Sheltered Under God’s Wings: Young Clergywomen Meet with the First Female Chaplain of the House

Post Author: Rev. Julia Burkley

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Grun Kibben, the 62nd Chaplain for the United States House of Representatives, stood in front of a group of young clergywomen who had gathered in DC for our conference. A unique series of events allowed for fourteen attendees of the 2024 Young Clergy Women International Conference in Washington D.C. to meet with her. We had gone through the windy halls of the United States Capitol, past several ‘no tours or visitors past here’ signs, before arriving in Chaplain Kibben’s office.

She is the first woman chaplain in either chamber of Congress, and she read us Psalm 91, which she called “the soldier’s psalm”:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

God has sheltered Chaplain Kibben under God’s wings. Chaplain Kibben is an ordained PC(USA) minister, and she spent most of her career as a Chaplain for the U.S. Navy, which included time spent in active combat in Afghanistan. She is the first woman chaplain in either chamber of Congress, and began her term on January 3, 2021. Just three days later, the U.S Congress witnessed the insurrection of the U.S Capitol.

You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

On January 6, Chaplain Kibben was asked to pray loudly and boldly in a space of fear and chaos. She walked with Representatives, staffers, and anyone who was in the room at the time. She was with them through hours of waiting in an undisclosed location, praying with them, bringing a sense of calm, and asking them if they told their families that they were safe. In true pastor fashion, it was only four hours into this ordeal that she realized that she should probably tell her family she was okay.

She said that it was the events of that day that really cemented her call into this chaplain position. She described the sense of calm that overtook her, that she viscerally felt God’s dome of protection over her as she did the job that she knew best: take care of people in scary and uncertain moments. It was the same dome of protection that she felt in Afghanistan in active combat. She knew this is where God wanted her.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.

As we continued to talk, one of the things that truly impressed me about Chaplain Kibben, especially as we minister in an election year, is her true gift of being non-partisan. Being non-partisan is vital to her job, in a way that is more obvious than most of our ministries. However, as we near election season, I was struck specifically by her commitment to keep love and relationship at the center. She truly cannot express political opinions, full stop. Her job is centered on relationship, on care, on Jesus’ message- not on one political party.

That is a tricky and tension space for me in my own ministry: there are people who call my church home that run the full spectrum of political beliefs. One of the hardest parts of my job is making sure everyone feels welcome to the conversation, whether or not we agree. My job is to preach Jesus the Christ, and though I personally may feel that Word is political, it is not up to me to bring the partisan to the pulpit. Instead, I must let Jesus’ teachings speak for themselves through the Spirit.

Some of us there asked Chaplain Kibben how she handles being so non-partisan, especially when Jesus’ teachings can be so obviously on one side of the aisle. Chaplain Kibbensends out devotionals, and once some members of the House were offended by what she said, claiming that she was showing bias and even calling for her removal. This made it all the way up to the Speaker of the House, who at the time was Representative Kevin McCarthy. Chaplain Kibben shared that Representative McCarthy looked at his colleagues and said, “You know, sometimes when I sit in church, I hear the preacher and think they are speaking right to me.” That was the end of the conversation.

The Spirit always speaks, and as pastors we can rely on her to allow people to hear what they need to from God’s Word. Chaplain Kibben puts her call in front of any of her own opinions, trusting in the Spirit and confident that the Spirit will speak.

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Chaplain Kibben keeps Psalm 91 with her because it brings her strength in moments of uncertainty, and that she wanted to leave that blessing with us.

Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.

It was truly a gift to meet this incredible woman; her words and strength inspired us all. As the first woman in this position, she has overcome, knowing that God is with her. She told us that this is the first time in her life that she has consistently worn her clergy collar, because she wants to be named and seen as who she is every time she walks into the room in a space where that wouldn’t be obvious.

May we also be seen, despite all odds, especially in spaces where women haven’t walked before, as we share God’s Word in our own contexts.

A group of clergywomen stand with Rev. Dr. Margaret Grun Kibben, the US House Chaplain, in her office, which features a large bookshelf and stately blue furniture. The majority of the women are white.

YCWI conference attendees stand behind Rev. Kibben’s desk with her after their conversation.

Rev. Julia Burkley (she/her/hers) serves as an Associate Pastor at Opequon Presbyterian Church in Winchester, VA. She enjoys hiking, kayaking and reading fantasy books in her spare time.

Image by: Katie Steele
Used with permission
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