Gil A. Stricklin, the founder, chairman, and ceo of a provider of chaplain services to public and private businesses, grew up in a railroad family. So when he saw a newspaper story about a fatal accident involving Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., he wrote a “cold-call” letter to BNSF honcho Matthew Rose, telling Rose that he needed Stricklin’s services.

Rose agreed and Stricklin started Railroad Chaplains of America, with BNSF as its first client. Thus was born the newest division of Stricklin’s 25-year-old Marketplace Ministries Inc.—a 501(c)3 group that offers outsourced chaplains to more than 410 companies with 130,000 employees in 44 states.
To date, RCA has offered on-the-spot assistance to more than 270 families whose members have been killed or critically injured in rail-related accidents. The chaplains are dispatched immediately after the mishaps to help with the likes of hospital visits or counseling.

Dallas-based Marketplace Ministries offers similar services—and much more—to a variety of companies in a range of industries. Among them are Pilgrim’s Pride, the Pittsburg-based chicken purveyor; David Weekley Homes, the Houston-based homebuilder; and Austaco Ltd., a privately owned Taco Bell franchisee with more than 75 stores in Texas.

Companies like these provide the Marketplace services as a unique employee benefit, paying Marketplace anywhere from $4.35 to $9.75 per employee per month, depending on the company’s size. (Larger firms enjoy lower rates.) Marketplace’s “caregivers” are available 24/7 to help with individual or family crises including sensitive personal problems and workplace issues—or more routine tasks like presiding over weddings and funerals.

With about 40 administrative staffers and 2,500 chaplains representing 81 denominations, Marketplace was modeled after the chaplaincy of the U.S. Army. That’s no coincidence, since Stricklin is a retired Army chaplain who says he simply “took the concept of caring for our soldiers and moved it into corporate America.”

He founded the nonprofit in 1984 with one chaplain (himself) and one client (Dallas’ Bonneaux Cos.) with 150 employees. Today Marketplace Ministries has four divisions, including the relatively new railroad unit, and an annual budget of $13.5 million.

“We are a service organization that does pastoral care,” Stricklin says. “We’re not going to judge or harass you.” Marketplace chaplains like those assigned to the RCA division are invaluable, he adds, not least because rail accidents take the lives of approximately 700 people annually. “I don’t know of any HR department that will be there holding the hand of a mom and dad at 3 a.m. after their son has died,” Stricklin says.