Workplace chaplains care for unchurched

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Most Americans don't attend church regularly, but they still have deaths in the family, marriage problems and other life crises that they can't handle alone.

"Seventy percent of the American workforce today does not have a relationship with organized religion," Gil Stricklin, founder of Marketplace Ministries.

"They're not atheists. They're not even agnostics, most of them. But they don't have a pastor, they don't have a priest, they don't have a rabbi," Stricklin said. "They don't have a Buddhist monk or a Muslim imam. They have nobody that marries them and buries them."

A growing number of chaplains are finding a niche in the workplace, developing relationships with employees and guiding them through difficult life situations when they either don't have a church home or don't feel comfortable seeking help there.

Shane Satterfield, a regional director for Marketplace Chaplains USA, a division of Marketplace Ministries, told about establishing a chaplain presence at a Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant in Georgia.

A young woman who worked the night shift said to him, "I'm not real sure about this whole chaplain thing. I'm sure I'll never need you guys, but I'm glad you're here," Satterfield recounted.

"A week later, the first phone call I got — at 1 a.m. — was from her. She said, 'My mother just passed away, and I don't know what to do.' I said, 'Well, do you have a pastor?' She said, 'I've never been to church in my life. I have no idea what to do.'

"I said, 'Well, I'll be there.' I jumped in the car, ran out to Carrollton, Ga., about an hour drive, met her at the hospital. She was crying, she was a little bit out of sorts, and she said, 'Listen, I don't want to hear any of this 'She's in a better place. God knows best.' I don't want to hear any God stuff from you. I just don't know what to do.'"

Satterfield stepped in to notify the woman's family of her mother's death, help plan the funeral and even perform the service.

"I said, 'When this is all over, you've still got me to talk to.' We buried her mom, and on the way out the door, she said, 'I'm going to take you up on that. I've got some questions I want to ask you. I'll call you next week,'" Satterfield said.

The woman called him in the middle of the night and said she was ready to talk, and he met with her for two weeks as she asked questions such as why her mother died.

"As a chaplain, we're trained to answer those questions in a way that hopefully settles questions in her heart about it," Satterfield said. "The very next week, she called me back and said, 'It's time for me to make a change in my life.' I was able to lead her to Christ in a chicken plant in the nurse's office that afternoon."

Satterfield, who attends Hopewell Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga., said that story is a small example of what chaplains do regularly, from factory workers to company owners who are worth millions of dollars and may even go to church but don't have people they can trust.

"I would estimate that 85 percent of the people that we deal with everyday don't have a church home," Satterfield said. "It doesn't mean they're not believers. ... Some people know about church, they've been to church and aren't going anymore. Very few that I talk to actually say, 'I'm consistently going.'

"Life happens at a rapid rate, and when it does, I was shocked to find out how many people don't have anyone to turn to. That's why we're there. What's what we do," he said.

Chris Hobgood, who works with a similar organization, Corporate Chaplains of America, told BP confidentiality plays a significant role in chaplains' work. And because their work is not as high-profile as pastors of local churches, people aren't as aware of workplace chaplains.

"But so many of the times that we interact with employees in the workplace who are believers, they feel that they can't share those really ugly parts — those deep, dark secrets — with their pastor because, statistically speaking, within about 18 months if you share one of those issues with a pastor, you'll end up leaving the church just because of what I term the weirdness factor," Hobgood said.

"If, for example, you reveal to your pastor you've had an affair in your marriage, even if the pastor is just preaching through the Bible and comes to the story of David and Bathsheba, you're going to feel like as a member of that congregation, 'Well, he's talking about me from the pulpit.' As a result, you end up leaving and going to another church.

"What we can do as chaplains is come there and because we do have a high degree of confidentiality and anonymity, we can come alongside the church and help guide those believers and they end up staying in those churches much longer as a result, which we find to be good. In some sense, we're kind of helping stabilize those congregations," Hobgood, who attends North Metro First Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., said.

Stricklin, of Marketplace Ministries, employs about 2,500 chaplains who serve at 411 companies and care for more than 131,000 employees. During the past 25 years, the chaplains have helped lead more than 50,000 people to Christ, he said. Also, nearly half a million dollars has been given to people in benevolent situations through the chaplain work.

Railroad Chaplains of America, another division of Marketplace Ministries, was founded in 2006. Since then, chaplain care teams have been sent to more than 270 families that have had someone killed or critically injured as a result of a train.

"This is where we have gone to families where a young father was fishing off a railroad bridge, a train was coming and he tried to get off the bridge and was killed by the train at 1 a.m.," Stricklin said.

"We sent a chaplain to a small farmhouse out in the countryside of Nebraska. When our chaplain was there, this man's little 7-year-old daughter came up to our chaplain and said, 'Mister, are you here because my daddy got killed?' Our chaplain knelt down and looked that little girl in the eye and said, 'Darling, I'm here to help you and your family in every way I can.'"

The chaplain team helped plan the funeral, pay for the funeral and provide food for the family when they gathered on the day of the funeral.

Also, chaplains are there when company employees want to get married and don't know who to ask to officiate.

"We're involved not only with the very sad things but we do weddings every week. We've done over 1,500 weddings where people come to us and want to get married. They're usually living together, so we get to share with those people the reason for commitment and what that means," Stricklin said.

"... We establish a lot of new homes built on biblical principles of marriage and longevity of a family. That's a great thrill," he said.

Stricklin has been a member of First Baptist Church in Dallas for 39 years and has two degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

"We have more than 400 chaplains who are Southern Baptist on our staff. We have 81 denominations on our staff, and the largest denominational group on our staff is Southern Baptists," he said.

The need for chaplains is as intense as it has ever been in the workplace, he said, especially given the difficult economy.

"When people don't have anything but financial resources to lean on and that goes away, then they sense that life is over and there is nothing but despair and loneliness," Stricklin said.

"We have seen a rise in suicides in the last 18 months because some people don't have anything else but finances, and when you lose that you've lost it all, in their minds. But those people that don't have much but they've got Jesus, they stand strong when the storm is raging and when the wind is blowing.

"And chaplains stand with them to encourage them and to share the love of God with everybody — that there is hope beyond economics. There's hope in this life but there's hope also in the life yet to come," he said.

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