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Business Has A Prayer
Tracy B. McGinnis | Pink 12.07.06, 6:00 AM ET

Fay Runnion was exactly five months into her new job at HomeBanc as associate satisfaction administrator when she faced a double mastectomy and other major surgeries after being diagnosed with breast cancer. On the day of Runnion's surgery, an associate asked the company chaplain to lead her colleagues in prayer.

It made a big difference to Runnion. "There were people of different faiths, but they all joined together to keep good thoughts for me while I was sick. The chaplain showed up at the hospital at a follow-up surgery and waited with my husband until I came out of surgery," she recalls.

Because of such support, she believes the company sees her as more than just a job description. "They look at the whole person," Runnion says. "It's an accepting environment where it's OK to say, 'I'm struggling.'"

Today, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 chaplains are working with businesses, assisting employees through hard times with counseling, referrals and prayer. The winter holidays highlight the debate over whether religion should be relegated to after business hours or brought into the office to improve things like employee morale and job retention.

"We saw a trucking company turnover rate go from 118% in 2004 to 82% in 2005, when they started using chaplains," says Dwayne Reece, vice president of Corporate Chaplains of America, whose goal is to have 1,000 full-time chaplains serving more than 1 million employees by 2012. "So many personal problems lead people to change jobs, but this can be reduced when someone at the company helps them with the problem. Chaplains are trained to help people think through decisions that could help them stay with the company."

And it's not just Christian-focused companies that are offering a religious outlet. Ford Motor (nyse: F - news - people ), American Airlines (nyse: AMR - news - people ), Merrill Lynch (nyse: MER - news - people ), Texas Instruments (nyse: TXN - news - people ), NASCAR, Procter & Gamble (nyse: PG - news - people ), Hewlett-Packard (nyse: HPQ - news - people ), Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ), Coca-Cola (nyse: KO - news - people ), American Express (nyse: AXP - news - people ) and many others have either Bible study groups, religious affinity groups or Christian e-mail networks, or they have written religious and spiritual messages into their mission statements or codes of ethics.

"Companies are not waiting for a crisis to hit," Reece says. He adds that 60% to 70% of employees use chaplains within 12 months of their implementation at a company.

Mark Scott, vice president of marketing for HomeBanc (nyse: HMB - news - people ), attributes his company's low turnover (14%, versus the 20% industry average) to having corporate chaplains. "Our company surveys indicate chaplains are among the most popular benefits we offer," he says.

Companies pay for corporate chaplaincy based on the number of employees being served. Rates generally range from $9 to $11 per employee per month; the average company pays $12,000 per year. HomeBanc pays $150,000 per year, and Chairman and CEO Patrick Flood believes the benefits are worth the cost. "We had a 28-year-old associate die," Flood recalls. "His family came in from Colombia, and chaplains were there to help with everything from finding interpreters to helping family members with the grieving process."

Chaplain Chris Hobgood once met a HomeBanc employee at Starbucks (nasdaq: SBUX - news - people ) to discuss a problem. The employee hadn't contacted Hobgood through a toll-free assistance number or the HR department, but rather using a 24/7 voice data pager provided by Corporate Chaplains of America.

"I walk through the offices and build relationships with people, talking with them for 30 seconds to three minutes, setting up meetings outside of work to discuss issues further," Hobgood says. But the response to worship in the workplace and openly promoting religion in this way is not always positive. Even Hobgood acknowledges he's seen some negative resistance--especially in the beginning. "People say faith and the workplace have nothing in common," he says, "or, 'He's just here to beat you over the head with a Bible.' Over time, they see I'm there to help."

Denise Dorman, however, found her experience as a copywriter with an overtly Christian advertising agency in Chicago to be very demoralizing. "We had to read the Bible and pray before Monday meetings," she says. "The office manager, the CFO and I opted out, and the three of us felt we were always being watched. It actually turned me off religion." Dorman quit after 12 months.

"It inherently sets up an 'us versus them' dynamic among co-workers, as in, 'You either worship like we do or you're not one of us,'" warns Deah Curry, a holistic psychologist based in Washington state. "This is dangerous, in that it borders on psychological manipulation."

To know that you are welcome to express religious identity is powerful and can be a morale booster, says Douglas A. Hicks, associate professor of leadership studies and religion and director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond. "The downside is that it can marginalize minorities and those with no religion."

To get around this, Hicks, who is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church and author of Religion and the Workplace (Cambridge University Press, 2003), says companies can welcome "spirituality" into the workplace but not endorse specific religious content.

The first study to take an empirical look at religion, spirituality and values in the workplace, A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America by Ian Mitroff and Elizabeth Denton (Jossey-Bass,1999), concluded that many of today's problems are due to "spiritual impoverishment."

"Many people I spoke with desperately want to acknowledge their spirituality at work but are afraid to do so, because they don't want accusations of proselytizing," Mitroff explains.

Companies like Ford see religious affinity groups as a means of embracing the total employee, says Daniel Dunnigan, manager of worldwide volumes at Ford and chairman of the Ford Interfaith Network. "For many people," he says, "faith doesn't stop being important when they go to work."

A version of this story originally appeared in the December/January issue of Pink Magazine.

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