A sturdy blue vessel sails through the remote communities of Southeast Alaska carrying a crew of two -- Stan Berntson, an ELCA pastor, and his spouse, Sharon Geldaker, a registered nurse.
But this boat isn't on the prowl for salmon. The crew is on a very different mission: spearheading a ministry of hospitality and leadership development among Alaskan residents.
The M/V (motor vessel) Christian, a collaboration between the ELCA and the Lutheran Association of Missionaries and Pilots U.S. identifies, encourages and empowers lay Alaska Native leadership, explains Michael Keys, bishop of the ELCA Alaska Synod.
"It is a vessel of resources, counsel, retreat and support, so that Christian leaders are formed within their own cultural tradition and community," Keys explains. The ministry's goal is to walk alongside the faith journey of each person they meet, First Mate Sharon Geldaker says.
"With Stan's training in counseling and substance abuse and my parish nurse training, we also attend to needs for healing and prayer through the love and example of our Lord Jesus."
The year-round ministry connects the crew with difficult-to-reach communities, where they strive to listen to the needs of the community and discern how the Holy Spirit is already at work there.
Adds Stan, "We try not to come in with our agenda but to join in where faith is calling and thriving."
Stan took the helm of the vessel in April of 2008, with Sharon joining him the following September. Funding problems temporarily docked M/V Christian for four months in 2009. Sharon describes the day they left M/V Christian in a shipyard as one of the saddest of their lives, with all three facing an uncertain future.
Stan and Sharon used their down time to reconnect with partners that helped during M/V Christian's early years but were no longer aware of its ministry. "We took trips to repair that partner relationship, to invite and strengthen it," Sharon says.
The communities in Southeast Alaska and ELCA congregations in Alaska focused on getting all three back in the water.
Grants and fundraisers allowed Stan and Sharon to set sail full-time again in June 2009.
A ministry of relationships
The year-round ministry connects the crew with difficult-to-reach communities where they visit with elders, join in community worship and participate in cultural celebrations. Vacation Bible camps fill the summer months. During fall, winter and spring, the ship hosts retreats, classes, Bible studies, worship services and leadership training events. At times a water taxi, the M/V Christian provides transportation to neighboring communities for assorted gatherings.
And, the ship brings Stan and Sharon to places where they can forge new relationships and celebrate old. They recently began worshiping with a family in Ketchikan, Alaska. The family chose to worship at home to better express their Native culture during the service.
When the house church hosted a three-day celebration to bless its community and local tribes, Stan and Sharon provided lodging for visiting leaders and pitched in with food and able hands.
The 300 participants "witnessed a new church that embraces them the way God made them, complete in their identity as Natives and as Christians," Sharon explains.
Meeting people on their own terms is a perk of the job as is the beauty and wildness of the land and sea. "It is an amazing challenge and a wild privilege," Sharon says.
"Our faith in God has grown as we have gained energy in sense of purpose," she adds. "Prior to this call we had both felt the need to explore ways to 'do church differently,' outside the normal dance of what is considered church life. Were our prayers ever answered!"