ENID, Okla. — Most days, Phillip Kenedy can be found walking the production floors, the hallways and break rooms of the Tyson Foods plants in Enid. He's a frequent presence among the food giant's employees here.

But, Kenedy is not a supervisor, inspector or food production worker. His mission is of a different sort — what he calls a "ministry of availability."

A retired ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, Kenedy is a relatively recent addition to a corps of more than 100 full- and part-time chaplains serving about 120,000 Tyson employees in 23 states.

After spending 35 years ministering in churches in Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma, Kenedy said his job now is to "walk the hallways, and get to know people."

"I can spend three to five minutes with a team member in the hallway, and then if they want, we can come into my office and pray together — if that's something they need," Kenedy said.

Kenedy launched Tyson's chaplain program on its Enid campus in February. Since then, he said it's been a process of introducing employees and supervisors to the notion of a large corporation providing pastoral services.

"It has been a surprise to some that Tyson would provide this level of care for the team members," Kenedy said. "I've had to explain what a chaplain is, and explain to people how I can be here to help them and pray with them. Overall, people have been very happy that we have a chaplain on staff."

Karen Diefendorf, Tyson Foods director of chaplain services, said the chaplaincy program may not seem like something a large corporation would do, but it is "the right thing to do, for the right reasons."

"We are in the business of taking care of our people," she said.

A retired Army chaplain, Diefendorf started working as a chaplain with Tyson Foods in Columbia, S.C., in 2015, and took over the company's chaplaincy program in 2017.

It makes sense, Diefendorf, for a company the size of Tyson to help employees work through personal concerns that might affect their productivity.

"When you have more than 120,000 employees around the world — that's the population of a small city," Diefendorf said. With a diverse population of that size, she said at any given time there's someone on the team dealing with grief, tragedy, depression or other challenges.

Many of those employees aren't Christian, or don't follow any faith tradition. But, Diefendorf said, the chaplains' job isn't to push one faith or denomination — it's to help the employees where they are.

"Our beliefs may vary, but it's our beliefs that help us cope with whatever life brings us, good or bad," she said. "Life comes with us through the door when we come to work, and you can't leave that in the parking lot."

She said the chaplaincy program has had an added benefit for Tyson, by improving employee retention.

"Folks want to know the company they work for cares about them as individuals," Diefendorf said, "and I think they see that in the chaplains."

Kenedy said he was drawn to the chaplaincy after he retired in 2018, because he wanted to offer people the same kind of "ministry of presence" that first made him a Christian.

Originally from Madill, Kenedy said he didn't become a Christian until he was 28, when his wife's pastor started visiting their home.

"The pastor would come out and visit every now and then, and we'd drink coffee," Kenedy said, "and as we talked about the Lord, I decided in March of 1980 I would become a Christian and get into the church."

An altar call in 1981 led to a call to ministry, and what has become a career in ministry approaching four decades.

Since starting the chaplaincy program in Enid in February, Kenedy said he's enjoyed getting to know the employees and their families, in a setting a congregational pastor may never see.

"You get to know people on a day-to-day basis," he said. "You get to know their families and what they are dealing with. It has been a very productive and fulfilling time — my ministry as a chaplain."

Confidentiality is key to the chaplaincy program, Kenedy said, so employees feel safe talking to the chaplain about personal issues, or even issues that could affect their job.

"Anybody who does talk to me for personal, family or medical issues, they need to feel safe coming to me," Kenedy said. "Confidentiality is right up there at the top for chaplains, and the Tyson company honors this confidentiality rule, so that makes the chaplain a safe place to talk about some of the most serious issues in their lives."

For employees who are members of congregations outside work, Kenedy said the chaplain provides another layer of care. But, for many employees, the chaplain at work may be the only clergy they meet in the course of their week.

Kenedy said it's not his job to proselytize, but rather to "work with that person of any faith tradition, or with people who do not have any faith background at all."

"They may not be Christian, they may not want to be Christian, but they may have problems that come up in their everyday lives they want to talk about," Kenedy said, "and we're here to help that person in any way we can, to help that person be more productive in themselves."

For those who do lean toward Christianity, Kenedy said he wants to provide the same relaxed approach his first pastor did 40 years ago, especially for those who feel uncomfortable in formal church settings.

"Being a pastor for 35 years, I see where people will not go to the front of the church and pray, or ask to become a Christian — that is a very difficult step for a lot of people to take," Kenedy said. "This is an outreach, really of the Kingdom of God, I think in the way Jesus did it. Jesus sat down with people, had a meal with them, and talked over the kitchen table, and that's where they became Christians."

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for James? Send an email to jneal@enidnews.com.

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