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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 82, April 2000

The Sailing Chaplain in the Finnish Seamen's Mission 

Rev. KurtEdlund, FMS
Sailing Chaplains Director
Helsinki, Finland

[French summary, German summary]

"The purpose of the activities of the Finnish Seamen's Mission
is to do the work of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church 
among seafarers and Finnish people abroad."

1. Why Sailing Chaplains

  • The work of the sailing chaplain became necessary as the time used for loading and unloading of ships became shorter and shorter. For instance, cargo chips that enter the port of Antwerp stay only about 5-8 hours before they have to leave again back home to take on a new cargo.
  • Many ports have started working around the clock, and the crews of the ships consisted of fewer workers than before as automation and adjustments of their work went forward.
  • For these reasons it is no longer possible for the seafarers to go ashore after the loading was done as they did before. Thus it is not possible for the seafarers to come to the Seamen's Centres or Churches as they used to do before. 
  • The employees of the Seamen's Churches had to board ships. And in order to be able to meet seafarers properly, in a concrete way, it became necessary to move from church-orientated to ship-orientated work, but with new methods.

2. When and how it all started 

The Finnish Seamen's mission started sailing chaplain work officially in 1983. Before the work was established on board cargo ships, there had been employees from the seamen's churches sailing on ships for different reasons. 

Already in the early 40's and 50's, chaplains of the seamen's churches were, of course, taking a boat when they needed to travel somewhere. But in the 60's, seafarers began to invite chaplains more frequently to accompany them on their voyages, so that they could see with their own eyes what life was really like on a ship. As the number of employees at the seamen's churches was small, it was not possible to send somebody to sail with the ships for a longer period. So the Finnish Seamen's Mission started developing sailing chaplain work with its own kind of strategy in 1983. 

In 1985 there were two full time sailing chaplains on the job. In addition to that, employees from the Seamen's Churches were sailing on board the ships that frequented their ports but sailed out again on a tight schedule. They would remain on board one or two weeks, a time considered very short. 

In 1989 sailing chaplain work was introduced on board the passenger ships that sail between Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Germany. Now the crew included not only so called traditional seafarers, but hotel, restaurant and tax-free employees as well. The circumstances on board these passengers ships proved to be like on a ship out on the high seas. 

3. History

This work started with a two-year trial period, which was evaluated by a team that included representatives from the seamen's union, personnel managers from the shipping companies and representatives from different parishes. After a positive trial period the chaplain work onboard the ferries became permanent. Our Mission hired two full time chaplains and called them, as agreed with the seamen's union, not chaplains but "Ship Curators". 

Since then in 1991, we have achieved a remarkable position in seafarers' social and spiritual care. The ship curators can be described as a kind of welfare officers, who side by side with the seafarers live and work in their own environment.

The economic recession at the beginning of the 1990s created problems for sailing chaplain work too. Due to shortage of funds the work was interrupted on cargo ships, and continued only on passenger ships. The crews of the cargo ships were decreased by no less than 60 %, and Finnish sea cargo traffic was practically reduced to a delivery service between Finland and Central Europe. 

The times the ships stayed in ports became shorter again as loading and unloading became more efficient, and the crews smaller. They did not have possibility to go ashore anymore as before. Along with the increasing size of the ships, the crews and the space on board for free time activities had become smaller. That is why the duties and the strategy of the sailing chaplain had to be changed too.

In 1992 one more sailing chaplain working part time was employed on passenger ships. The two sailing chaplains shared their responsibilities between the two big shipping companies. One worked on the Silja Lines ferries, the other on the Viking Line: altogether 12 ships with almost 3.000 crew members.

In 1994 it became possible to start activities again on cargo ships. The Seafarers' Pensions Trust of Finland arranged the necessary funds. Support came because the Seamen's Union together with the shipping companies noticed that activities of sailing chaplains played an important role in preventive mental health care of the personnel. At the same time discussions about quality system and values spread in the maritime world. 

4. The human factor

After the passenger ship Estonia had sunk in 1994, a study revealed that up to 80% of all the accidents at sea were caused by the so called 'human factor'. 

All these things had an effect on sailing chaplain work. In 1996 the shipping company, Rettig Ltd. Bore, asked the Seamen's Mission to begin sailing chaplain work on their six ships.

