War Slows Search for Senate Chaplain

Posted March 25, 2003 at 6:59pm

After a three-month nationwide search, the Senate is close to naming a replacement for retired Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie, who stepped down from his post March 15.

The five-member search committee has reportedly narrowed its list of potential chaplains to just a handful of contenders, but sources familiar with the search process say the war in Iraq has slowed the selection process in recent days.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who will make the final decision, had been aiming to name the Senate’s 62nd chaplain by the end of the month, but a Frist spokesman said Tuesday he couldn’t provide any updates about the process.

The Congressional Record details more than a dozen guest chaplains who have appeared before the Senate since January, but it’s unclear how many are under consideration for Ogilvie’s post.

Nonetheless, local papers across the country have been cheering on their local clergymen who have become mini-celebrities as they have flown to Washington for chaplain tryouts. The auditions have included opening a Senate session with a prayer, and in the cases of some, conducting Bible study sessions with lawmakers.

Among those being considered for the pastoral post are George McKinney, a bishop with the Church of God in Christ who has been working in the inner city of San Diego for 43 years, according to McKinney’s home newspaper, The San Diego Union-Tribune.

On March 11, the paper reported that McKinney — who led the Senate’s opening prayer Feb. 25 — had been invited back to Washington for a second round of interviews and the chance to conduct a Bible study seminar with lawmakers.

His local newspaper described McKinney’s church’s theology as a “product of the Pentecostal and evangelical movements with heavy emphasis on the Bible.”

In a brief conversation with Roll Call this week, McKinney said it has been an “honor to be considered” for the position — something he didn’t expect. McKinney said his friends in the evangelical community nominated him for the post.

“I’m extremely overwhelmed and honored, and I have a full understanding that the Senate makes the decision according to its best judgment, and if that is for another candidate, I know that person will serve the nation well,” he said.

This is not the first time that the 70-year-old McKinney, who leads the congregation at St. Stephen’s Church of God in Christ in San Diego, has been beckoned to Washington.

Last September, he was one of two dozen spiritual leaders invited to the White House, and he joined a private prayer session with President Bush and three others in the Oval Office, according to the Union-Tribune.

McKinney and at least one other candidate — the Very Rev. Nathan Baxter, an Episcopal priest and dean of Washington National Cathedral — are black. If either is selected, it is believed it would mark the first time that an African-American has held the post.

Baxter, who plans to retire from his position at the cathedral in June, led the Senate’s opening prayer Jan. 29.

The nationwide search has attracted spiritual leaders from all around the country.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) recommended the Rev. Fred Pfotenhauer of South Bend, Ind., for the post, according to the South Bend Tribune.

Pfotenhauer served for 36 years as the pastor of Hilltop Lutheran Church of the Ascension in South Bend and formed a friendship with Smith when his son, Kurt Pfotenhauer, served as the Senator’s chief of staff.

“I see it as an opportunity to do some very effective ministering,” Pfotenhauer told the South Bend Tribune last month.

The Rev. Dale Meyer, the main preacher for the St. Louis-based “The Lutheran Hour” radio show, was described recently by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch as being on the “short list” of candidates. His opportunity to lead the Senate in an opening prayer was Feb. 11.

The 56-year-old minister’s “rich baritone voice is familiar to thousands of households in this region and millions nationally,” according to the Post-Dispatch.

The search committee has been mostly closed-mouth about the process and is reported to be taking its time so as not to fall victim to the sort of controversy that enveloped the last House Chaplain selection process three years ago, when some House lawmakers charged there was an anti-Catholic bias.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) resolved the matter when he handpicked the Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, a Catholic priest, to fill the post.