Chaplains rush in to aid workers caught in market meltdown

As the market mayhem continues to rock Wall Street, dazed employees in the financial sector who have lost their faith in the economy are turning to religious leaders for guidance.

"People who still have their jobs are asking, 'Am I next?' They are much less certain of their place in their company and in the world," said Mary Ragan, a psychologist at the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute in New York.

Houses of worship in New York City are providing programs to help employees manage the stress of the market meltdown, including immediate counseling, job training and long-term direction for those who still have jobs but aren't sure for how long.

Ragan will be leading sessions at a high-profile Episcopal parish, Trinity Wall Street, on "Coping With Stress in Uncertain Times," which was started just as the market started to convulse. David Jette of Trinity Wall Street said registrations have already doubled.

The church said it plans to reach out over the next several months with not only personal counseling but also job coaching to help people prepare for what Ragan called "the ripple effect."

"The meltdown on Wall Street is very new, and it will take some time for people to feel the effects of what this really means," Ragan said. "They are wondering about the secondary consequences. Every area of the economy is affected."

Michael Bedarski, a career coach at Ragan's institute, will hold a seminar called "Navigating Career Transitions," which Ragan said has mushroomed in size because people "fear the unknown and are looking for practical solutions" alongside spiritual guidance.

Rabbis who have already been working with high-power executives on Wall Street held emergency sessions for executives and employees.

"People came and expressed the feeling of stress that goes along with uncertainty," said Rabbi Henry Harris, who offers regular counseling to the financial sector through the Jewish outreach agency Aish.

Many attendees at the emergency sessions were entry-level employees worried about keeping their jobs and paying their bills. "It was an opportunity for them to talk back," Harris said said.

The turmoil in the markets has raised many questions about the ethics and morals of big business. Gil Stricklin, founder of Marketplace Chaplains USA, said business chaplains could have helped in this situation.

"We set a moral tone for big business. They need someone there who is holding up that flag of morals," said Stricklin, whose company does not employ chaplains on Wall Street, but now wonders if that might have helped.

"Even if the business executives don't believe in prayer, they want someone around them who believes in prayer and will pray for them," Stricklin said.

Because New York's economy is directly linked to the financial industry, any decline in lower Manhattan has ripple effects across the region, said Fr. James Martin, associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America.

"I've already met people from outside the parish who are terrified," said Martin, who regularly preaches at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on New York's Upper East Side.

Before his ordination as a Catholic priest, Martin worked in corporate finance with General Electric, and said the blame for the market woes is spread far and wide.

"It's more a symptom of environments where people seem much more interested in making money than in making sensible decisions," he said.

Top-level executives made "obscene amounts of money making bad investments," he said, and there were no incentives not to continue. Institutions foolishly took unreasonable risks and CEOs were blinded by unbridled greed.

"They were carried away by greed and that trumped rational responsibility," he said. "They should have known better."

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