The activity would be part of their documented quality system (ISO 9002) and the personnel care at sea. A written agreement was established with the shipping company based on the following points: 

  • The purpose of sailing chaplain work is to support the working community and the individual seafarer in different life situations; 
  • The activity should be based on confidentiality and professional secrecy;
  • It should not interfere with the performance of an individual seafarer or the working community;
  • The chaplain should be in charge of potential debriefing processes as part of the care of an individual seafarer or the working community after potential crises or accidents

As the sailing capacity of one sailing chaplain on the cargo ships was only four to six ships a year, it was necessary to create a new strategy.

The work was spreading fast. Several big Finnish shipping companies wanted the service on board their ships. (Silja Line, Viking Line, Lang Ship, ENGSHIP, FG-Shipping, and the icebreakers.) That is why more sailing chaplains had to be acquired without delay. The solution was to start training the employees of the parishes who would sail for a period of about one week twice a year and make ship visits five to ten times a year on the same ship. These so-called assistant sailing chaplains would commit themselves orally to the work for three years. 

The training consists of two week-ends every year, in which the participants study the life and dilemmas of an individual seafarer, debriefing methods and work guidance. Assistant sailing chaplains get their salaries either from the Seamen's Mission or the parish where they are employed. 

5. The involvement of Parishes

Nowadays the parishes pay two-thirds of the salaries of the assistant sailing chaplains. 

A separate written agreement was made to allow the employee of the parish to:

1) operate for three years as a sailing chaplain on Finnish ships operating in the Baltic Sea so that the sailings, ship visits and training for the work are a part of his/her work in the parish; and,

2) in case of an accident affecting the crew of the ship designated to the sailing chaplain or a catastrophe affecting the whole society, make him/herself available for psychological and spiritual care during a period that will be negotiated separately with his/her superior for each case.

At present sailing chaplain work is carried out on 40 out of the 110 Finnish cargo ships in foreign traffic, on all the icebreakers (eight altogether) and on 13 passenger ships (out of a total of 20). Thus sailing chaplains are on board 61 Finnish ships.

There are three full time sailing chaplains and 55 assistants. All together they sailed totally about 1000 calendar days last year. Sailing chaplains meet about 300 to 500 seafarers. The meeting is a true encounter during which a personal discussion on some level takes place. The quality standard for the discussions is high.

Acquiring more personnel is done mainly by employing staff from the parishes on a short-term basis. Training and motivating these persons is going smoothly, but their availability for sailing chaplain work can sometimes be difficult due to the staff policies and bureaucracy in the parishes. Long-term agreements are made with assistant sailing chaplains in order to ensure continuity and high standard of the work. 

Our own qualified educators keep the number of full time permanent sailing chaplains at a level sufficient to ensure the training of the assistant sailing chaplains. It is also important to ensure that there will be a reserve of persons who take charge in case of an emergency.

The shipping companies that have signed the agreement now pay FIM 4,000, nearly 1,000 USD for every ship they have registered in Finland. Sailing chaplain work is done on ships that have Finnish crews, and the companies within the agreement have mainly Finnish crews.

The work on board is concentrated on discussions both during working hours and free time. Separate free time activities are not arranged anymore because of lack of time and sufficiently large meeting places for the personnel. 

Sailing chaplain work is done by professionals who get training and continuous guidance for the work. Feedback from the ships is obtained after every sailing from questionnaires that are given to crew members. The shipping companies comment on the results of the work, and the meetings of the quality system committee indicate that sailing chaplain work is doing well.

6. Concentrating on the know-how 

Sailing chaplain work was a successful innovation for which the demand is constantly increasing. 70% of the trade outside the European Community and 30% within it use sea transportation. Short distance shipping as well as traffic in the Baltic Sea are increasing. Sailing chaplain work is not tied to Finnish nationality as shipping companies using multinational labour force are also willing to take care of their personnel. 

The professional nature of sailing chaplain work and the close co-operation with shipping companies on the level of mutual agreements is creating a pressure in our society for developing similar quality systems that the shipping companies have. 

By this means it is possible to describe the kind of demands the Seamen's Mission can meet in this sector. At the same time it helps to promote its own status and to clarify its identity.

