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Chaplaincy effort grows at Tyson over 15 years

Chaplaincy effort grows at Tyson over 15 years


DAKOTA DUNES | Not every worker can share a personal problem with a supervisor.

Not every employee has a support network at home.

For these reasons -- and more -- Tyson Foods some 15 years ago established a chaplaincy program, one that now features 96 chaplains moving among the company's 113,000 employees.

Mike Tarvin, director of Tyson's Chaplain Services program, visited the company's offices this week at Dakota Dunes to share his thoughts on the role of a chaplain serving a world leader in meat production.

"Three years ago I had no idea that Tyson Foods had a chaplaincy program," Tarvin said.

Three years ago, Tarvin was closing the book on a 35-year career in the U.S. Army, a career spent going from Ranger and Airborne School to tours as a chaplain in countries such as Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany. Tarvin, then 57, was about to enter the workforce as a chaplain serving a hospital in Houston, Texas, when a corporate recruiter approached him, talking up Tyson's chaplaincy initiative.

"It began with five to 10 chaplains across the company 15 years ago," Tarvin said. "Now, there are nearly 100."

John Tyson, the chairman serving Tyson Fresh Meats, noted that it was unrealistic for an employee to check his or her religious or spiritual side at the door once the work week began.

Additionally, Tyson officials noted a trend in various employee assistance programs, the kinds that companies attach to their websites, listing a number or an email address for those who seek help.

"I think we found that 3 to 6 percent of the U.S. workforce will utilized an EAP (employee assistance program)," Tarvin said.

"At Tyson, our chaplains have 113,000 employees, and our chaplains last year saw 149,000 team members for a significant event," Tarvin said. "Sixty percent of our team members utilize a chaplain's care."

That care may range from a shoulder to lean on to a person with whom to pray. A Tyson employee may be having marital troubles or issues with a child at home.

It might also be something as practical, or vexing, as finding a ride to work. Enter, the chaplain.

"We had team members from the Marshallese Islands who were having a hard time finding a way to get to work in Springdale, Arkansas," Tarvin said. "Some of them were walking a couple of miles to work."

After communicating with the chaplain in Springdale, calls were made to city leaders there. In short order, four bus routes were added where needed. Problem solved.

"We also had one chaplain who drove a team member to the hospital," Tarvin said. "The team member was going into labor."

Chaplains serving Tyson Foods are required to move among workers on the production floor. They don a helmet with a cross on its front.

"A worker may ask to see the chaplain during a break," said Tarvin, who was raised in Ohio and spent time as a young adult working in a steel mill.

In his long U.S. Army career, Tarvin said he met soldiers of many different faiths, the same broad spectrum he and his chaplains encounter daily while serving one of the world's largest food processors.

"We go to great lengths to practice a faith-friendly environment," he said, noting how Tyson chaplains do not impose their faith on anyone, but rather seek to be of help to those who are open to assistance.

As a bonus, 43 percent of the chaplains serving Tyson Foods speak a second language. The total, Tarvin said, comes to something like 13 or 14 different languages spoken by those serving in this capacity.

"As you know, many employees might be immigrants or even refugees," Tarvin said, addressing the necessity of knowing other languages. "I guess I try to put myself in their shoes."

The work, he concluded, continues to make a difference.

"I've been impressed at how beneficial this is for our team members," he said.


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