New Mercies: Dr. Gary Brandenburg
mercy-ships-podcast-new-mercies-episode-50-dr-gary-brandenberg-feature

Keeping a Kingdom Mindset

Dr. Gary Brandenburg serves as the International Spiritual Development Officer for Mercy Ships. In this role, Gary is the pastor that oversees all the chaplains both on and off our ships. 

He worked in pastoral ministry for over 40 years, and throughout his church ministry, he became acquainted with Mercy Ships. Through the years, he has taken on various volunteer roles, from board member to training local pastors in the countries where Mercy Ships was serving. When he retired from church ministry, God opened the doors for him to officially join the staff of Mercy Ships, and there couldn’t be someone more suited for his position. In this episode, Gary shares his passion for keeping the Kingdom ministry of Mercy Ships central. He highlights the unique aspects of his role and offers encouraging stories of transformation as well as inspiration for us all in this new year.

Looking for a way to join our mission of bringing hope and healing? Partner with us through a giftvolunteering with us, or by joining us in prayer.

New Mercies Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the New Mercies, a podcast by Mercy Ships, where we’ll take you behind the scenes and on board our incredible hospital ships that are transforming lives all over the world. We invite you to join us each week as we sit down with our crew, patients, volunteers, and partners to hear their stories of life-changing hope and healing.

Today we kick off season three of New Mercies and I’m excited to welcome Dr. Gary Brandenburg to the podcast. Gary is our international Spiritual Development Officer, which means that he is the pastor to all of our chaplains both on and off ships. He’s an incredible man of God and he’s here with an encouraging word for all of us as we walk into a new year. Here is my interview with Gary Brandenburg.

Raeanne Newquist:

Gary, welcome to New Mercies and welcome to a brand-new year. Happy New Year!

Gary Brandenburg:

Yeah. Happy New Year to you. I hope this new year is as exciting as last year.

Raeanne:

That’s the truth. Now going into a new year, do you often make resolutions or goals?

Gary:

No, I don’t, but I do think through what would I like this new year to look like and goals? Yes. Resolutions? No. I think I’m already behind in my Bible reading for the year.

Raeanne:

No, shoot. Well, I think you’ve got a long flight coming up, maybe you can catch up in the air. But as a pastor, give us a verse of encouragement for the new year.

Gary:

There’s a couple of verses that really hit me recently. I did a funeral for a 26-year-old young man who accidentally shot himself and I do believe it was accidental. But it was still very, very difficult. And when you’re trying to stand up in front of a bunch of grieving people to try and give some sort of context, and some comforting words, I came upon Psalm 131, which I think is a good verse to start the year with. The psalmist says, “oh, Lord, my heart is not lifted up. My eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great, and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me, oh, Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth, and forevermore.”

Just three verses, but it really spoke to me, particularly in light of all the craziness that’s been going on in our world. And then, of course, on top of that, I had to do his funeral. And it made me think we try to figure all this kind of stuff out. And of course, it even gets political and people arguing with each other. And it seems like, there’s so much hostility anymore. And I think at times, we just need to settle down. And just realize, you know, what we’re going to, we’re going to finish the race. And we won’t have answers to all of the questions. But the only answer that really matters is that God is our Father, that he is too wise to ever make a mistake, too kind to ever be cruel, and nothing touches us that doesn’t first pass through his loving hands. And so this is just really encouraging to me at the first of the year to just say, God, whatever you have, for me this year, I’m just going to be quiet, not try to figure things out, but lead me as I try to make good decisions, no matter what comes.

Raeanne:

That’s a good word. I know for me, too, the comfort comes in the fact that God is with us. His presence is with us. You know, we just celebrated Christmas and the coming of Emmanuel — God with us. Come what may, whatever it is that this year holds, God will be with us.

Well, you are just about to get on a plane to go over to Tenerife, to visit both of our vessels. Why don’t you tell us the purpose of your trip and what you’ll be doing there.

