Religion & Liberty Online

Commercializing Chaplaincy

I thought this piece in BusinessWeek last month from Mark Oppenheimer was very well done, “The Rise of the Corporate Chaplain.” I think it profiles an important and under-appreciated phenomenon in the American commercial sphere. One side of the picture is that this is a laudable development, since it shows that employers are increasingly aware that their employees are not merely meat machines, automata whose value is only to be calculated in terms of material concerns, and that spiritual matters cannot simply be ignored or factored in as a variable included in the cost of doing business.

But this rise in corporate chaplaincy also reminds me of the comment by Walter Rauschenbusch (noted in this recent article from Hunter Baker) that “business life is the unregenerate section of our social order.”

If by some magic it could be plucked out of our total social life in all its raw selfishness, and isolated on an island, unmitigated by any other factors of our life, that island would immediately become the object of a great foreign mission crusade for all Christendom.

The rise in corporate chaplaincy may not substantiate Rauschenbusch’s skepticism, but I think that Oppenheimer also has an appropriate element of critical insight, in that he points to one of the potential conflicts of interests facing corporate chaplains. They are, after all, on the payroll of the employer and as Oppenheimer writes,

Ministers are supposed to have only one boss: God. When their paychecks come from a company, even indirectly through a nonprofit agency, their loyalties are bound to be conflicted. The bosses hire chaplains to make employees feel better, but what if an employee is underpaid or overworked? What would Jesus do?

At the same time, I don’t think cynicism about the validity of corporate chaplaincy is warranted. It’s not simply a case of Christianity absolutely conforming itself to the desires of business, of commercializing chaplaincy. Even so, speaking of Marketplace Chaplains USA, the nation’s largest provider of corporate chaplains, Oppenheimer writes, “its Christianity fits comfortably with the needs of business.”

There are certainly dangers, even if they are just a new form of the age-old problem facing those who proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, prophets from of old have been tempted to tell their hearers what they want to hear rather than what God wants them to say, especially when there is a particularly hard truth that must be spoken. Chaplains, like pastors, cannot simply become the tools of either corporation or state (or the broader culture).

There’s a sense in which pastors of local congregations face this tension every week. How do you proclaim a word of challenge and rebuke of sin to a congregation of sinful people? Sometimes that means pastors get fired, and there are obviously better and worse ways of being prophetic in the sense of interpreting and applying God’s law to the contemporary world.

In any case, the whole piece by Oppenheimer is worth reading and I commend it to you.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.