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Nathan and Cindy Timmerman are looking forward to spending some time with family and friends, now that they’ve returned home after three months sailing the fjords of Alaska.
The U.S. missionary chaplains are back home in Seagoville, Texas, after 12 weeks working as volunteer naturalists on a trio of cruise ships. In those roles, the Timmermans gave talks to passengers on how to spot marine and wildlife, such as humpback whales, sea lions, orcas, bears, and dolphins. They also pointed out unique characteristics such as eagles mating for life, and went on deck at times to guide such sightings.
But the couple, married for 38 years, likewise seized upon myriad opportunities to minister as volunteer chaplains. For instance, they shared the gospel with a woman spreading the ashes of her recently deceased daughter, and prayed for another woman struggling with anxiety and insomnia.
In their chaplain capacities, the Timmermans also provide spiritual strength during medical emergencies, as well as solace to grieving staff members notified about the death of a loved one (often employees can’t leave the ship for a funeral without losing their jobs).
Their naturalist responsibilities create a platform for “the silent gospel,” according to Nathan, 61.
“People are intrigued by nature and marine life,” he says. “It makes a great segue to share the gospel.”
The Timmermans spent three months cruising the Alaska shores on three different ships. Every week, a new group of 2,100 passengers boarded. The chaplains also ministered to some of the 900 crew members, who represented around 40 nationalities.
Nathan estimates 80 percent of the vacationers hadn’t been to Alaska before, and for many of them, the fun and adventure excursion is a temporary escape.
“Just because people come on a cruise doesn’t cancel their life’s struggles,” Nathan says. “Below the surface are broken lives, wounded hearts, and the shame and guilt from poor life choices.”
Mealtimes around tables present prime opportunities for the Timmermans to identify themselves as chaplains, and to become acquainted with strangers, many of them internationals.
The chaplains especially enjoy connecting foreign crew members — who typically work 12-hour shifts every day — with other Christian workers. As volunteer chaplains, the Timmermans hosted Bible studies and church services, which typically draw between 30 to 50 people, but sometimes as many as 160.
The chaplains recall sharing dinner with a retired chief financial officer — on his first cruise since his wife’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease — breaking down in tears. The man began attending Bible studies, and found comfort.
“It all began by having a meal with him, and sharing ‘Ole and Sven’ jokes,” Nathan says.
A newly retired oncologist who attended Bible studies left the cruise with a new purpose: ministering to oncology patients.
“It’s so rewarding that God gives divine appointments,” says Cindy, who notes that a prayer team supporting their ministry prays specifically for such encounters.
“Every week is a new adventure, with new challenges and new opportunities,” Nathan says. One of his favorite Bible passages about Jesus is Luke 5:3: “Then He sat down and taught the people from the boat.”
Of course, seeking the Lord isn’t a priority for most tourists. The ships offer patrons plenty of opportunities to gamble, drink alcohol, and watch bawdy shows.
The Timmermans also take groups of chaplaincy interns on cruise ministry opportunities. They do one-on-one training, and emphasize prayer walking the entire ship, including theaters, bars, and casinos, asking God to shift the spiritual climate.
While not on the water, the Timmermans have focused their ministry efforts the past 15 years on training more than 500 community chaplains, which initially involves 30 hours of classroom training. While interning, the community chaplain must spend at least 12 hours engaged in a specialized ministry focus and serve a minimum of 50 hours under the direct supervision of a professional chaplain. Subsequently, the trainee is classified as a lead community chaplain.
Kim Vastine, an ordained minister and a real estate agent in Southlake, Texas, wrapped up her community chaplain training on a one-week cruise with the Timmermans.
“Nathan and Cindy provide top-notch training, both in the classroom as well as working side by side on the cruise line,” Vastine says. “They are a stellar couple who gave practical skills and wise counsel about the nuances of personal interaction.”
Since becoming certified community chaplains, Vastine and her salesman husband, Wade, have gone on another cruise and implemented the training they received.
“We had God encounters with people on a daily basis,” says Vastine, 56. “It’s amazing how many opportunities there are to pray for people and reach out with compassion.”