Gary:

Because I have this very exalted title, International Spiritual Development Officer — that doesn’t tell anybody much! but I do oversee all the chaplains and we have lots of chaplains. We’ve got chaplains at our international service center or headquarters, we’ve got chaplains on each ship, and we have two kinds of Chaplains. We got crew chaplains, we’ve got hospital chaplains, we even have some remote chaplains that we reach out to from time to time because they do member care, counseling kinds of thing. So I oversee all of that and right now because both ships are together, it’s a perfect time for me to show up there in the Canaries and be able to gathered together all the chaplains that are there. So I have a chance to get to know them a little bit, our CEO will be there as well and I teach the first Thursday of every month at our global gathering — this will be the first global gathering of the year on the Global Mercy and alongside the CEO, and we’re going to tag team and so that’s the purpose of the trip.

Raeanne:

Oh, that’s exciting. Now, how long will you be gone for?

Gary:

I’m only going to be gone a week this time.

Raeanne:

Okay, quick turnaround. Now you tell us that you are the International Spiritual Development Officer, tell us a little bit how that came about and what is your relationship with Mercy Ships prior to this?

Gary:

Believe it or not, I think I first encountered Mercy Ships in 1986. I think it was I was pastoring in the Bay area of California and the ship at that time, the Anastasias was in port in San Francisco. And my wife and I just happened to be over one day, we were planting a church, about 60 miles inland, and so we were in San Francisco hanging out and I saw the ship and I thought, well, I’ve heard about that ship. And they were giving tours, so I went on the Anastasias. And I still remember, I just thought, Man, I’m going to pray for this ministry. Because what a phenomenal opportunity for discipleship. And so that’s how I first got familiar.

And then lo and behold, in 1990, we moved to Tyler, Texas. And little did we know that we would be 20 miles away from the headquarters of Mercy Ships. And so as I started pastoring there and Tyler, I started to have people from Mercy Ships coming to my church and got acquainted with the founder, Don Stephens and several other people. And the next thing you know, in 1992, I headed to Senegal and actually taught there. Before long, I was on one of the Mercy Ships boards. And that led to eventually being on the international board, and we moved to Dallas. When I felt like my time as a lead pastor was coming to an end, I was sort of in the fourth quarter of life, I still am. It’s even later in the fourth quarter. Might be the two-minute warning, I don’t know. But it was kind of strange, because I when I handed over the reins of the church to a younger guy, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. And then the CEO of Mercy Ships said, would you consider coming to work for us?

He said, look, you’ve had a lot of experience with Mercy Ships, you’ve been a pastor for over 40 years, you know, we’ve grown incredibly as an organization, and as a result, maybe have become more humanitarian than Christian. Or at least we’ve started to lean that way. And we want to maintain our founding principles, and our passion for Jesus following the 2000 year old model of Jesus. So would you come on board and lead us in that way? And so I did two years ago. And you know, it’s been an adventure.

I always tell people, Mercy Ships is absolutely an impossible ministry. Let’s start from the beginning, you know, that what we do is impossible, right? As we’re a bunch of people that are suddenly forced into the shipping business, now we’re Maritimers, because we’re on ships. And not only that, but now we’re forced into the hospital business, because our ships are hospitals. And now let’s see if we can do all of that with volunteers. And then let’s see if we can get world class surgeons to come and work on our ships. And then I know what we’ll do, let’s also go to the poorest places on the planet, that are most resource deprived, we’ll do it there! And then, oh, here’s another idea, how about nobody can stay longer than two years, we’re just rotating people through. It’s impossible! By the grace of God it works and people’s lives are saved. So yeah, it’s exciting to be part of all of that, as challenging as it can be.

Raeanne:

Gary, I have to say that I’ve had the privilege of sitting under your teaching, both on board and off ship and you really are a gift to Mercy Ships. And it is so wonderful to have someone who is the consistent pastoral presence of Mercy Ships. I think because you have such a great history of ministry, as a senior pastor, you really bring a lot of interesting things. For example, we sat under your teaching for, I think it was called Repurpose — that was several weeks on board that several crew members could be a part of this time of kind of rediscovering your gifts and your purpose with God and your ministry goals and different things. It was very helpful, and it was wonderful. So I know that you are a huge blessing to the organization. You have been on board our ships over the last couple of years, multiple times at these little intervals. So you’re flying over for maybe three weeks, and flying back, sometimes you get to bring your wife, which is fun. So as you’ve gone, can you share with us maybe some of your highlight moments of these little quick trips that you take?

