Pastor at sea

Pastor at sea--an unusual ministry opportunity

What does ministry look like when your congregation changes every seven days?

Robert C. Bradford is a retired American Baptist minister, living in Arlington, Washington, United States.

Suddenly a worshiper sitting in the third row began to weep while the congregation sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I immediately stopped the service, sat down next to the stranger and put my hand on his shoulder. Now he was sobbing with his head buried in a handkerchief. We were not in a church but on a cruise ship, on the Pacific Ocean.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“Just two months ago,” he answered, “my dear wife passed away. The hymn ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ was played at her memorial service. For years we looked forward to this cruise to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary. I loved her so very much. I feel a terrible loss.”

For the remaining days of the cruise I spent quality time with him at meals, events, and in his room, each time bringing care and comfort.

After all, I am his on-board cruise chaplain.

Join me as I share with you the unique and rewarding ministry of a pastor at sea.

Each evening the passengers have delivered to their room a schedule of events for every hour of the next day, religious services included.

Worship services attract the faithful and those in need.

A cruise chaplain does not have the luxury of time. With a room assigned for a half-hour service, it must be short, simple, and to the point. The congregants are strangers, but the service embraces all denominations, ethnic groups, and gender and age differences.

The chaplain will see the worshipers for the next few days, then never again. After 44 cruises to 50 countries, not once in the 445 days on a cruise ship have I cruised with a previous passenger. To develop lasting friendships during a two-to-three week cruise does not happen easily. However, when you share a passenger’s loss, the bond of friendship lasts a long time.

Following a worship service en route to Hawaii, an elderly lady handed me a navigation map and asked, “Can you help me?” Her United States Navy husband was buried at sea during World War II. On the map was a cross located at the position where her husband was buried. I took the map to the navigation officer to find the approximate location of the burial site, not far from where we would be. On returning from Hawaii, I met with the lady on the fantail of the ship, where together we participated in a very emotional memorial service with Scripture, prayer, and an aloha to her husband as leis were thrown into the sea. The lady, thrilled with the service, experienced peace and closure.

A rumor on the ship spread like wildfire: “Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, is on the ship with her family.” During a reception, there she was, surrounded by Secret Service agents and Royal Canadian Police. One agent introduced me to her and her family as they greeted me warmly. Later, much to my delight, they attended a worship service.

Previous famous passengers include Elliot Roosevelt, oldest son of Franklin D. Roosevelt; an ambassador to Rome from Ecuador; an Australian medical doctor; and a personal physician to the king of Saudi Arabia.

Although well-known personalities have been on board, I consider everyone on the ship famous and part of the congregation. I chat with captains, cooks, casino dealers, stewards, and waitresses, always with the hope of sharing the gospel. Connecting to a person at the point of their need opens the door for witness.

A crew member discovered my role on board ship as a cruise chaplain. One day he shared the following, “Pastor, I am having a terrible time doing my job because I have great pain in both hands. I may be sent home. I am so frustrated.”

I said, “Hold out your hands and I will pray the Lord will heal you.” The next day I met with a very amazed crew member. The pain was gone.

Because many of the passengers are seniors and physically challenged, a cruise chaplain can expect to provide crisis ministry. With passengers separated from their home, families, and doctors,a chaplain must be prepared to deal with death and serious illness.

A few days after 9/11, I boarded a cruise out of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, en route to Florida, United States, through the Panama Canal. The worship services were attended to capacity, with standing room only. The same was true on a cruise bound from Singapore to China and Japan, for the Iraq war had begun, and the SARS epidemic had broken out in China. Unlike the usual excitement and hilarious spirit on the ship, the mood was quiet, solemn. The passengers, as well as the crew members, were visibly frightened and confused. These cruises resulted in many visits to state rooms for prayer and counseling where I had the privilege to bring peace, calm, and blessing to passengers in crisis.

One time, at the conclusion of a service when everyone else had left, a Chinese man slowly made his way up to the pulpit. “I am from San Francisco,” he said, “on board with my family. There are sixteen in our group, with a number of my family from Hong Kong. We planned this cruise together to honor our mother’s eightieth birthday. But sadly, just a few weeks ago she died in an airplane crash in China. After a lot of discussion among the family we decided to cruise and honor our mother.”

He continued, “Thank you! I am profoundly grateful for the message this morning. We are finding it extremely difficult to be on board without her. You have helped all of the family to come to terms with Mother’s loss. Again, thank you!”

The most fulfilling experiences of every cruise were the Bible studies with the crew members. The studies were always late at night because crew members begin work at six o’clock in the morning and finish at eleven o’clock at night or later. Think of it! These crew members, many of whom have spouses and young children, stay separated from their home and families for a year.

On a recent cruise to South America I accepted an invitation from Filipino Christian crew members to conduct a Bible study at midnight. I was weary! As I entered the ship’s theater, where that morning I had conducted a passenger worship service, 25 Filipinos stood and greeted me with enthusiastic handshakes and joyful smiles. The service began with singing in English and Filipino.

Following the sharing time of woes and wows that was filled with praise, I began the Bible study. Their looks of anticipation made me forget my weariness as I thought, “What a privilege to share with those who are so eager to study the word of God!”

Maureen, a lounge waitress and the only woman there, became a Christian that day. “My friends,” she testified, “are angels for their care and love of me. I am overwhelmed with joy in my newfound faith.”

Still on board? Excited about the thought of being a pastor at sea? I hope so. Be prepared for a fulfilling ministry and an adventure of a lifetime.

Generally the cruise lines assign retired clergy as cruise chaplains with free passage. Considered passengers, the clergy couples have a room assigned to them and all the amenities provided for passengers. They are responsible for their own transportation to the embarkation port and will not receive remuneration. However, they are richly rewarded because—in addition to travel—they also share in the joy of ministry. Meeting and ministering to people aboard ship is priceless.

Contact the various cruise lines in order to be put in touch with agents assigning cruises. Be patient—more than 1,500 clergy/couples are seeking cruises.

No wonder.

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Robert C. Bradford is a retired American Baptist minister, living in Arlington, Washington, United States.

March 2006

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