7. Some duties of a sailing chaplain 

The shipping company sends an invitation and gives permission for a chaplain to go on board a ship, and the seafarers on their part do the same. It is important that all parties concerned accept the sailing chaplain on board. We should not do anything without permission either from the shipping company itself or the captain of the ship concerned or the Finnish Seamen's Union. The task of the chaplain is to support the working community and the individual seafarer in different life situations and not to interfere with the performance of an individual seafarer or the working community. The sailing chaplain is to be in charge of potential debriefing processes as part of the care of an individual seafarer or the working community after crises or accidents.

Disasters that have occurred have increased the need of psychological approaches to human nature among seafarers in general. That is why our seafarers' ministry training aims at developing knowledge and understanding of human behaviour. The employees of the Seamen's Mission can also give support and training for treating post-traumatic stress disorders. No untrained persons are sent to the ships. 

The duties of a sailing chaplain are divided into four parts. First, before noon, s/he can take part in the ordinary work of the seafarers: on the deck, in the machine room or kitchen. The purpose is to get an insight in the daily routines of the seafarers and at the same time get an opportunity to chat with them spontaneously. While scraping off rust, for example, it is easier to talk. There should be a lot of time for silence and room for thoughts. Talking becomes easier also because those involved in it are not forced to look at each other all the time.

The second part can take place in the afternoon when the sailing chaplain can be free of other duties and present at different working places, available for those who cannot talk while they are actually performing their duties. 

The third part can be organised to take place during the leisure time of the seafarers. That could consist of different kinds of competitions, theme evenings and language courses. It is important to be aware of the fact that free-time activities are an instrument for pastoral care and attempts to improve the personal relations among the crew. They are not done simply for their own sake.

The fourth part consists of services, prayer meetings or other spiritual happenings that are suggested by the crew members themselves. The principle of all spiritual activities is that they must be approved by everybody and arranged in a place where nobody can enter accidentally.

8. The role of the sailing chaplain

The sailing chaplain is not on board as a minister of the Church who has come to cure the sick seafarers fighting with their problems but FOR SHARING LIFE EXPERIENCES, EMOTIONS, BOREDOM, JOY, DISTRESS AND SADNESS that s/he is feeling herself/himself. 

However, the sailing chaplain has experience of pastoral counselling and can therefore ask the kind of questions and propose ideas that can be helpful to the seafarer and even to himself/herself to find solutions in crisis situations. But it is possible that the sailing chaplain cannot help at all. That is why it is important to be prepared for the worst; for example, somebody may commit suicide. Then it is good to know how to take care of situations that create tremendous feelings of guilt.

The sailing chaplain must be prepared for everything on board. Anything can happen. On the other hand it is important that the sailing chaplain learns to be him/herself. It is not necessary to talk all the time or to ask how the others are doing. One must know how to be quiet and listen. It is good to remember: YOU MUST BE YOURSELF, THE WAY YOU ARE IN YOUR OWN HOME. 

The sailing chaplain is not an intermediary or a hero on board, but s/he must learn to be himself/herself. At dinner table s/he is not supposed to lead the discussion. It should be possible to watch TV in the mess without a single comment or to sit in one's own cabin alone in peace. On the other hand if somebody asks or otherwise makes it understood, or if a situation just suddenly rises, one has to be ready to jump into the task. Life on the ship is like being cowboy in the Wild West: One has to be prepared to draw the revolver of listening, thinking and talking at any time. 

While working it is easier to start talking about things that bother one's mind, especially if one feels confident in the company of the sailing chaplain. For instance, one can talk about working stress on board, about anxiety, fears or lack of self-esteem. Other subjects can be different life crises, traumatic experiences, diseases, problems at home or with the children, economic worries, difficulties in marriage, divorces, sorrows, thoughts of suicide and things like that. 

The purpose is to share the everyday life of the seafarer and to share what is experienced together. At the same time it is possible to talk about different things in life without any hurry, taking long breaks that can last hours, even days. One does not have to look the other in the eyes; there is no stress or schedule for the discussion. 