Gary:

I think some of the highlight moments are, well, I guess there are a couple of things. One would be interaction with our day crew. Our day crew are people who are locals. There are people who know the language of the locals. And, and oftentimes they’re Muslim because we work it mostly in Muslim countries. So to be able to sit at the table, I mean, I dare say there are very few pastors in America that can sit around the table with a bunch of wonderful Muslim friends, and share from the scriptures and talk about it. In a world where everybody’s scared to death of Muslims and, and Muslims probably are scared to death of Christians, I don’t know, this is rare.

We just had two situations where some Muslims came for surgery, and they had dreams. And when they came to the ship, they had had a dream of a man walking on the water, who was going to help them. And you know, Dr. Gary Parker, who’s been with us for over 30 years as a surgeon, when Gary Parker walked in, he said, Hey, you’re the man in my dream! He had dreamed about this man. And then later, he said, while I was there, I saw Jesus walking down the hall. Now this is a Muslim man and he said he saw Jesus walking down the hall. And he went into the operating room. And he said, You were doing a surgery, but it was Jesus’ hands, that we’re actually doing a surgery as you stood there.

You know, I’m sort of a skeptic by nature. So I don’t fall prey to some of those kinds of stories all the time. But this man has no reason to make that up. When you when you realize that God is at work among people that may have no church presence or gospel presence. And, you know, I always say that we are a sign and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. And that was what Jesus was obsessed with was the kingdom of God, a place where there’s no more tumors. No more lame people, no more blind people. And people getting along together. Yeah, those are the things that excite me when I get involved and see that.

Of course, it’s always inspiring meeting new people, especially some of our medical people. We have some of the most wonderful medical servants and to be with them and to see what the kinds of sacrifices they make. I mean, Gary Parker is a good example. God only knows what he could have made on the open market as a maxillofacial surgeon, but he has lived on that ship for 30 some years and raised his family on this ship. And he just uses his skills to glorify God, it’s pretty amazing.  I never go on all those trips that I don’t come away, totally inspired and ready to re-enlist.

Raeanne:

Well, is it difficult to have different crew onboard every time you go? Does it feel like you’re starting over every time? What are some of the things that are the same? And how do you deal with the challenges of dealing with new crew every time?

Gary:

Yeah, that’s one of the things I didn’t mention when I went through the whole list of why it’s an impossible ministry. One of the other things that makes it impossible, there’s over 40 cultures on the ship. People from so many different countries speaking different languages. But I have to say, as a pastor Raeanne, it’s wonderful to have new people every time you go because you can use the same old sermon! As a pastor, you’re only as good as your last message. So you got to come up with a new one every week. But I can reuse messages with new crew!

Raeanne:

I love that! Is there somebody in the organization who you’ve met over the past many years that maybe has impacted you or somebody that you’ve learned something from?

Gary:

Well, I, that’s a long list. I think at my age, hopefully, I have developed a sober sense of self awareness and people that maybe when I was in my 20s, I may have worshipped, I realize now they’re just exercising their gifts, and it’s a wonderful thing to behold. You know, when we went through Repurpose, I start with the Mark Twain quote, that the two most important days of our lives are the day we’re born and the day we discover why. So Repurpose is an idea of taking your life and saying, you know, what is my unique contribution? That’s what inspires me the most about Mercy Ships, you take Don Stevens, of course he’s the top of the list, he started the whole thing. But Don is a visionary. That’s how he thinks. And I understand that, I’ve got just enough of that quality that I realize visionaries oftentimes throw ideas out there but they don’t want to be burdened with the details. And that’s why there are people who are detail oriented, who don’t like visionaries. Because they’re stuck with the details. Don is amazing, I mean, what he sees — there probably are going to be some interesting announcements coming out in the next year about some things he’s seen coming up that I think are going to be really exciting. Gary and Susan Parker, my goodness, what kind of faithfulness does it take to do what they’ve done? So it makes me think, I need to be like that.

