What is a House Chaplain and What do They Do?

Background of the job and what’s up with Rev. Patrick Conroy, explained

Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, blesses the walnut tree during the tree planting ceremony in memory of Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Speaker Paul Ryan’s move against Rev. Patrick Conroy caused political ripples as many speculated he requested the Reverend’s retirement because of a prayer he gave before the tax code.

Conroy, Congress’s Jesuit Priest, is the first Chaplain to leave his 2-year elected position mid-term in decades.

But what does the House Chaplain do, and what does his dismissal mean? Roll Call’s got you covered:

Chaplain duties

The House chaplain opens every House session with a prayer, or by bringing in a guest chaplain to say a prayer.

The chaplain is also responsible for “pastoral counseling” duties to the House community, including arranging memorial services for the House members and its staff and performing marriage and funeral ceremonies for House members.

Outside of congressional meetings, Chaplains are supposed to provide a “ministry of outreach” in the Capitol. This includes duties like offering counsel, receiving religious leaders from around the world, answering religious questions for organizations and services on the Hill, and sponsoring interfaith dialogue.

Chaplains are elected as religious individuals, but are not meant to serve as representatives for any specific religious community, body or organization. All congressional chaplains have been Christian so far, though other faiths are regularly brought in as guest chaplains.

How chaplains get picked

The chaplain is an officer of the House, a position that the full House votes on at the start of each Congress. There is no stated process for removing the chaplain, unlike other offices of the House, which have rules saying they can be removed by the full House or the speaker.

Watch: What We Know About the House Chaplain Controversy So Far

Several Democrats used the lack of guidelines to say Ryan did not have the authority under House rules to dismiss Conroy. However, Ryan did not outright fire the Chaplain: he asked for his resignation and Conroy obliged.

One of the first orders of business when Congress began was recommending and swearing in a chaplain to preside over daily prayers that opened House proceedings.

Typically, the Speaker creates a temporary bipartisan group of members to find and vet potential new chaplains. While chaplains only have two-year terms, there is no limit on how long they can remain in the position.

Former chaplains served from two to twenty-one years. Conway’s term as chaplain began in 2011.

Watch: The Prayer That Might Have Landed House Chaplain in Hot Water

What does Ryan’s action mean?

While some lawmakers speculate Ryan told Conroy to resign because of his tax code remarks, others say his departure was because he didn’t perform his chaplain well enough.

One problem some members had with Conroy is that he did not actively seek out members who had gone through “crises” to offer spiritual guidance and comfort, Rep. Mark Walker said Friday.

A House chaplain should be “someone who goes to the person who’s hurting,” the North Carolina Republican said.

While some Democrats called for Conway to stay, Ryan had already asked Rep. Doug Collins, to lead a bipartisan group of members to look for the next chaplain. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver will serve as ranking member for the Democrats.

Collins predicted finding Conway’s replacement could take a few months and will likely not be ready before Conroy’s May 24 resignation date.

Griffin Connolly and Lindsey McPherson contributed reporting.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.