The ship is the seafarer's home. That is why it is important to be discreet, act on the terms of the ship and the individual seafarer. The sailing chaplain work is being done in the seafarer's working place, in his/her living room, kitchen, sauna, etc. It is not to be automatically assumed that the sailing chaplain is accepted in this intimate community. 

Once accepted on the ship, s/he has the same rights to be on board and consider it as his/her home as the seafarer has. The sailing chaplain is not to comment officially on the work performance of the seafarers or problems caused by human relations while working.

9. Speaking about God

Can the sailing chaplain speak about God, religion and forgiveness when he thinks it is necessary?

While the sailing chaplain is on board, s/he is in the seafarer's home and lives according to these terms. It is the seafarer who will define the subjects s/he is ready to talk about. It is better to listen what the seafarer wants, because we are there to support him/her. If the seafarer clearly wants to talk about spiritual things or get a religious aspect into his/her life, then it is appropriate to talk about them. What has become true for our part does not necessarily happen in the seafarer's life. Then we would have lost "our game". The purpose is not to convert the seafarer but to help him. To have the sailing chaplain on board is already a spiritual happening in the seafarer's life. And for many a meaningful experience.

The seafarer should lead the chaplain into the potential religious solutions, for we have noticed that his/her presence is often experienced as if God himself came on board. The sailing chaplain becomes easily Gods eyes, ears, and hands. 

Divine services and prayer meetings take place mainly by request of the seafarers. It is possible that there is no need at all to organise any. The most common times for arranging a divine service or a prayer meeting are ecclesiastical holy days like Christmas and Easter. The happenings must be arranged so that the whole crew has given its acceptance, and in a place everybody accepts. It must be a place where nobody can enter by accident. That is why the mess is not a good place. The time must be chosen so that it is not dinner time or other general time of going to the fridge. Afterwards the sailing chaplain is not supposed to ask anybody, "Why did you not attend?" Having to answer that question can be embarrassing and uncomfortable. 

The sailing chaplain should try to bring the forgiving and merciful God to the seafarers through your her/his own actions, and s/he should accept all kinds of people. One can introduce religious advice, for instance, in prayer meetings, but they must be introduced as options. If the sailing chaplain wants to use some examples from the ship, s/he should use herself/himself as an example. Then s/he will not break the rules of confidentiality. A prayer meeting or a divine service on the ship is an exception that seldom takes place. Just the presence of the sailing chaplain on board is a divine service.

All the activities must be based on confidentiality and professional secrecy.

10. The Estonia disaster 

At the time of the Estonia accident there were about 150 local crisis groups in Finland. After Estonia the development in this field has been very fast, and the motivation for organising the work has been quite high. At the same time, the development of the pastoral counselling program of the Church was started, and employees of the Church were trained for crisis work. 

In this connection the crisis preparedness system of the Finnish Seamen's Mission was being developed as well. The close call with the car ferry Sally Albatross in the winter of 1993 speeded up the development of the catastrophe preparedness system. Good training with an efficient and well-tested preparedness system were seen as necessary for successful work. 

The intensified work of the sailing chaplains on board the ships continued for several weeks after the accident. It was easy to understand that the sinking of the ship that sailed earlier with another name under the Finnish flag and with a Finnish crew awoke frightful thoughts in the minds of those who had been working on board earlier. This group of seafarers was partly testifying the catastrophe of their long term working place on board other ships. 

The Estonia' s accident made the crews of all passenger ships see, in a most cruel and concrete way, the special nature of their working place. The new ships sailing between Finland and Sweden have often been among the biggest and finest in the world, actually floating hotels and restaurants. 

A large part of the personnel are restaurant and hotel workers, the number of actual seafarers among the crew of 100-300 persons is very small. The size and the high class furnishing of the ships can have affected the passengers and the personnel in such a way that they considered safety as something obvious and guaranteed. 

On the other hand many seafarers that are accommodated on the decks down below in their working place have often been wondering about the possibilities of saving themselves in the case of an accident. The Estonia catastrophe shocked the passenger traffic that had been considered as absolutely safe. The employees of the Seamen's Mission were giving support to the individual seafarers while they were working through in their minds the reactions caused by the accident. 

The employees of the Finnish Seamen's Mission were also supporting seafarers working on board of cargo ships sailing both under Finnish or foreign flags. Training for treating post-traumatic stress disorders had already been started earlier, but not everyone had taken part in it, and the system had not reached beyond the theoretical level.

