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Circuit-Riding Clergy Still Serve America's Communities

Clergymen and women called chaplains are assigned to many American military units. Chaplains are also on call as spiritual advisers to police and fire departments, sports teams, and legislative bodies like the U.S. House of Representatives. And these days, thousands more men and women of God operate a bit like circuit preachers of old who traveled from town to town in horse-drawn wagons. But their stops are at workplaces like factories and offices.

At a plant that manufactures industrial lubricants near Dallas, Texas, for instance, a chaplain drops in once a week to offer employees emotional and spiritual counseling. The company's chief executive officer calls it "a nice pressure-relief valve" for the staff. He says the employee turnover rate has gone down, and his workers are happier. Another company president has said visiting clergy help diffuse on-the-job tensions that, if allowed to escalate, can lead to job-rage violence.

A company called Marketplace Ministries sends about 1600 Protestant chaplains into worksites in 36 states. If employees say they would be more comfortable with a Catholic or Buddhist priest, a Jewish rabbi, or a Muslim imam, Marketplace Ministries will find one. Its founder, Gil Stricklin, points out that more than half the population has no regular clergyman or woman. But, as he puts it, "people still die, get sick, want to get married, or have problems."

Marketplace Ministries' chaplains, all of whom have real-world work experience outside houses of worship, carry electronic pagers and are on call every day, 24 hours a day. They log more than 2,000 emergency phone calls each year. On their circuit, the dress is casual, and no sermons need to be written. The visiting clergyman or woman fills a common need at workplaces across America for someone who's a caring listener.