You know, we just had an interesting situation where one of our chaplains had a particular experience in his own life going way back, that he was perfectly equipped to handle an emergency, because he had been through some of the same things that this troubled person was experiencing, and to watch how God just puts people where they need to be — that always inspires me. And I think it’s good because I recognize it in them and I know someone recognizes it in me. I’ve always said, when people asked me what my spiritual gifts are, I always say, Well, I’m the wrong guy to ask. You know, because God didn’t give them to me for me. But I see them in others and that’s inspiring when you see how God uses you.

My friend Eric is a chief engineer and he’s in that engine room and he knows how it all works. I go down there, and he’ll show me stuff that I don’t even begin to understand — this is the capacitor and flux capacitor and… I would have no idea, but he does, it’s just how he’s wired. I love watching that. I think to be in an environment with so many highly accomplished, and brilliant people at the same time, who are very humble and kind — it just completely inspires you every day just to be in their presence.

Raeanne:

Gary, you know, we’re in the business, if you will, of changing lives. As a pastor, you are always hoping to facilitate transformation, whether it be spiritually, emotionally, mentally, what have you. And then in Mercy Ships, we do a lot of physical transformation. But we’re seeing lives changed all the time. Can you tell us maybe about a life that you’ve seen changed because of Mercy Ships?

Gary:

Well, DK would certainly be one. But you told his story. So I won’t repeat it. That is an amazing story. People would be really encouraged by his story. Here’s a kind of a sideways way of answering this — years ago, back when Mercy Ships had a ship in the Caribbean, it was the Caribbean Mercy, and I was pastoring, I made it my ambition, that every six or eight months, I would go to the ship with the purpose of putting on a pastor’s conference for the pastors in that port city area. And we were able to do that. So they would host these pastors who would come on the ship for three or four days and we would study various topics. And what I would do is, I would always take one or two pastors from the US, both to expose them to Mercy Ships and to also expose them to some of those pastors in that area that had so many fewer resources than we enjoy as pastors here.

One of the men I took with me is a very good friend and I always made them make this commitment — If you go with me, you have to identify a pastor in that area, just one, identify a pastor there that God has drawn you to. And what I want you to do is at the end of that pastors conference, I want you to arrange to go back and see that individual and resource that individual and get connected to that pastor, so that you can start an ongoing relationship. So this pastor friend of mine went with me, we went to Nicaragua, and he met a man who he was very impressed with, who was trying to start a church in an area that didn’t have any kind of Bible teaching church. And so my friend started getting involved with him. And they established a Bible training center there in that little village. And it went so well. And then my pastor friend started taking his elders down to be part of the teaching team. And they started another one, and another one. And then my friend started so many of them that he quit pastoring and moved to Costa Rica at the age of 50, to learn Spanish. He now I think, has 30 training centers in South America. It all started with a trip for Mercy Ships and many lives have been changed just by that one simple little trip to Central America. So there’s that kind of life change for sure. That’s sort of sort of tangential to what we do.

Raeanne:

Yeah but the ripple effects are huge, you know, and you touched on something so beautiful. Obviously, God’s not contained to doing transformations just on board our vessels, but someone can come on a short term trip with Mercy Ships, and all of a sudden God ignites something in them, or they see something that they haven’t seen before, and it takes them on a whole different path to do ministry. And you just never know what God’s going to do.

Gary:

Right? Yeah. And obviously, our focus is medical. So I mean, there have been a lot of things that have happened there too, that have changed people’s lives. We just got a fascinating email from a woman who talked about many years ago, when she grew up, the daughter of a missionary in an African country. And she was having some issues. I don’t remember what it was, it was facial related. And someone told her that Mercy Ships was in her country. And she should probably go have somebody look at it, because there was nobody in her country to help. We find often there’s one doctor for every 333 people in the US, and we’re told we have a doctor shortage. One doctor for every 333 of us. The countries we work in Liberia, one doctor for every 17,000 people. Wow. And that’s not a surgeon. So even fewer surgeons. So this young girl at the time went and one of our surgeons looked at her and said, you’ve got to get that taken care of. And it was some sort of threatening kind of tumor like we see. And she had it taken care of. And she was writing us an email all these years later saying I’m so grateful for Mercy Ships. I don’t know what would have happened, I wouldn’t have gotten care. We hear a lot of those things. And those are wonderful stories to hear about.

Raeanne:

Oh, yeah. And to get to be a part of it is just, you know, an added bonus above all else. Well, Gary, how has your life been changed because of Mercy Ships? How are you different?

