First corporate chaplain west of Mississippi River recalls nearly 65 years of ministry
FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – Whether described as baggage, drama, problems or issues, employees in corporations around the nation often hear, “leave it at the door.” In all reality though, the problems employees face in their personal lives do affect their work.
Arkansas pastor Dean Newberry realized those employees needed Christ but knew not many of them came to church to seek Him out. A United States Air Force veteran and an alumnus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Newberry began to feel a burden for those employees and a call from the Lord to minister to them.
“In 1975, I became concerned that at that time, 95 percent of religious work was done within the four walls of the church, and, yet, less than 50 percent of American people acknowledged an identification with any particular church,” said Newberry, who had been pastoring in local churches for 29 years at that point.
After some research and prayer, Newberry said he received his “marching orders” from God in Mark 6:31-44, where Jesus ministers to the people out of compassion, teaches them and meets their needs. With his direction from the Lord in hand, Newberry contacted James Hudson, president of Hudson Foods Inc. in Springdale, Ark.—which later became Tyson Foods Inc.—and discussed with him the possibility of joining the Hudson team to serve as the company chaplain.
Ten days later, Hudson hired Newberry for the position—a decision that helped to pioneer the marketplace chaplaincy field. No longer would employees at Hudson be among the millions of workers admonished to leave their “problems” at the door. Instead, they would have access to a chaplain who could help them sort through the difficulties and joys of life and the inevitable effect those situations had on their work. As part of the new chaplaincy program, Hudson and Newberry constructed a chaplaincy mission statement, which The Morning News of Northwestern Arkansas published in a July 30, 1995, article about the chaplaincy program at the poultry plant.
“In keeping with the company’s emphasis upon human values and recognizing that our associates’ work environment is impacted by their home life, mental, emotional and spiritual health, the chaplain shall provide a ministry of pastoral visitation, care and counseling to our associates and their families, regardless of their religious affiliation or beliefs,” the mission statement read.
Newberry’s successor, Alan Tyson, a Southwestern alumnus of no relation to Tyson Foods’ namesake, described the position in the same Morning News article as “wandering around” hospitals, homes and plants, getting to know employees and being available to help however they can.
Although a handful of corporate chaplaincy programs existed in the East, Hudson’s invitation to Newberry to join the company made Newberry the first corporate chaplain west of the Mississippi River. During the next 17 years, as Newberry developed and implemented the chaplaincy program at the poultry plant, he became affectionately known as the “Chicken Chaplain.”
Two years after he accepted the role of chaplain at the growing Hudson Foods, Southwestern invited Newberry to speak in chapel and to guest-teach in a chaplaincy course. Newberry, who completed his seminary degree in 1953, felt honored and privileged to encourage the students who sat in the same place he had more than two decades earlier. He realized his degree armed him with the knowledge and tools needed to follow God everywhere He would send him.
“My Master of Divinity studies prepared me spiritually as a minister of the Gospel, and my religious education classes prepared me to spread the Gospel both in the pastorate and in the chaplaincy,” Newberry said.
When he guest-taught in the chaplaincy class with now-retired professor of pastoral ministry Gerald Marsh, Newberry said he, too, was encouraged.
“When I asked [Marsh] if he could recommend to me a book on industrial chaplaincy, he replied, ‘Yes, I can: The New Testament,’” Newberry recalled. “I needed to hear those words. After all, if our marching order can’t be found in the New Testament, we shouldn’t be marching in that direction.”
With that reminder, Newberry continued to march on, serving in his chaplaincy position for nearly two decades. In 1992, Newberry retired from chaplaincy and returned to the pulpit once again, leading as an interim and then a full-time senior pastor until 2005. Over a span of three decades, Newberry also served as president of the Arkansas Board of Baptists, as an executive board member of Midwestern Baptist Seminary and as chairman of the development committee at Midwestern.
In 1996, Newberry celebrated 50 years of ministry, having been first ordained to the Gospel ministry in 1946, just after graduating from Ouachita Baptist University. The late Adrian Rogers, the then-pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., where one of Newberry’s three sons, Phil, still serves on staff, sent a note of thanks and encouragement to Newberry for five decades of service to the Lord. But Newberry was still not finished with ministry.
In 2003, in the midst of his service in the local church, Newberry began serving as a volunteer chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital (now known as Mercy Hospital of Norwest Arkansas) in Rogers, Ark.
“My days as a volunteer chaplain began at 5 a.m., as my assignment was to minister to those going in for outpatient surgery,” Newberry said. “Being able to touch a large number of people each year and to bring them comfort, hope and peace before a critical time in their lives has been a rich blessing from God.”
Pierce McIntyre, a Southwestern alumnus who also serves as a chaplain at the hospital, says the patients Newberry encountered indeed saw him as a blessing.
“He continues to have an impact, not only while he volunteered here. Even today, he was recognized this morning at a board of trustees meeting at our hospital for his years of service here as well,” McIntyre said in a July 25 interview. “He continues to have an influence in the community. Patients at the hospital really appreciated the consistency of having Dean there when they came in, to pray for them.”
During his eight years of service at the hospital, Newberry ministered to about 6,000 people each year.
“The response from patients, family and friends has been overwhelming,” Newberry said of his volunteer service. “I have been paid well for my efforts.”
Though health matters led Newberry to resign from the volunteer chaplaincy in December 2011, Newberry says he continues to pray for chaplaincy staff and hopes his experiences can offer encouragement to students who have felt the same call on their lives that he received many years ago.
“If you have the Lord as your personal Savior, then you have everything, no matter ill or well, rich or poor, average or very successful in your efforts,” Newberry said. “Always remember that you are touching lives, whatever your position of ministry that God provides.”