of its faith-based programs closely but says morale and worker retention have improved at participating plants.
“This is how we manage the company,” he said. “This is part of the fabric of who we are.”
No one keeps track of how many U.S. companies have faith-based programs. And they come in a variety of forms.
Some, such as Charlotte’s Coca-Cola Bottling Co., offer a lunchtime Bible study. Atlanta-based Chick-fil-a closes on Sundays so workers can attend church. This spring, Starbucks will print spiritual quotes from the Rev. Rick Warren, author of the best-selling “The Purpose-Driven Life,” on coffee cups.
Corporate chaplaincy is thought to be one of the fastest-growing faith-based employee programs. Industry groups estimate there are roughly 4,500 workplace chaplains, but the National Institute of Business & Industrial Chaplains in Houston said its likely closer to 25,000.
Companies from food distributors to banks to car dealerships use chaplains for their employees. Most outsource the spirituality, relying on vendors to provide chaplains.
By the end of 2006, Corporate Chaplains of America in Raleigh, N.C., one of the nation’s top vendors, expects to employ more than 100 full-time chaplains serving companies in 22 states, said associate vice president Dwayne Reece. He anticipates hiring 1,000 chaplains by 2012. Another vendor, Marketplace Chaplains USA, based in Dallas, has 1,700 chaplains in place at 256 companies.
In contrast, the Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson hires its own clergy.
The chaplaincy program was created by a company that Tyson bought in 1998. At first, Tyson ended the program, but CEO John Tyson resurrected it in 2000. A born-again Christian, John Tyson spent years abusing alcohol and cocaine before becoming clean and sober in 1990.
Since then, he has infused his faith into the company in a variety of ways.
Some executives carry special note cards to use as a “moral compass” when making business decisions. The cards contain Tyson’s core values, which include to “strive to honor God.”
Presbyterian minister and professor Douglas Hicks believes faith in the workplace can be positive.
But Hicks, a professor of leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond, worries when corporations pay for chaplains to preach to employees.
“They are profit-making institutions,” he said. “When they get into the religion business, they can easily favor one group over another.”
For example, some companies that provide chaplains that advertise their counseling services can help corporations avoid messy lawsuits during layoffs, Hicks said. Chaplains do that by persuading laid-off workers to deal with their grief in other, non-litigious ways, or by counseling people during a new job search.
That, he added, means the chaplain is clearly taking the company’s side – “the side that’s paying them.”
Confidentiality can also become tricky. Federal law requires a chaplain to inform the company if employees threaten to harm themselves or others. Some must speak up if an employee is stealing from the company.
Rules regarding confidentiality when it comes to employee drug and alcohol abuse, costly medical conditions or potential union activity, are less clear.