The unique ministry of chaplains

Interview with Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries James Magness
January 5, 2011

The Rt. Rev. James "Jay" Magness was consecrated as the sixth bishop suffragan for federal ministries in June 2010. Here, he speaks with writer Diane Ney about his plans and his office's recent relocation to Capitol Hill from New York City. The interview is featured in the January/February 2011 edition of the Washington Window, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.



WW: How is your offices' move from New York to Washington working out?

MAGNESS: Well, it's an excellent move for two reasons, perhaps the most important of which is the fact that it puts me closer to the organizational constituencies with which I work. Our office here on Capitol Hill is only about six blocks from the chaplain's office for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, with which I coordinate. The Army, Navy and Air Force chaplains are all here in town, and even the Department of Veterans Affairs down in Hampton, Virginia, is closer now. One of the things we've learned is that the more face-to-face work you can do with people, the better you are. The second reason is that there's access now for our federal chaplains to this office, which has become a crossroads for those chaplains.

WW: You wrote on the federal ministries website some months ago about what you called the "100 Days of Listening," an opportunity at the beginning of your ministry to listen to the comments and suggestions of your chaplains. What have you heard?

MAGNESS: I've gotten a lot of good responses, and have extended it to 200 days. One of the things I'm learning is that chaplains enjoy getting together. We haven't done a lot of conferences in past years, so in May we're going to start that again. Our first conference will be about how ministry and the federal government fit together. We're going to talk about the First Amendment and the distinctions of free exercise and the establishment of religion. I think that never in my lifetime has there been a more important time when understanding the First Amendment is greater.

WW: Why is that?

MAGNESS: Well, two reasons. One, there is a greater push for more conservative chaplains in the armed forces today. It's my firm conviction that our chaplains serve for the purpose of providing appropriate access to religious support, whether their constituents want religious support or want relief from religious support. I've described this federal chaplaincy as pluralism and ecumenism on steroids. Nowhere do I find such religious diversity and intensity as I do within the Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The military chaplaincy, VA, and prison chaplaincy are some of the most unique ministries of priesthood there are. Only the most qualified people can do this. I've said in the past, "Send me the most versatile. Send me those with depth of spirituality who can endure the hardest, most difficult situations ever."

WW: Do you have chaplains in Afghanistan?

MAGNESS: We have six chaplains in Afghanistan, three of whom are assigned to the hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan, doing extraordinarily difficult work. We have a chaplain at the receiving hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

WW: What else have you learned from the feedback?

MAGNESS: I've found that our chaplains are very committed to being Christian sacramentalists in the world they're in, that it's incredibly important for them to have a prophetic voice. Also, there's such a healthy understanding in the responses of what it means to be engaged with two masters, the church and being in federal ministries. There is tension there. But for the successful, capable chaplain, that's going to be creative tension out of which will come new solutions to the difficult environments where people work and where they do their ministry.

WW: What creates the tension?

MAGNESS: Well, sometimes the church and the federal institution are asking for two opposite things at the same time. For example, if you're in the Marine Corps, you're part of an institution that's committed to quick and violent action. Sometimes that doesn't sit well with our conscience.

WW: That's quite a contradiction.

MAGNESS: So the question becomes how does the person provide ministry to people who are executing that war and find a way to engage with those people and be agents of reconciliation and hope? Another example are all those issues people deal with in the prison system, where the chaplains have to cope with the regulations and rules of the organization. I have had enough experience with prisoners to know that many of them think of themselves as God's forgotten children. And that is the core of our chaplains' prison ministry, to dispel that notion.

WW: What will be your focus in 2011?

MAGNESS: The essential components are pastoral, systematic and visionary. Under pastoral, I'm clear that it's my responsibility to deal with the care and keeping of chaplains. If ministry in the federal environment is going to happen effectively, our chaplains have to know that when they're hurting, when they're in need, I'm available to that. The systematic part of it is about recruiting, which is an absolute a priority. And then there's a maintenance component, continuing education. We recognize that our chaplains come to the forefront of federal ministry with some peculiarly appropriate skills that have to be enhanced along the way. There's the sensitivity to pluralism. From within our Anglican tradition we know there are many varieties of faith expressions. We must be open to and respectful to persons of other faith traditions and respectful when persons have no faith tradition at all. And our chaplains are inculcated with that understanding, that we accept all faith traditions in the federal environment.

WW: And being visionary?

MAGNESS: Yes, we have to be engaged in concept creation, about how we need to move in the new era and respond to different emerging challenges. How do we respond to all the wounded warriors who are out there today? What has to happen in terms of programs to address their needs? And, of course, when you've developed the program concept, you've still only completed about 10 percent of the process. The other 90 percent is execution of the concept. And that's putting in place programs that are usable with all three of our constituencies' groups.

WW: You've made a very ambitious start.

MAGNESS: It would be impossible for me to say how excited we are to have the opportunity to provide for people in this ministry. And we're having fun doing it!