The Rise of the Corporate Chaplain

The Rise of the Corporate Chaplain
Reactions from Rabbi Rick Brody

Once again, we in the Jewish community and the larger non-fundamentalist religious world might be able to learn about strategy from our evangelical brothers and sisters.

Is it time to consider placing rabbis and other liberal clergy in secular, corporate positions to tend to the spiritual needs of everyday workers and to overall company culture?

The title above refers (and links) to the headline in a recent Businessweek article by an old college classmate of mine, Mark Oppenheimer. I had a sense that something like this was going on — mostly evangelical Christian-run companies and some non-profits contracting with clergy or other religious leaders to serve a pastoral role in the workplace. But I wasn’t aware that it was this big a deal. Below are a handful of thoughts.

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First, here’s some information from the article that demonstrates why this is a conversation worth having:

[E]mployees are “dramatically” more likely to use workplace chaplains than standard mental-health benefits, according to preliminary results from an ongoing study by David Miller and Faith Ngunjiri of Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative. At least half of 1,000 employees surveyed have used the services of a workplace chaplain—far more than those who use standard assistance programs.

The article talks a lot about the idea of chaplains as an extension of Human Resources (HR). I worked for one year in a large, corporate-style, non-profit in the Jewish community. I was already a rabbi and while I was not hired to serve as one, I gently made it clear throughout the interview and hiring process that I carry my rabbinic persona in all that I do and that I saw my rabbinic skill-set as a way of providing added value to the job for which I was hired. Everyone within the institution agreed with me and affirmed this attitude. And sure enough, there was rarely a day that passed that someone didn’t come to me with some kind of “rabbinic question,” basically taking advantage–quite gratefully–of this “bonus” resource that was available to them. But, in my first few days, my supervisor made it clear to me, especially in regard to my role as a supervisor of other staff, that I was absolutely not supposed to interject my rabbinic role into questions of employees’ wellbeing. I was not to engage in any kind of crisis management for the personal lives of those I was working with, no matter the way they might choose to confide in me as a rabbi. Those functions were clearly those of the HR department. I accepted this instruction. Having never worked before in such a culture, it was the first time I learned about the power of an HR department and the pastoral role its staff can play. But as my own experience proved and as the data above corroborates, there is still a special role for clergy among many Americans–even when they’re not in their conventional house of worship (and I should add that non-Jewish staff would come to me as well with various questions).

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The article leaves me excited about the idea of mainstreaming this approach to chaplaincy beyond the evangelical world, particularly into companies that take a more progressive view towards social responsibility or at the very least are likely to employ a workforce that represents a more diverse range of religious orientations. I am very curious if there are any examples of such an angle on this innovative idea. Many within the rabbinate (and probably among all clergy in today’s ever-changing, decentralizing culture) are becoming more and more interested in finding unconventional ways that rabbis can have a positive influence in the wider culture. CLAL’s “Rabbis Without Borders” program is a prime example of this thinking, and there is a growing number of “entrepreneurial rabbis” who are contributing their Torah in all kinds of creative and effective ways.

I should note that there is certainly a strong element of self-interest here — job opportunities for the traditional roles that rabbis have filled are becoming more and more difficult to find as supply of talented, passionate, trained Jewish leaders is exceeding existing demand for such professionals, at least within the currently perceived roles. So, there is a real opportunity here for many under-employed rabbis to have a real impact on individuals and on society at large, while actually supporting their own families at the same time.