Prayer meetings and memorial services were arranged at different seamen's churches on the day of the accident and afterwards as well. The Seamen's Mission also sent a memorial text that could be used on the ships in connection with memorial services for those drowned at sea. Services were arranged in the bigger parishes as well. In Turku, Finland, the Archbishop himself led the memorial service on the night of the accident. On the first anniversary the Archbishop participated in the memorial service too. Then the seamen's church of Turku was in the focus of extraordinary media attention as the Church of Finland arranged no similar occasion. 

The Finnish people were strongly living through the emotions aroused by the Estonia with the help of the media. The expectations for the memorial service at the seamen's church in Turku were so great that at a few hours notice the Archbishop had to be called to came to help the personnel.

The Finnish Seamen's Mission was one of the main organisations involved in the memorial ceremony for the victims, arranged at sea on the 26th of November 1994. The Seamen's mission sent seven chaplains who offered pastoral counselling on board. At the ceremony at sea, there were mostly Estonian families: it was very impressive.

11. New developments: the ICMA Sailing Chaplain project

An international and ecumenical programme of "Sailing Chaplains", which will last for two and a half years, was launched in the Finnish Seamen's Church in Antwerp, Belgium, on January 15, 2000. 

The International Christian Maritime Association (I.C.M.A.) and the Seafarers' International Research Centre (S.I.R.C.) of the University of Cardiff, UK, have agreed to collaborate on this research project. It is aimed at improving the quality of life for seafarers of all nationalities, ranks and religion, on board commercial vessels, whether passenger or cargo, through the fraternal presence of a Chaplain. It is sponsored by the Seafarers Trust Fund of the International Transport-workers Federation (ITF).

Established with the participation of three member Societies of the International Christian Maritime Association, this research programme will extend the existing Finnish Seamen's Church (FSC) scheme of sailing chaplains on Finnish ships, re-start the German Seamen's Mission (GSM) scheme, and initiate a new scheme organised by the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS). Two chaplains have been recruited from each Society.

12. Conclusion 

Our mission has been the pioneer within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland when it started making the church services available to those working in the transport trade. It can also be said that the sailing chaplain project, started by the Finnish Seamen's Mission, has been pioneering work within the seafarers' ministry world-wide.

Projet d’Aumônier navigant dans la Mission Maritime Finlandaise


Il fallait trouver une solution au problème pastoral constitué par la difficulté grandissante pour les Aumôniers de visiter les marins à bord lorsqu’ils sont au port : escales plus courtes, plan de travail de plus en plus lourd lorsque le navire est à quai, et le fait qu’aujourd’hui beaucoup de ports fonctionnent 24h sur 24, et le weekend.. 

La Mission Finlandaise pour les marins a décidé dès 1983 de lancer un programme pastoral consistant à faire naviguer des aumôniers, avec l’autorisation des armateurs et des syndicats de marins, pour des périodes d’une à deux semaines sur des navires Finlandais de commerce ou de passagers. 

Cela a coïncidé avec une prise de conscience plus grande de la part des opérateurs de navires, de l’importance du facteur humain dans l’efficacité des équipages et la sécurité à bord. Certaines compagnies maritimes contribuent même financièrement aujourd’hui à ce programme. Les paroisses ont aussi accepté de prendre en charge le ministère pastoral de ces aumôniers. Avec le temps ceux-ci sont aussi devenus plus expérimentés pour faire face à des situations humaines tragiques d’urgence et de désastre (comme après le naufrage de l’Estonia). 

L’aumônier partage la vie de l’équipage à bord, toujours prêt à rendre service, écouter, il partage aussi leurs moments de loisir. L’aumônier doit se considérer comme l’hôte dans la ‘maison’ des marins et agir en conséquence. Il s’interdit donc tout prosélytisme, et attend que la conversation sur Dieu vienne de la part des marins. Dans la mesure où cela est requis par les individus ou les équipages, il organise des activités spirituelles.

