I am writing this while on a cruise ship. For many years, I have wanted to transit the Panama Canal. I think I did a report on it in elementary or junior high school. I wouldn’t call myself a “cruiser,” but this cruise has been in my mind for many years. And I am sailing alone as my wonderful wife is susceptible to motion sickness and it would not be a good experience for her to be on this kind of cruise. She loves me enough to support my going alone. But that is not the story, just the introduction.

Day four of the 16-day cruise was a Sunday. On this cruise line, they have Catholic mass most days led by a priest or other “official” officiant. I don’t know much about the Shabbat service on Friday evenings. But the protestant service on Sunday morning is listed in the program as a 45-minute “Interdenominational Service led by the congregation.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? 

I showed up with my Bible about 8 minutes before the 9 am service started so I could get a good seat, left side, end chair, row two. About 65 people were in the small theater by my estimate- about 5% of the passengers on board. Nine o’clock arrived, and I waited as others filed in and took their seats.

And I waited. For eight more agonizing minutes, I waited. Those who know me, know that I was in distress. Here was a room full of people who had come to “church”, and we were all waiting for somebody to do something. Then I recalled that I am somebody, and every group requires a leader, so I figured I would step up and give it a shot.

I walked to the lectern and microphone with Bible in hand, welcomed everyone and then asked, “Does anyone know what we’re supposed to do?” There were a few chuckles, and then I was saved when a person wearing a hat that read “chaplain” in the front walked in apologizing for being late. As he walked to the front and I stepped to the side, he asked me if I had a scripture I would like to share and I said I did. Another man told him that he would be happy to lead the group in singing a couple of songs.

The chaplain welcomed attendees, described what he would do, prayed, and asked me to share from the scriptures. I read chapter one from James and commented on being doers rather than hearers while on this cruise and spoke to my fear of the word “deceived” which appears three times in the text. The problem with deception is that we don’t know we are wrong, and that’s a terrible place to be. After the scripture reading, the other man led the group singing a couple of well-known hymns acapella, and the chaplain gave a message on the beatitudes - which was surprisingly clear for such a diverse group. 

After that service, I ended up having several conversations with people on the ship. Several times, just in passing, a person or couple would call out “Hi, Bob,” as they passed by. And I knew I was known - I had lost a great degree of anonymity.

The next Sunday, I again attended the service. More people attended. The chaplain arrived early and asked me if I had a scripture to read (I did) and asked the other man if he had a song to lead (he did). We were prepared.

The chaplain opened the service with prayer, and we sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” acapella. Then I read from John 15: 1-17 noting that God is faithful and we, sadly are not - hence the importance of remaining (or abiding) in the vine (mentioned 11 times). The chaplain taught through Philemon, we sang another song, and I led a time of prayer which was briefly interrupted by the cruise director’s daily and quite cheerful ship-wide morning announcements. Upon conclusion, I offered a final prayer, gave a benediction, and we sang the Lord’s Prayer. A woman approached me and the song leader with tears in her eyes asking for prayer having learned that morning that her pastor’s wife had just been diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer - so we prayed together with her.

People loved the service. Today is Monday, and I have lots of strangers have passed by saying, “Hi, Bob.”

I am better with witnesses.

Since that first Sunday morning during which I lost my anonymity as a Christ follower, I became more attuned the reality that I was not “getting away.” Rather, I was mixing with new people - and what I said or did would reflect not only on me, but also on Jesus. I was more thoughtful, kinder to strangers, more willing to engage in conversations with strangers at meals and while out and about on the ship and ashore. And this was amplified after the second Sunday service.

I am better with witnesses.

And I would bet that you are, too. The witnesses I reference are not the strangers with whom I have mingled. They are the people that went to those services and now know that I am a follower of Jesus. My spiritual guard is up - but not in a forced or unpleasant way; rather, it is in an “I am identified with Christ, and I need and want to act like it” way.

Many church leaders I have known and worked with confess that they really have no one that knows them outside, perhaps, their spouse and a distant fried or two. But who is watching us and, by their presence, encouraging us to love and good works on a regular basis? Who is reminding us that we are constantly “on stage” representing Jesus? That’s something to talk about.

  • Are our staff and board members actively involved in a small group?
  • When we are out and about, do we try to “hide” our commitment to Christ? Do we fear over being outed while trapped on an airplane or other confined space with others? Why or why not? When might it be proper to be low-key and when might it not be proper? What advice would we give those we lead that might ask such a question? Would we and they be better with witnesses, too?
  • Do we remember that we are representing Christ even in our moments of frustration? My kryptonite is crazy, reckless driving by others. What is yours? How might we neutralize the kryptonite’s impact upon our actions and character?
  • I’m not looking for points with this one, but would you have taken a lead or volunteered in the cruise ship scenario? Are we only shepherds when at work, or is our shepherding gift to be exercised more broadly?
  • What is my public, “off duty” persona? Am I friendly? Do I smile? Do I scowl? Do I greet those who pass by? How do I interact with hotel desk and housekeeping staff, servers, and others?

Someone is watching. And I am better with witnesses. Are you?

By the way, that guy that led singing? He’s an EFCA executive pastor in Pennsylvania. It’s a small world.

Let us know if we can help and how your conversation goes. Contact Bob Osborne by e-mail at bob.osborne@efca.org

This is one of a series of articles intended to facilitate and guide church leaders’ conversations about significant issues that often are not talked about among pastors, boards, and church leadership teams. Visit the EFCA West website to see prior Something to Talk About articles.