The Rev. Gerald Rodgers got the call in the middle of the night. It was Kitty Hayden, the normally energetic receptionist who greeted him most days as he arrived at work.
Mrs. Hayden needed comfort because her mother was terminally ill and afraid, so the receptionist asked for Mr. Rodgers by name. He is a contract chaplain hired by her employer, McLane Cos. in Falmouth, Va.
“They lived 45 minutes away,” Mr. Rodgers said, recalling the evening last year, “but I got dressed in the middle of the night and went over to spend some time with Kitty’s mom.”
These days, he is always sure to ask Mrs. Hayden how she is doing; her mother died shortly after his visit.
“Every day he’s here, I talk to him,” Mrs. Hayden said. “He’s such a comfort.”
Mr. Rodgers is part of a growing network of chaplains who are contracted out to companies seeking to add a religious component to their employee assistance programs, or EAPs.
Mr. Rodgers, who also works as the minister of a Protestant church in Fredericksburg, is employed by Marketplace Ministries, a Dallas company with more than 1,300 chaplains nationwide.
He oversees four other chaplains there.
These chaplains offer spiritually based counseling and guidance to workers dealing with everything from divorce and depression to illness or death.
Mr. Rodgers works at McLane three days a week and serves other corporate clients the rest of the week.
He declined to say how much he is paid.
Marketplace Ministries spokes-man Art Stricklin said the average chaplain earns between $12 and $20 per hour.
Mr. Rodgers is a ubiquitous presence at McLane, making the rounds through the warehouses and chatting with many of the 700 workers.
“The neat thing about what we do is that we get to build relationships with people before they have a crisis,” said Mr. Rodgers, a soft-spoken Kentucky native who has worked at McLane since 1994. “Everyone who has worked here for a length of time knows us.”
Mr. Rodgers and other corporate chaplains said they believe the workplace is a good place to counsel people, many of whom do not have close relationships with a pastor. These chaplains, however, walk a fine line, ministering to workers while trying to avoid offending an employee’s spiritual sensibilities or breaking religious harassment laws.
Employers including McLane said they believe chaplaincy — providing workers with spiritual guidance and limiting their stress — makes them more productive.
John Fisher, plant manager of 400 employees at Macsteel, which has contracts with chaplains from Corporate Chaplaincy Services, said the $1,200 a month his company pays — $3 per employee — is a tiny price for a spiritually healthy work force.
“They say you need to leave problems at work at work and problems at home at home, but realistically you can’t do it,” Mr. Fisher said. “If they come to work and aren’t thinking about making steel, we’re in trouble.”
The chaplains have to follow the secular protocol of an EAP — which means no talk of religion until they receive an employee’s open invitation for spiritual guidance.
“You have to be extremely oblique and careful not to force religion on employees,” said Carol Hall, a chaplain with Corporate Chaplaincy Services. “As a Christian and an ordained minister, I believe God holds the answers to life, but I do not have a secret agenda. When people ask for spiritual help, I give it, but if they don’t ask, I don’t push the point.”
At McLane, the employee initiates every counseling session, and the chaplains do not proselytize, Mr. Rodgers said.
Marketplace Ministries insists that chaplains are there simply to be an extra friend to workers, who might not feel comfortable calling a 800 help line for advice on personal matters or may feel too close to their family chaplain to discuss certain issues.
“One day, Gerald may be talking about the Redskins, or he may be talking fishing, and the next thing you know, you’re talking to him about how your 16-year-old son got arrested for marijuana possession for the sixth time,” said Mr. Stricklin, the company spokesman, who is the son of founder Gil Stricklin.
Some companies, however, hire chaplains precisely because they may convert employees eventually.
Russ Barr, a supervisor at Macsteel, said Ms. Hall’s chaplaincy gives the Arkansas plant a distinct advantage over the steel mills he knows outside the Bible Belt.
“For me as a devout Christian, employees who are Christians should be better, more productive workers with fewer problems,” he said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.