Gary:

Well, for me personally, as difficult sometimes as it has been to be part and you know, you lived on the ship. As difficult as that is. As Americans, we see poverty from a distance. During halftime of a football game, we see a advertisement with kids with distended bellies, we get sort of immune to it after time. But for me personally, just the opportunity to be with those people, to rub shoulders with those people, to see their smiles to see, you know, to see their joy when they’ve been helped, that just gives me a much better perspective on the world. And hopefully, I do a lot less complaining. I told someone the other day, I was going to the grocery store to get a salad and it used to be get a head of lettuce and you chop it up and put something on it. And now I was in the lettuce department, my wife said bring home a salad and I was in the grocery store and I was overwhelmed. There were 17 Different kinds of salads! I was I was paralyzed. It makes you so thankful and so grateful. Yeah, that’s what’s been helpful to me.

Raeanne:

Well, as we wrap up our time together, I would love to hear from you maybe what your hopes are for the future of the organization, because not only are we going into a new year 2023, but also our new ship, the Global Mercy is just going into its first field service, which is exciting. There’s a lot of newness, and a lot of exciting things coming from Mercy Ships, as the International pastor, what is your hope for the for the future of the organization?

Gary:

I’ll just tell you what I’m focused on now. I mean, my focus for 23 is I want to become the Wizard of Why. If you think of all the interrogatives that journalists use, why, what, how, where, when, who? Mercy Ships is good at most of those, for example, we know what we do. That’s pretty obvious. We know where we do it. It’s pretty much West Africa. We know when we do we have a surgical schedule that will tell you when we do it, we know how we do it. We use hospital ships to bring hope and healing to people. The one area that I think we need to get better at is why. Why do we do it? Do we do it because we’re humanitarians and we just feel sorry for all those poor people. Well, let me tell you something, those poor people don’t feel sorry for themselves. So you know that some of them probably feel sorry for us! So I think the why, and here’s what’s important to me, Jesus, the first things out of his mouth, he spoke of the kingdom of God. Acts chapter one says the last thing out of his mouth he spent 40 days with the disciples, teaching them things concerning the kingdom of God. And in between the first thing that he said and the last thing he said, he constantly said, The kingdom of God is like this. So our why is that we are showing people we’re demonstrating the kingdom of God. This is what the kingdom of God will be like, when Jesus is in authority, when he returns, when all things are under his control. There will be no people with crooked limbs. There’ll be no more massive tumors on people. No more poverty. It will be what the Old Testament calls shalom, which we often interpreted as peace, but it’s much bigger than that. It’s the way things are supposed to be. In our world today, I think we all feel that nothing is the way it’s supposed to be, right. But there is a place where everything is the way I think that’s the hope God has placed in our heart. So my hope is that we as Mercy Ships would get much better at the why. We’ve been preoccupied the last couple of years with a brand new, gorgeous ship. And it’s beautiful to behold. And it’s wonderful. But that’s not why we do what we do. Right? So we got to always keep why in the forefront of our ministry. That’s my hope is that we’re have more and more people that are always looking for wizards of why.

Raeanne

Well, I think that God has placed you in the position that you’re in for such a time as this to be the one to really encourage, inspire, challenge the crew and really the larger staff of Mercy Ships to explore that personally and organizationally. Why? Why do we do what we do? And my hope is, well, is that overall everything would be because we want to bring glory to God. You know, we want him his name to be made known above all else. But we are so grateful, Gary, for your obedience to say yes to God, to take on this incredible role as our International Spiritual Development Officer. It is it is a fancy title. I like it.

Gary:

And if there are any pastors out there or any ministry people, you know, that are interested in chaplaincy, we will need chaplains and it’s a wonderful place to be for a couple of years as you

know.

Raeanne:

And anyone listening if you are interested, please check out our website mercy ships.org/volunteer and you can find out about those chaplaincy opportunities. Gary, thank you so much for sharing with us a little bit about your Mercy Ships journey today.

Gary:

Good to be with you. Thanks for the time.

For more information about Mercy Ships, go to mercyships.org, and to keep up with the guests on New Mercies, follow us on Instagram at NewMerciesPodcast.