Yesterday, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi appointed Margaret Grun Kibben to be the first woman to serve as the chaplain of one of the houses of Congress. On June 27, 2003, Barry Black was named chaplain of the U.S. Senate becoming the first (and thus far only) African American to serve as chaplain of either chamber. These two pioneers had the same career prior to serving on Capitol Hill: they were navy chaplains. In fact they had the same job before retiring from the service: they were the chief chaplain of the United States Navy. Black held that post from 2000 to 2003 and Kibben from 2014 to 2018.
While other armed services chaplains have become congressional chaplains, historically it is not a common path to the office. The fact that both the Senate in 2003 and the House in 2020 turned to the armed services to for their first chaplains who were not white men is a witness to the continuing role of the armed forces as an agent of diversity in American life.
That both chambers turned to clergy who had served most of their career as chaplains, rather than as congregational leaders, is also testimony to the special skill set chaplains develop and congressional leaders recognizing of that fact. Black has been chaplain of the senate for over seventeen years, so the number of years both retired rear admirals serve on Capitol Hill may be limited. It will be interesting to see who replaces him when he chooses to step down.
Denominationally, Black was the first Seventh-Day Adventist to serve as chaplain in either chamber. Given the prominent role of Presbyterians in America’s religious and political establishment, Kibben is far from the first of her denomination. But she will be the first Protestant to serve as House chaplian in the twenty-first century.