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A similar trend that has become somewhat popular is for specifically Jewish organizations to bring on a “Rabbi-in-Residence.” In many cases I think that role is expected to focus on providing text-based learning that connects the work and mission of the organization to traditional Jewish values and sometimes to attend to any matters of ritual concern that the organization might face such as kashrut or Shabbat observance at the organization’s retreat, etc. That was the de facto role I wound up playing on my side of the floor in the job I mentioned above–there were two other rabbis on the other side of the floor and one of them essentially was the kind of “rabbi-in-residence” I’ve described here.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard about a “rabbi-in-residence” serving more of that ad-hoc chaplain-style role for a Jewish organization’s employees, making rounds to cubicles the way one would on a hospital floor. Would this be a great thing? I’m inclined to see the positive aspects and imagine ways for this approach to help transform workplace culture for Jewish organizations. Of course, so many organizations within the Jewish world are very careful to not appear overtly “religious” and wish to maintain their emphasis on “secular” Jewish values like social justice. I see no reason why a pluralistic, “21st-century rabbi” couldn’t offer a presence and an opportunity that people would only see as supportive and as a chance for “value gained” rather than some kind of off-putting proselytizing. Rabbis on college campuses have been succeeding in this fashion for some time now. There are many more successful models out there than the Chabad rabbi encouraging you to wrap t’fillin, as worthy as such an effort might be. How about simply someone within your workplace environment who sits down with you during a coffee break to let you speak candidly about what’s on your mind and will listen with compassionate presence?

So, first, I’m curious about a call for Jewish organizations–many of which are in desperate need of revising their general corporate culture anyway–to think specifically about the ways a rabbi could add value to accomplishing their mission and keeping their employees not only satisfied but also invigorated about the work they’re doing. But of course the almighty dollar sets the tone and I can’t imagine too many (any?) Jewish organizations having the resources to make this kind of investment, barring some philanthropic support. Is there a foundation that would be interested in making grants to support such innovation in Jewish organizations, the way Hillels have been similarly supported?

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But let’s take it further, back towards the wider focus of the article. The article doesn’t address the response of employees who hold “minority” religious views or affiliations. Is there room within corporate America for open-minded clergy–rabbis included–to help transform a workplace culture in ways that aren’t focused on spreading a particular religious worldview? There are some really creative CEOs out there who care very much about fashioning a supportive work environment, one that celebrates as much of the “whole person” working for them as possible (an idea the article raises). If they’re going to provide incentives for physical fitness–I’ve heard of companies offering yoga and many are now hiring in-house caterers to provide nutritional meals for their employees–couldn’t there be a similar emphasis on “spiritual wellbeing,” with an in-house chaplain helping provide resources for employees? If they’re going to profess promoting “work-life” balance, couldn’t a chaplain help bring that wish to fruition? The brainstorming can go on and on. I’d be really curious to have a conversation with people from various industries about how this model can be adapted. And in the case of many companies, I would imagine the resources are are already available.

Would a Jewish or multifaith collaborative of more “liberal” religious groups want to form some kind of agency that could do what Marketplace Chaplains USA and other existing clearinghouses are doing for the evangelical world? Such a group could start networking with all kinds of for-profit companies and non-profit organizations to see about experimenting with some of these models.

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As for some of the particular concerns raised in the article:
I don’t see the ethical problems as nearly as pronounced as they are presented in the article. The fact is, at least within the rabbinate and certainly the congregational rabbinate, that the clergy is almost always an employee of the synagogue or other organization and has no radically different dispensation to act in a manner that is contrary to the “interests of the organization.” A rabbi who would be concerned about unfair wages or other conditions for workers at the shul would have to face the same challenges about speaking up that are presented hypothetically in the article. It is no easy situation and clergy have often sacrificed their comfort and their job security by speaking out against practices of which they deem their own congregants responsible or guilty. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise was quite famous for this kind of prophetic way of speaking truth to power–the garment-factory owners whose money paid his salary.

I also know of rabbis who have violated confidentiality of those who had come to them (including employees of the congregation) when they feared that “harm to the . . . company or its well-being [might] occur.” I am definitely not condoning such breaches but am simply indicating that they already exist, so this new model of chaplaincy doesn’t present entirely new ethical problems.

Finally, Reverend Lillian Daniel is quoted in the article, sharing her misgivings about this approach to chaplaincy:

“This kind of chaplaincy treats religion as filling just another human need or lifestyle choice,” Daniel says. “Your workplace gave you a health club, it gave you a credit union, now it gives you a pastor. But that’s not how religious lives are truly lived. They are lived in community with other believers.”