C’est l’expérience d’aumôniers navigants sur des navires de commerce ou de passagers de l’Eglise Luthérienne Finlandaise qui a encouragé l’Association Chrétienne Maritime Internationale (I.C.M.A) et le Centre International de Recherche sur la Santé des Marins (S.I.R.C) de l’Université de Cardiff (U.K.), à lancer un programme de recherche qui durera deux ans et demi et auquel participeront deux aumôniers Luthériens Finlandais, deux Aumôniers Luthériens Allemands et deux Aumôniers Catholiques Philippins. L’objectif de cette recherche est de mieux évaluer les fruits de la présence d’un aumônier pour améliorer la qualité de vie des marins à bord des navires modernes. 

La Mission Maritime Finlandaise est fière d’avoir été une pionnière dans ce nouveau ministère non seulement au sein de l’Eglise Luthérienne Finlandaise, mais aussi dans la pratique du ministère pastoral des gens de mer dans le monde entier.

Projekt der 'auf See fahrenden' Pastoren innerhalb der finnischen Seemanns-Mission


Es muß eine Lösung gefunden werden für das pastorale Problem, entstanden durch die enormen Schwierigkeiten, die es den Seemanspastoren fast unmöglich machen, die Seeleute während ihres Aufenthaltes im Hafen an Bord zu besuchen: Kürzere Aufenthalte, eine immer härtere Arbeitszeit, wenn das Schiff im Hafen vor Anker liegt, und die Tatsache, daß es heute in vielen Häfen eine durchgehende Arbeitszeit von 24 Stunden pro Tag gibt, die Wochendenden eingeschlossen.

Die finnische Seemanns-Mission hat bereits l983 entschieden, ein Pastoral-Programm zu starten, daß mit Einverständnis des Reeders und der Seemanns-Gewerkschaft vorsieht, einen Geistlichen für ein oder zwei Wochen an Bord der finnischen Fracht- oder Personenschiffe zu entsenden.

Die Verantwortlichen auf den Schiffen wurden sich immer mehr bewußt, daß der menschliche Faktor für eine gute Arbeit und auch für die Sicherheit an Bord wichtig ist. Gewisse Schiffahrts-Gesellschaften tragen heute auch selbst finziell zu diesem Programm bei. Auch die Pfarreien haben sich bereit erklärt, die pastoralen Aufgaben dieser Seelsorger mitzutragen. Mit der Zeit haben sich diese Experimente weiter entwickelt, um den dringenden tragischen menschlichen Situationen, besonders auch bei Unglücken abzuhelfen (besonders nach der Katastrophe der Estonia).

Der Seelsorger teilt mit der Besatzung das Leben an Bord, er ist immer bereit beizustehen, zuzuhören und auch die Augenblicke der Freizeit mit ihnen zu teilen. Der Seelsorger muß sich als Gast im "Haus" der Seeleute betrachten und dementsprechend handeln. Er muß jede Art von Proselytismus meiden und warten, daß die Seeleute das Gespräch auf Gott bringen. In der Weise wie dies von den einzelnen Personen oder von der Besatzung gewünscht wird, wird er auch geistliche Aktivitäten organisieren und anbieten.

Diese Erfahrung der 'seefahrenden' Pastoren der Lutherischen Kirche Finnlands auf den Fracht- oder Passaggierschiffen hat die Internationale Christliche Seemanns Vereinigung (I.C.M.A.) und das Internationale Forschungs-Institut über die Gesundheit der Seeleute (S.I.R.C.) der Universität von Cardiff (Großbritannien) ermutigt, ein Untersuchungs-Programm von der Dauer von zweieinhalb Jahren zu starten, an dem 2 lutherische Pastöre aus Finnland, zwei lutherische Pastöre aus Deutschland und zwei katholische Seelsorger aus den Philippinen teilnehmen sollen. Ziel dieser Untersuchung soll sein, die durch die Anwesenheit eines Seelsorgers bereits erzielten Ergebnisse besser auszuwerten, um die Lebensqualität der Seeleute an Bord der mordernen Schiffe zu verbessern.

Die finnische Seefahrer-Mission ist stolz darauf, daß sie Pionier in diesem neuen Amt war, nicht allein im Rahmen der lutherischen Kirche Finnlands, sondern auch in der Ausführung der pastoralen Aufgaben unter den Menschen auf See in der ganzen Welt.