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Sal Biondolillo is familiar with the small chapel at the center of the Lynden Door campus. He has been with the door-making company since its very beginning in Lynden. (Calvin Bratt/Lynden Tribune)

Sal Biondolillo is sharing this unique concept in his semi-retirement 

LYNDEN ­— Sal Biondolillo is trying to pass on to others what it means to be a “marketplace chaplain.”

Biondolillo has now had 12 years of shaping and modeling this unique role for his employer, Lynden Door, after working a previous 23 years on the production floor, including sometimes as a production manager, for the major door manufacturing company.

Biondolillo, just turned 69, may be semi-retired at 30 hours per week, but he certainly remains busy working with those who have replaced him at the Lynden plant, as well as attempting to spread the word and explain this novel concept to others.

Lynden Door and its affiliate Alliance Door Products are a big operation in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada. The new lead chaplain, Jeff Karber, assistant Debra White and Sal offer support to about 1,000 workers in all.

Biondolillo acknowledges it is “quite a job” to build and keep up meaningful connection with so many people.

Karber already “calls the shots,” Biondolillo said, freeing up Sal to depart at some point “if God wants me to do something different.”

When he was asked by management to do this, Biondolillo considered what course he should take to accomplish this work. He realized that the heart of the matter was to build relationships with people and then to be willing to ask “how can I help you?” at the appropriate time.

Whatever that turned into would be up to the other person, but Biondolillo would provide a listening ear and be available as a helping friend.

“A lot of times, it’s just trying to find common ground in order to have a conversation with them and they’re comfortable talking with you,” he said.

From there, he tries to determine what issues in particular could be causing difficulty in a person’s life, and suggest a few positive first steps that could be taken toward solutions.

 

His personal story

While short in stature and softspoken by nature, Biondolillo projects a big capacity to be understanding and sympathetic, and he brings to the chaplain role a range of resources and life experiences.

Of Italian ancestry, he was raised in western New York. But young Sal had aspirations of far adventure — homesteading in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

He had only been at his destination town in the far northwest for three days and was sitting in front of a youth center when, as he tells it, two girls asked him boldly, “Is Jesus living in your heart?” That began a conversion for him in what it means to be a Christ follower. He came to faith shortly after and then for three years went to a Pentecostal Bible college in Canada, where the coursework included some instruction in counseling.

Sal and his wife Della, with three young children,  landed in Lynden in 1980. In all they would have six children who would go through the Lynden public schools. Sal began working for Lynden Door in 1980, a new company of 10 employees, and has witnessed its path of growth led by the Bargen family.

It’s important to him, and the company owners, that their Christian faith is not used “for gain ... to get more business,” Biondolillo said.

“A workplace chaplain needs to be respectful of anyone of another faith or no faith, with the thought that there is a potential for me to make a contribution in their life, no matter who they are, in some way,” he said.

  

How it works

How does he go about this?

When a person is hired at Lynden Door, time with one of the chaplains is part of the orientation. From then on, the chaplain seeks to make contact from time to time with all employees, whether that is on the work floor or in another encounter.

The opening question can often be just “how are you doing?” Then perhaps, if something arises, “do you want to talk about it more?”

And the chaplain is on his or her way toward carefully identifying the source of a hurt in the worker’s life, whether it be at home, or financial, or medical, or a fear or addiction of some sort. 

“The whole idea is to get to know their problem ... the thing bothering them,” he said.

Biondolillo has many stories to tell, without names, to illustrate the types of things he has been able to help people out with in their lives.

It can lead beyond the workplace to visits at their homes, hospitals, jails, hospice. He has been called into situations where at first he wasn’t sure how he should respond. After praying for guidance, he finds that “I never feel that I have nothing to say. God always gives me the words to speak.”

He wants to first “arrest the downward spiral” of a situation and then, with the other person, identify “the first steps of resolving” the problem, he said.

Resources for himself, or to refer others on to, have been the Bible, books, videos, a marriage conference, a treatment center or an outside counselor.

A company chaplain should have a voice with management or owners as well, helping to hold up the values that a company claims to operate by, such as safety, quality of work, concern for the employees themselves, and the need for profit. These become the “filters” through which decisions and any new product or project should pass.

The chaplain can be a prompt for a discussion of “hard stuff” that may need to happen within an organization. “If I hear there is a problem, I need to do whatever I can to get it addressed,” he said.

Biondolillo said he has come to see two dangers in being a chaplain: 1) being  too bold and reckless, “inviting negative feedback”; and 2) being too hesitant and “hanging out in the middle.” For the second, he relies upon the Biblical encouragement to not be afraid to follow God’s leading in every situation.

 

The bigger picture

When he looks around, Biodolillo sees the presence of a chaplain in many organizations that may not be religious in their main purpose: professional sports teams, hospitals, airports, the military, fire and police departments, prisons, U.S. Senate. 

Also, big companies like Coca-Cola and Tyson Foods have chaplains.

“Somehow they recognize that their people need more than they can provide,” he summarizes.

Biondolillo said he is ready and willing to meet with any company that may be interested in the idea of a workplace chaplain or workplace chaplaincy program. Can this succeed even in the midst COVID? Yes, he insists, it continues to be needed. “If ever, it’s now.”

He is willing to be involved in establishing such an employee support system, free of charge, with any business that would like his help, which could include finding and training a chaplain.

Noting Marketplace Chaplains (www.mchapusa.com) as a source, Biondolillo says, “There are two primary methods by which companies can provide this service: independently, as modeled by Lynden Door, or by making use of a contracting agency such as Marketplace Chaplains, which has over 1,700 chaplains serving in companies throughout North America.”

He has put together a manual of purpose, guidelines and training from his years of experience.

The whole point is to be sure that in a workplace the workers have “someone to talk to” and they can feel that someone truly cares about them.

More workplace chaplains are needed. Biondolillo recommends the Marketplace Chaplaincy website as a place to start.

In addition, some years ago, Lynden Door created a little chapel building sitting in the middle of the campus for anyone to use. Now it has become a model that the Technic Center — for high school students learning construction skills — can replicate so that little chapels like this one can be loaded onto a flatbed trailer and hauled anywhere: schools, churches, municipalities, hospitals, work camps, businesses.

Biondolillo also is one of four lay co-pastors of the Amor Viviente Spanish-speaking church of Lynden.

He can be reached at Sal.Biondolillo@lyndendoor.com and 360-354-5676.