In the Navy, Dale Williams served as a chaplain, a career choice he knew would present him with many different opportunities and take him to many different places. He didn’t count on it bringing him back to the sea later in life.
In the fall of 2023, the Presbytery of Carlisle pastor spent 73 days aboard a Holland America cruise ship serving as the protestant chaplain to the guests and crew. It’s not the first time he has served in that capacity while on the water, and it won’t be the last, either.
“I enjoy ministry, and I enjoy ministry at sea, so it’s a real blessing,” Dale said. “I get to provide ministry and go on a cruise as well.”
Upon Dale’s retirement in 2013 after 16 years of service as pastor at Lower Marsh Creek Presbyterian Church in Gettysburg, he and his wife Lenorah decided to take a trans-Atlantic cruise with Holland America. While at sea, Dale found out that the cruise line brought clergy along, specifically a protestant minister and a Catholic priest as well as a rabbi during Jewish high holy days, to serve those on board. Dale became interested in that call while aboard the ship and applied for a position.
Dale was quickly hired and served on several cruises as the protestant chaplain in 2015-16, with those trips ranging from two weeks to 30 days. However, a short time later, the cruise line discontinued having clergy on board, putting an end to Dale’s service with Holland America. Or so he thought.
Fast forward to the start of 2023 and Dale and Lenorah scheduled a world cruise of 128 days with Holland America in honor of their 50th wedding anniversary. Three days before the ship was to set sail Dale received a phone call from the cruise line asking him if he’d be interested in serving as a chaplain for the first 30 days of the cruise. The contracted pastor could not serve for the first month due to a medical issue involving his wife, and Dale agreed to fill in for the initial part of the cruise until the scheduled pastor could return.
With Holland America now bringing clergy on its longer voyages, the opportunity for Dale to serve was renewed. He was asked aboard a 73-day Grand Africa cruise in the fall of 2023, an invitation he accepted. All told, Dale and Lenorah were at sea for more than 200 days last year.
“I haven’t done that since I was in the Navy,” Dale said with a laugh when reflecting on his time afloat in 2023.
On the Grand Africa cruise, Dale served with a Roman Catholic priest and Jewish rabbi, all of whom provided support and care to their specific faith groups. For Dale, he led a 9 a.m. daily devotional when they were at sea and conducted an interdenominational worship service on Sundays. Due to the timing of the cruise, special Thanksgiving and Veterans Day services were also held, with all three of the clergy collaborating on those occasions.
“A couple of days before we got back to Fort Lauderdale coming back across the Atlantic, the Catholic community and the Protestant community got together and went Christmas caroling on the ship,” Dale added.
“Our primary responsibility is to provide ministry to the guests,” Dale continued. “However, they also invite us to get involved with the crew. As it turned out on this particular ship, there was a Christian fellowship among the Indonesians and then there was a Christian fellowship group among the other crew members. The Indonesians gathered separately because they do their fellowship in Indonesian. The other crew members, primarily Filipinos and South Africans, do theirs in English.”
Dale is sensitive to denominational differences.
“Whenever I meet with folks I try to say that I know you do things differently – you follow different liturgy, you worship differently – but we want to focus on glorifying God, enjoying God in worship and keeping our focus on Christ,” he said. “I try to get them to put their denominational ‘this is how we do things’ aside for the cruise.
“I really enjoy interdenominational ministry. Of course, I’m an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church as a chaplain. As a protestant chaplain, you serve a multitude of protestant denominations. You minister to your own, you facilitate for other faith groups and you care for all.”
The fellowship times with the crew are normally later at night, around 10:30 p.m., because they are working throughout the morning and afternoon. Because of the crew’s long days, having them set aside time to gather with Dale is meaningful.
“These folks work long days, typically from 6 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m., seven days a week,” Dale said. “Coming out for fellowship and worship after a long day is a real sacrifice.”
While connecting with the crew is an added bonus, serving the guests is the top priority for the clergy.
“The hope is that you build a strong faith community on board the ship,” Dale explained. “As it turned out, we had a wonderful faith community amongst our interdenominational crowd. We had about 30-40 participating in daily Bible study. We visited 25 ports in the 73 days, so the rest of those days were sea days. We got together pretty regularly, daily in many cases for long periods of time.”
Answering a call on a cruise ship is certainly different than landing one in the middle of Pennsylvania. But those differences are what make the work both beneficial and rewarding.
“On a 73-day cruise or a 128-day cruise, you get to know those people. When you’re on a ship, you see them every day,” Dale said. “For 128 days you’re running into these people. You’re eating lunch with them, sitting down to breakfast with them, going to dinner with them. You’re with this crowd constantly for 128 days. It’s interesting the faith community you can build up in a short period of time on one of these cruises.
“Even folks who are not actively involved get to know you as well. I’ve had people who were not involved with the faith community ask if they can talk to me about different questions regarding faith, life and personal challenges.”
Because of the length of the cruises, the average age of the passengers is older. It’s not uncommon to have people in their 70s, 80s and 90s on these cruises, which can result in some health issues occurring while the ship is at sea.
“On any given long voyage, you can expect some major medical issues to come up,” Dale said. “The clergy are also available to provide pastoral care in pastoral emergencies.
“On the world cruise, which you might think is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we found that there were many people on that cruise that, for them, they had done many world cruises,” Dale added. “They did one after the other. You meet people who are happy to spend the rest of their lives cruising and they don’t mind the prospect of some day dying on a ship.”
Dale and Lenorah’s next cruise is scheduled for the fall when they’ll embark on a 53-day voyage from Seattle to Japan and back. Until then, they’ll enjoy their time on the land before heading out on another adventure, this time across the Pacific Ocean. It’s a call that Dale didn’t see coming 10 years ago but one that he has clearly embraced.
“Ever since 2015-16 when I had the opportunity to serve, it’s always been in the back of my mind and a prayer that God would open doors and allow me to do it again someday,” he said. “The opportunity arose for me to fill in for that month and that opened the door for me to do it again.
“I really feel blessed to serve the passengers and crew on board Holland America ships. Having been a Navy chaplain it’s something I really enjoy, providing ministry at sea. On the ocean I experience God’s presence, and I really feel a sense of his peace when I’m at sea.”