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CEO-turned-chaplain maintains focus on workplace ministry

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–A former president and CEO of one of the fastest-growing companies in the country, Mark Cress seemed to own a patent on how to succeed in the business world.
Cress’ company, Success Stories Inc., grew 1,400 percent in five years placing 137th on the 1993 Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing companies.
Cress started and operated three other successful companies before enrolling full time at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in January 1994.
So what is his formula for success? “You can have ministry in the workplace,” he said. “It’s in God’s hands and it’s in God’s timing. God owns everything. There are 12 million businesses in the U.S. They belong to God.”
Banking on those convictions more faithfully than collaterally, Cress began his new ministry — in corporate chaplaincy — in April 1996, a month before he graduated from the Wake Forest, N.C., seminary with a master of divinity degree.
Inner Active Ministries, a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization based in Raleigh, N.C., currently serves eight area companies representing 3,700 employees. Cress and partner Steve Steff, a Southeastern student pursuing a master of theology degree, direct a staff of four who visit the employees weekly.
As a corporate chaplain, Cress operates under the same guidelines similar to those of military chaplains. Although he approaches each situation from a Christian perspective, Cress must be sensitive to opposing beliefs he encounters in the cross-denominational, nonsectarian workplace.
In December, the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, now the North American Mission Board, endorsed Cress’ ministry as an industrial chaplaincy agency. Within the next year, Cress predicts, Inner Active Ministries will be serving 10,000 employees. Over the next 10 years, Cress said, his organization could be ministering to more than 1 million workers throughout the country. To do that, he said, he will eventually need 2,500 chaplains.
Cress, 40, a member of Wake Crossroads Baptist Church in Raleigh, said his background in business made corporate chaplaincy a “natural fit.”
“Every business owner’s primary challenge is with employees,” Cress said. “The best way you can minister to a business owner is to minister to his employees.”
Working through companies’ employee assistance programs, Cress and Steff are called in to help businesses and corporations tackle problems such as low productivity caused by employee absenteeism and low morale.
Reminiscent of his days as the CEO of a thriving television production company in Richmond, Va., Cress is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are late-night calls from employees who have contemplated suicide, been hospitalized or jailed, or lost a family member to death. He has helped track down missing employees and transported others to court or their probation officers.
“That gives me an opportunity to witness away from the work site,” he said.
Cress, recipient of the 1996 John H. Clifford Evangelism Award at Southeastern, said the opportunities for marketplace ministry are astounding.
“I try to combat the fact that religion will fail people, but Christ will never fail them,” Cress said. “Seven out of 10 people that I come in contact with in the workplace are totally unchurched.”
Dressed in khakis and a knit shirt equipped with a pager on his hip, Cress, an ordained minister, doesn’t look the part of a pastor, but for most of the employees he encounters he will be as close as they get to one. “They realize over time, I’m OK, I’m a friend. There’s a relational aspect that builds over time and when something happens they can trust the word that I give them from the Scriptures,” he said.
Cress said whomever he encounters, whether in a warehouse, truck terminal, office, body shop, junkyard or hospital, is in some state of crisis.
“Every person I come in contact with … has either just finished a crisis, or is in the middle of a crisis, or is getting ready to have a crisis,” he said. “That includes everybody because we live in a fallen world. I am able to share Christ at that point of crisis. Our first year in operation, we had 24 people accept Christ as Savior in the workplace. Many were at a point of crisis.”
J. Price, owner of an auto parts store and body shop in Knightdale, N.C., and Raleigh respectively, is one of Cress’ clients with about 30 employees. “He (Cress) doesn’t go right in and push himself on employees,” Price said. “He lets them build a little confidence in him and lets them come to him with their problems. I can see where it’s helped a great deal.”
Cress and Steff are quick to point out that their primary role is that of a pastoral caregiver, not a counselor. If a problem arises requiring extensive treatment, such as a drug addiction, they will refer employees to specialists.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I am not standing at somebody’s workstation and I’m asking the Lord to give me the right thing to say to that person,” Cress said. “I’m not hanging myself out as an expert, but I do have an expert embedded in my heart.”
Cress said he has never regretted his decision to walk away from a financially rewarding career in the business world even though his successful business in Richmond closed shortly after he sold the company.
Before enrolling at Southeastern, Cress had sold his majority stake in the business to his employees in a leveraged buyout. He put all of the proceeds of the sale down as collateral so his former employees could get the loan necessary to buy the company.
When the company closed, however, Cress was stuck with covering the company’s debt, costing him the profits enjoyed from a unusually successful venture.
“I just say, ‘God, let me be what you want me to be, and do what you want me to do, and go where you want me to go,'” Cress said.

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  • Lee Weeks