Canoeing and Crisis Management

It was a warm, clear night illuminated by a full moon. A stiff breeze kept the mosquitoes away as we relaxed by the campfire. I was leading a group of teenagers on a canoe trip in the wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. As we sat drinking in the beauty of that moment on the shore of Big Crow Lake our eyes were drawn to a light that had begun blinking on the other side of the lake.

We watched in silence for several minutes before one of the adult leaders spoke up. “Duane, it seems that light is flashing in series of threes [the universal distress signal], I wonder if someone is in trouble over there?”

We watched the light continue to blink in distinct series of threes for a little while longer before I made the call. “I guess the only way to know what is going on is to go check it out.”

A few minutes later two men, a teenage boy, and I were zipping up our lifejackets and climbing into two canoes to make the mile-and-a-half trip across the lake to where the light flashed. We didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived, but we wanted to be prepared for any number of contingencies. So we tied a number of items we thought we might need into my canoe—an axe, rope, canteen, sleeping bag, and our first aid kit.

We didn’t realize how strong the wind was until we had pushed off and began paddling. It was blowing hard in our faces, kicking up choppy waves that were big enough to capsize us if we weren’t careful. Fortunately, the full moon was shining in our faces, illuminating the whitecaps and guiding us toward our destination.

As long as we kept our canoe bows pointed toward the moon, we were at the safest angle for paddling into the waves and on the most direct path to the distress signal. We also knew that we had to kneel in our canoes, keeping our centers of gravity low to minimize the risk of capsizing.

As we set out, I called out to the other guys, “Whatever you do, keep paddling! The moment you stop is the moment you no longer control the canoe, and the waves will take you places you don’t want to go.”

I had never faced a canoeing situation like this. With all my years of canoeing—paddling into large waves and a strong headwind at night—this was a first. So my adrenaline was pumping.

Sounds a lot like leading a children’s or teen ministry, doesn’t it?

Ministry Distress Signals
Just when things seem to be going smoothly and you think you can relax and enjoy the beauty of the moment, a distress signal flashes: Conflict amongst workers, behavioral problems, disgruntled parents, sin in the camp, etc.

Suddenly you find yourself on waters that you’ve never been on before, dealing with issues you didn’t know existed while people are looking to you to lead the way.

It’s too late to attend a seminar on conflict management, you can’t call “911,” and you aren’t sure if you have the resources or the know-how to deal with the crisis.
But like it or not, it’s your boat to paddle.

Three Crisis Principles
The key to making it through the storm and handling the crisis you face is to utilize the same principles I used that night on Big Crow Lake: Stay focused on the light and let it guide you, keep your center of gravity low by kneeling, and keep paddling.

Let me explain.

When the author of Hebrews said: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith,” (12:2) he was sharing a foundational truth about life and ministry. Crisis management principles or other tools are just that, tools. But they are powerless if our focus and total dependence is not on Jesus. He is the Light of the world… He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Don’t forget that when you enter the fray.

He has already overcome whatever the enemy is throwing at you—proved through the power of His Resurrection. Stay focused on the Light. He will guide you and get you to where you need to be.

With your eyes fixed on Jesus, keep your center of gravity low, kneeling in humility before the Lord. 1 Peter 5:6–7 (ESV) puts it this way: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

The apostle Paul’s words provide this additional counsel: “. . . praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayers and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18, ESV).

When the storms of crisis are blowing in your face, keep the mental and spiritual posture of kneeling before the Lord, praying in the Spirit. As you do, you will be amazed at how He enables you with His wisdom, insight, and guidance to make your way through the crisis.

The moment you think you can let your experience and skill handle your crisis is when you stand up in your canoe in choppy waters—so don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself swimming!

The third principle is to keep paddling, persevering through the waves of the crisis. As you do, you will experience the presence and strength of Jesus in tangible ways. As 1 Corinthians 10:13 (ESV) says: “. . . God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but . . . will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

Take the way of escape He offers and keep paddling through it. Your perseverance will pay off and you will encounter the presence of Jesus in a way that is only possible in the midst of a storm!

When The Crisis Is Not The Crisis
When we arrived at the campsite where the distress signal originated we discovered it was a false alarm. Though we were upset with the people, we were also relieved that there was no real emergency. But as we turned our canoes towards the direction of our campsite, we didn’t realize the danger that lay ahead.

Whereas before the waves were illuminated by the moonlight, now they were hidden in shadows and only darkness lay before us. The waves were now coming from our blindside behind us, lifting our canoes and dropping them as wave after wave moved pass us. I felt like we were paddling in a dark cauldron where every wave threatened to capsize us. It was an extremely dangerous situation.

But we stayed focused on the tiny pinhead size light of our flickering campfire as we knelt in our canoes and kept paddling, bringing us safely back to camp.

One of the most threatening times in dealing with crisis is immediately after the problem has been resolved and we are heading back to our “camp.” The tendency is to let our guard down and think that we can just coast back to normal. But the path of ministry is littered with casualties who fell victim to this lie – people who let their guard down and took their spiritual armor off, only to find themselves falling into temptation, or returning to a besetting sin.

“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

So stay focused on the Light, keep your center of gravity low, and keep paddling, at all times.

Duane Miller

In 1974 I married my high school sweetheart, Molly. The Lord has blessed us with four daughters and 20 grandchildren. After eighteen years in youth ministry and twenty-one years in solo pastoring, the Lord has led me in a new direction as a ministry coach, event speaker, and author. I recently had a book published by Discovery House Publishers titled: SURVIVOR - A story of tragedy, guilt, and grace. (

Two Responses to “Canoeing and Crisis Management”

  1. Good reminder Duane. I appreciate the 3 principles. We can all get distracted by the waves at times. Another thought… sometimes the waves aren’t the ‘real’ issue. Most of the time the ‘real’ issue(s) are deeper – spiritual ‘shackles’ that the ‘child of God’ allows to bind them. Often times, what appears on the surface is only a human excuse for the behavior or choices of a person. The deeper issue is the heart of man.

    • Good insight Brian. Most often there are deeper issues to crisis than what meet the eye, but it’s the presenting problems that form the very crisis that hit us. Once we are able to make it through the storm of the crisis and back to shore, then we have the firm foundation to unearth the deeper issues, exposing them to the light of the Truth of God’s Word, helping to bring healing and freedom to those bound in shackles of sin.

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