Once a week, Scott Andrew, a graying, bespectacled minister, makes his rounds at Thulman Eastern Corp.'s operations in Ellicott City and Elkridge.
"Hi, how are you?" he asks employees, circulating among their gray cubicle workstations. "Hi, have I met you?"
As industrial chaplain for Thulman Eastern, a 35-year-old distributor of factory-built fireplaces, Mr. Andrew is paid to chat three hours a week with the 60 employees and provide on-the-job spiritual and emotional counseling to those who want it.
If necessary, he'll even make referrals for employees who are substance abusers.
"It's providing a spiritual presence in the workplace," said the 43-year-old Silver Spring resident, who served 10 years as a U.S. Army chaplain and is a chaplain in the Army Reserves. "A lot of people seem to need that."
Mr. Andrew is one of an estimated 3,000 part- or full-time industrial chaplains active in more than 1,000 American work sites, according to the Rev. Diana C. Dale, president of Houston-based National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains.
And he is a rarity in Maryland, where the idea of a chaplain working in a traditional business or industrial setting apparently has yet to catch on.
"I'm not aware of any others," said Gene Bracken, director of communications for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "I think it's a great idea."
Traditionally, institutions such as police and fire departments and hospitals have had chaplains to counsel employees and the public, particularly in stressful situations.
There also are chaplains in Maryland working with truckers and with seafarers. Now, private companies across the country are hiring or contracting with industrial chaplains out of concern for the emotional and spiritual health of their employees, Ms. Dale said.
Workers need to feel they can talk to someone they can trust when they are "stressed to the max," said Ms. Dale, who added that such services can help boost productivity.
Such programs are in the clear legally, so long as the chaplain provides services on a nondiscriminatory basis, said Henry Ford, deputy director for the Maryland Commission on Human Relations.
"Problems only come if someone were made to see the chaplain and objected to it on a religious basis, or in some way the chaplain tried to force his own religious views on employees, with the employer's backing," he said.
Workplace ministry in this country dates back to the 1640s, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony stipulated that religious instruction be provided to people who worked Sundays or in remote locations, Ms. Dale said.
Contemporary industrial chaplains began when industrialist R. G. LeTourneau provided "shop meetings," or worship and counseling services, for his field crews working on the Hoover Dam in the 1930s.
Over the years, such programs have evolved to take into account religious diversity in the workplace.
R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Winston-Salem, N.C., began an industrial chaplain program in 1949, hiring a military chaplain to counsel employees. That program gradually has taken on the role of an employee assistance and counseling program, said Henry S. Lewis Jr., one of two ordained ministers who work with R. J. Reynolds employees in North Carolina.
Companies with such programs are saying, in effect, "We're concerned about you as a total person," said Mr. Lewis. "It's been successful. . . . We've been here for 40 years. That's success!"
Locally, Mr. Andrew sees his role in a similar way, as much counselor as man of the cloth.
"We're not trying to cram religion down their throats," said the trained counselor and minister, a Southern Baptist. "We're not trying to convert anyone to be Baptists."
Mr. Andrew is the sole member of the Chaplains Service #F Association, which he began in October as a way of reaching out to local workers. The organization is supported by the Howard County Baptist Association, and Mr. Andrew would like to expand to 10 or more members.
"We're trying to meet the total needs of people in the community," said William O. Crowe, director of missions for the 20-year-old Baptist group.
Thulman Eastern, which is based in Elkridge and had about $35 million in sales last year, agreed to become the group's first client at the invitation of Mr. Crowe, who knows the company's owner and president, Philip Mercer. "I liked it," Mr. Mercer said of the chaplain concept.
Although his company already provides financial investment opportunities and health and medical insurance for employees, "we never really spent a lot of time on spiritual issues," he said. "I think it's good for business, to be really candid."
Workers utilize the chaplain's services on a strictly voluntary basis, Mr. Mercer stressed. "We're not trying to spy on anyone."
In Mr. Mercer's view, the costs of Mr. Andrew's contract are minimal -- $40 per hour for a weekly total of $120 -- for what he sees as a valuable program. "It's a very insignificant amount of money" to provide for the employees, Mr. Mercer said, calling them "valuable assets."
During a recent visit to Thulman Eastern's Elkridge office, Mr. Andrew, who wears a badge that says, "Chaplain," shook workers' hands, and chatted, taking care not to interrupt their work.
"It's a ministry of presence," he said.
Employees appear comfortable with Mr. Andrew.
"Sometimes when Scott comes in I'm really harried, but he makes me stop," said Carolyn Crittenden, an order entry worker. "Sometimes you need to do that."
Kathy Fatula, another order entry worker, interjected: "He makes us watch our language."
Inside the company's cold warehouse, warehousemen George Wareheim and Mike Thomas said they had never heard of an industrial chaplain before, but think he could be good for morale.
"He does bring doughnuts," Mr. Wareheim laughed.