Before John Emmart took up the mantle of chief human resources officer at healthcare organization Phelps Health, he felt the call to ministry. “I assumed I was going to be a parish pastor,” he says, but instead he found himself working as a hospital chaplain, before eventually transitioning to work in HR. It’s a calling that has informed his career in both the sacred and secular realms, and his dedication to people and outcomes plays heavily into Phelps’ people strategy and employee engagement initiatives.
Emmart’s early life was marked by tragedies, but ones that heavily inform his dedication to caring for people. On his twenty-first birthday, he learned that his father was dying of cancer, and passed shortly thereafter; his mother fell terminally ill not long after that, leading him to put a pause on school so he could go home and care for her. Later, he would lose a brother and sister to cancer—all of these were profound shaping experiences for him.
But Emmart also sees these experiences through the lens of one of his favorite comic book characters: Batman, a boy shaped into a force for good by family tragedy. “What happens in our lives shapes us and makes us who we are,” he says. In many ways, experiencing such close loss has driven his life choices, both as a man of faith and a healthcare provider.
After a brief stint working in genetic engineering, he returned to his pastoral education, entering grad school seminary where he took a pastoral care course as a hospital chaplain at Baylor Medical Center. “It was like a duck to water,” Emmart says. “I loved that you could do ministry, but you weren’t defined by a particular religious dogma or doctrine.” From there, he took a directorship at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, where he spent fourteen years running the pastoral services department and employee assistance program (EAP).
It was here that Emmart began to see the need to transition out of chaplaincy, following a “dark night of the soul” where he faced the burnout that often happens in such a profession. He came to a realization. “Instead of helping people die, I wanted to help people live,” he professes.
From there, he made a more direct transition into EAP and HR work, starting with a position at Mercy Health System in 2004, where he spent the next thirteen years overseeing direct EAP services and human resources functions. In 2018, he joined Rolla, Missouri-based Phelps Health as their CHRO.
Emmart feels his combined skill set of pastoral work and EAP make for good crucibles to work as an HR practitioner. At Phelps, that unique intersection of disciplines comes in handy in both the day-to-day duties of a CHRO—recruiting, retention, etc.—as well as the broader strategic responsibilities. “It’s not your typical CHRO role,” Emmart confesses. “There are some operational responsibilities that touch the patient, which is what really attracted me to the role.” This gets him closer to the patient experience that harkens back to his time as a chaplain.
“Instead of helping people die, I wanted to help people live.”
“John is dedicated to his team at Phelps Health and proves to be a good leader,” says Cheryl Dulaney, client manager of health benefits at Trustmark. “It’s a pleasure to partner with him on the health benefits for his associates.”
As one of the stewards of Phelps’ strategic plan, Emmart also plays a crucial role in sketching out the organization’s five-year strategy. He estimates he’s responsible for about 20 percent of Phelps’ new plan, specifically the areas that focus on employee engagement, leadership development, and accountability. He’s particularly proud of his work facilitating greater employee engagement, an area that, in the unpredictable world of COVID-19, couldn’t have come at a better time, with employees needing a buy-in option for their healthcare needs. He also implemented a new, fairer compensation plan for their employees.
But it’s the little ways Phelps gives back to the local community that allows for the kind of people-facing interaction that engages Emmart. Part of Phelps’ employee engagement work involves the Community Benefit Office, which facilitates projects like food drives and an annual collection of personal hygiene projects to give out to the less fortunate in Rolla’s community.
All of these initiatives, big and small, contribute to Emmart’s aspiration to fulfill Phelps’ mission to improve the health and wellness of people in the south-central Missouri area. “We have the highest employee engagement of any healthcare employer in our region,” Emmart boasts, with lower turnover and high employee retention. This reflects on their outcomes, as well. Employees who feel engaged by their employer, he observes, will provide the best possible care for their patients.
Despite having left the chaplaincy for HR, Emmart still feels his work at Phelps ties deeply into his desire to help people going through tremendous hardship. “It’s a vocational marriage,” he muses. To him, HR is like a kind of secular ministry; he’s still living out his calling, just in a different way. “I never left the ministry,” Emmart asserts. “I just redefined it.”
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