It is worth noting that, I believe, Reverend Daniel gained her greatest media attention last year–it was when I first learned of her–when she published a piece titled “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” In this reflection, the pastor chastises Americans for their lazy thinking about spirituality and the ego-driven illusion that their feel-good spiritual pursuits don’t need or can’t benefit from the richness and texture of years of tradition and a history of shared struggle and discovery by a group of people and the stories, rituals, and other unique cultural qualities that define a religion. I agreed with her thoughts 100%, but I–and many other clergy who discussed the piece–felt that she failed miserably in the delivery of her message. By putting the “I’m spiritual but not religious” folks on the defensive–and in a public post, not something reserved for her professional colleagues (which I think would have been a more appropriate forum for her to vent the frustrations that so many of us feel when we confront such grand dismissals of the value of religion)–I think she only further alienates them, affirming their sense that organized religion is judgmental, self-righteous, and closed to alternative views. A different response is not to roll our eyes, no matter how much we might be doing so internally, but rather to see such a declaration as an invitation, a way to meet the person where she is, to affirm her serious misgivings about organized religion and how it has failed, and help figure out with such an individual if maybe she has something she can contribute to a more formal religious community that might be more on the same page as she is than she currently thinks and to see if perhaps the benefits could flow towards the individual as well.

I raise this critique because I think that Reverend Daniel is demonstrating a lack of flexibility in fully meeting the other, the one who professes to be turned off by religion. And while she offers compelling reasons for why we ought to take religion seriously, she seems tone-deaf about what American spiritual seekers are ready or able to hear from ecclesiastical authorities. I think she shows that same non-adaptability in her concerns about corporate chaplains. The fact is that Americans have indeed come to see religion as yet another offering on their plate of options for personal growth or meaning. Avraham Infeld, former president of International Hillel, used to talk about how students have multiple windows open on their computer desktop and of their facility in navigating among them (perhaps it’s time for a more “Web 2.0” metaphor).

Furthermore, Americans have moved so far away from Daniel’s ideal image (and again, one I share in my heart of hearts) of organic communities of like-minded religious practitioners. Communities have become much more porous and transient than the ones that were traditionally defined by a church or synagogue membership back in the days of “Protestant, Catholic, Jew.” Americans hold many allegiances and we have come to learn all too well about how for many, the primary one tends to be their work. And as those on the cutting edge of developing workplace culture have found, there are great possibilities for the fashioning of real community among coworkers. Why wouldn’t we want to open the door to that sense of community having a religious component to it for those who would find meaning and inspiration through such an approach? Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of where Americans are by infusing their rat-race environments with more soul?

Of course, my vision is very different than the one described in the article, and it is a more open and pluralistic vision that I would like to explore with others who might see the benefit of such an experiment. Also, of course, there always remains a difficult balance to strike between addressing individual’s private needs–even in the context of their public role as, say, an employee–and creating interpersonal community in such settings, especially if people hold radically different beliefs or spiritual orientations. I believe this is a struggle that chaplains deal with regularly in hospitals, in the military, in prisons, and in other places where their role has flourished. I would hope that corporate chaplains could learn from those in more traditional chaplaincy roles about how to strike that balance. Mostly, though, I have always understood the chaplain’s role as being fully present for the spiritual needs of each individual–on an individual basis. As this article testifies, there is great potential for serving a real need by placing those skilled in religious leadership in a place where people might need it most. And, as I’m sure traditional chaplains have found, the gains that can happen on an individual level can overflow into the larger culture and “success” of the larger community. So what if some of these communities define success by a monetary bottom line? If employees can get to that place of success with a strong feeling of self-worth, groundedness, and wholeness, and can do so in a manner that adheres to the highest of ethical principles within the workplace and in terms of the impact on the larger society–and if chaplains can help in achieving this success–then we as a society owe it to ourselves to figure out ways of advancing the corporate chaplaincy.

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