Nate Schroder has served as a pastor for most of the last 30 years, but he always considered himself an entrepreneur at heart.
Now, he’s found a way to combine his spiritual calling with a chance to be in business for himself — all rolled into the role of corporate chaplain.
Corporate chaplains have been around for more than 50 years, strengthened by a portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace. Changes to labor laws in 1972 also included requirements that employers make religious accommodations for employees if they do not substantially interfere with business. By the late 1980s, several national organizations had sprung up to provide chaplains and their counseling services throughout the American business scene.
In recent years, as businesses look at ways to cut costs, some have turned to corporate chaplains as an alternative to more traditional employee assistance programs.
Still, until last summer, Schroder had no idea what a corporate chaplain was. Then one of his friends, Joel Nelson, who had been a Christian Missionary Alliance pastor for more than 25 years, began working as a corporate chaplain for Sportech, a motorcycle and snowmobile parts manufacturer in Elk River.
“The more he told me about it, the more I thought, ‘This is for me,'” said Schroder, who was pastor at Discovery Church in St. Cloud for eight years and most recently worked for St. Cloud Children’s Home and Catholic Charities. “I did some research, went on the Internet and tried to answer the question: What is this beast? Too many churches wait for people to come through the doors. With this business I get to go out and meet people on their own turf.”
A few e-mails led him to Boe Parrish, president and co-founder of Corporate Care Inc. Eventually, Schroder decided to launch Corporate Care Services using Parrish’s materials and business model.
“We’ve grown our business by basically giving away franchises,” said Parrish, a former executive with Sprint Communications who runs Corporate Care in Edmond, Okla. “We don’t exactly want competition right here in Oklahoma, but anywhere else in the country is fantastic. We want the concept to grow — not because it’s our business. It’s the Lord’s business. Nate can use all our materials and resources and he doesn’t pay us a cent, unless he should outsource some business to us in Oklahoma.”
Schroder grew up in Moorhead, earned a degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota-Crookston, and went into the fruit and produce business. Later, however, he felt the pull to seminary and went to Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Ore. He spent five years as a pastor in Oregon and another 15 in Iowa before returning to Minnesota.
He started his business in January and is continuing to build contacts and clients.
“A lot of people, when they hear the term chaplain, they think it’s specifically religious,” Schroder said. “In the corporate world, you’re really like three people rolled into one. You’re a counselor and a life coach in addition to being a pastor.”
Schroder, who has been married for 35 years and has four children, said many of the issues he’ll deal with as a corporate chaplain are the same he faced from the pulpit. If his own training in marital and crisis counseling isn’t enough, he engages a network of other trained professionals.
“You might have employees dealing with suicidal thinking, or marriages blowing up,” Schroder said. “You could have an employee who is missing a lot of work and, when you dig down deep enough, you find that person is having trouble finding suitable day care. In my role, I might be able to find a couple of alternatives that not only make that employee more productive but it gains loyalty from them for the company for having someone reach out and help them.”
Schroder visits employees on the job one day a week at a specified time that is least disruptive to work flow. In some cases, his contact might be a simple hello or some brief conversation. But he strives to touch base with every employee every week, except those who choose to avoid contact.
It doesn’t end there. He’s available, 24 hours a day and seven days a week to provide employees with support during crises.
Schroder is quick to point out that, while his business is faith-based, it isn’t faith-promoting. He helps employees try to solve personal and professional issues. All interaction is voluntary and confidential. The goal is to reduce stress, improve morale, increase loyalty and promote productivity.
“Some people aren’t so excited about the church coming to them,” Schroder said. “We don’t come in and pound on that. My main goal is to help with their immediate physical and emotional needs. It might be as simple as their car is always breaking down and I know a good mechanic who isn’t going to charge a lot, does a great job and gets you in and out. If that helps, great. If the employee wants to go deeper (into spirituality), we’ll go as far as they want.”
Clients big and small
General Motors, Ford, Coca-Cola and Tyson Foods are among the major companies that have chaplains. Parrish said GM and Ford have studied the results and found a $9 return for every $1 invested in the program.
Steve Trice, CEO of Jasco Products in Oklahoma City, has used Parrish’s services for 15 years.
“He’s done funerals and weddings right in our plant for those people who don’t have a church but wanted that sort of thing,” said Trice, whose business provides General Electric components to companies like Target. “We also have an EAP, but (a corporate chaplain) can do things other services can’t provide. I don’t know how to measure the impact. But our turnover is next to nothing. We’re a good place to work, and that has an effect on our bottom line.”
David Howell, CEO of Ace Moving & Storage, is another Oklahoma client who doesn’t have an employee assistance program.
“Most employees aren’t going to be too excited about walking up to their boss and talking about their trouble with their wife or their teen or whatever,” said Howell, who has used the service for five years. “I can tell you, this is the last benefit we’ll ever eliminate because it meets so many human needs.”
While many businesses have an EAP, fewer than 10% of employees use them according to Corporate Care statistics. Schroder says the cost of a corporate chaplain program, which varies depending on the size of a company, is usually much less than an EAP. According to a recent story in Forbes magazine, the cost of having a corporate chaplain can be less than $10 per employee per month.
“A corporate chaplain is making regular contact, developing relationships — not just when there’s a crisis,” Schroder said. “That’s why you’re going to get a lot more people who use them when they need to.”
Parrish said that when he started in 1987, it took him a year to get his first client. So Schroder already is ahead of the game.
“Any reticence I’ve experienced I believe is a sign that the economy isn’t looking great yet,” Schroder said. “The way things are today, even if you hate your job you don’t want to lose it. That creates stress that people take home. It’s a vicious cycle. Hopefully, I can help some people break it.”