Total Rewards (Comp & Benefits)

What is a workplace chaplain, and do you need one?

Workplace chaplain programs can bridge the gap between employees and HR teams.
article cover

Alyssa Nassner

· 5 min read

When Liz Fuchs, CPO at Farmer Focus in western Virginia, started her role with the organic chicken company, she was tasked by its founder and CEO to find a way to provide more resources for its nearly 1,000 employees with a focus on “serving the whole person and not just the person that shows up to work.”

“[In] the Shenandoah Valley area, there are six poultry operations within a 20-minute drive of where we are, so people have to want to be here. There’s other options for them,” she said. “How do we differentiate ourselves? The way that we really strive to do that is taking the care of our people to the next level.”

The company originally looked to hire more staff to support employee needs, but with multiple plants and multiple shifts, there just weren’t the resources to do it right.

Instead, Fuchs turned to Marketplace Chaplains, one of the largest and oldest workplace chaplaincy programs in the US, which has more than 2,200 chaplains “going out on tugboats” or visiting auto dealerships, miners, and manufacturing plants to serve employees.

“We call it a personalized and proactive employee care service,” Marketplace Chaplains CEO Jason Brown said. “It’s not church at work. It’s not about setting up chapels and prayer rooms. It’s not a religious program.”

While workplace chaplaincy programs might sound like your boss is bringing religion to work, they’re designed to foster consistent relationship-building between chaplains and employees, who might at some point want to take advantage of a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen—and one that’s not on the company payroll.

Employees decide if and when they use the service, and what they want to talk about, Brown said. These employee meetings are confidential, but chaplains or “care partners,” a term that some companies use to refer to the chaplains who visit their worksite, can flag issues that HR teams might want to address.

“Employees—no matter who they are—they are all coming to work with whatever is going on outside of work with them, and so if that employee is distracted by what's happening in their personal life, [that] impacts their professional life,” said Johnny Poole, retired military chaplain and CEO of ChaplainCare.

Benefits to employees. While chaplaincy services are common in the ranks of the military or for hospital inpatients and their families, some companies are utilizing pastoral care to help employees with counseling, resource referrals, mediation, and even navigating the company EAP.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

“Chaplaincy services complement what the company is offering in EAP,” Poole said. “It's not an either-or, it’s more of a both-and…think of the chaplain as a first responder, and the chaplain then is doing a triage to try to figure out where is the best resource.”

Fuchs said her chaplain teams know the company’s benefits in and out, so they can help employees navigate and use what Farmer Focus offers. But they’re also plugged into the community and can refer employees to services outside the plant walls or resources aligned with an employee’s specific faith tradition.

Benefits to companies and HR. The Farmer Focus chaplains meet with HR regularly. They bring reports and metrics about how many interactions they’ve had with employees and what sorts of issues have come up.

“It gives us insight into…our employees…the needs that they have, the things that they're facing, and it has allowed us to think about some different programming options that we can offer them,” Fuchs said.

Her team developed financial literacy programs for employees after chaplains revealed that many of them had articulated personal issues related to their finances.

“They work very hard to maintain that confidentiality, but even the way that they pull the themes out of the conversations they're having gives me, as a leader, so much insight into what's going on with our team members,” she said.

Texas-based home improvement service Renovo Home Partners is rolling out Marketplace Chaplains across its seven subsidiary companies, but it accelerated that rollout at one site after handling a “crisis situation” there, according to CHRO Malcolm O'Neal.

“95% of what Marketplace [Chaplains] does is just the day-to-day support of the workforce, but what we found is they also are extremely good in times of crisis,” he said.

While chaplains can help counsel during emergencies, O’Neal said their services can also help mitigate issues so they don’t escalate to that point.

“There's so much buzz in this HR community, and every company's…awareness around mental health,” O’Neal said. “What [chaplains] bring in terms of being a boots on the ground, embedded inside of your organization, regular contacts with a workforce, it really [fills] a void of what the traditional HR model used to provide to the workforce.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.