When Ethan Spivey of The Mission Chattanooga took his students whitewater rafting last summer, he didn’t expect to find himself in a perilous position. Here, he shares what the experience taught him about true leadership and submission.

This summer I had the opportunity to take our students whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River. I had been looking forward to this all summer long. I think I was more excited than the students!

There’s something about the water that I love. God seems to use it in teaching me many spiritual lessons that I never forget. I knew that He was going to teach me something, but I wasn’t prepared for this…

The night before we went rafting, our leadership sat around a table and started to piece together who would be in what raft with each other. There would be a guide and six to eight students in each raft. I soon learned that the rafting company was providing us with three guides, but our leadership team would fill in as the other guides.

They started naming off the guides, and all of a sudden, I heard my name being called! Most of you are probably wondering, “Why is that such a big deal?” It really wasn’t a big deal, except for the fact that I had never been whitewater rafting in my life, let alone guided others down a river! They saw the panicked look on my face, and asked me if that was going to be ok. I agreed, knowing that there really wasn’t anyone else to lead.

As you can imagine, I didn’t really get much sleep that night. The next morning we made our way to the river. I prayed non-stop on the drive there. The rafting company geared us up and gave us the general safety guidelines, as well as how to paddle (I listened intently to every single word). It’s fair to say that I was afraid, but was about to face this fear head on. Our camp director gave me a few guiding tips right before hopping into our raft.

It was now or never.

We slowly started making our way down the river, and surprisingly did very well. We avoided most of the trees that hung over the river and many of the surfaced boulders along the way. I quickly learned that I couldn’t do everything for our raft. It was too exhausting for me on my own. I had to learn to delegate and depend upon my raft mates for support. My job was simply to steer us in the right direction, while vocally leading my raft mates when to paddle and what direction to paddle. We only got stuck on one boulder for the entire journey down river, and no one was thrown from our raft during the rapids and the falls. Though it was difficult, we successfully navigated and conquered the Nantahala River.

On the bus ride back to our vans, I began to process the experience and felt the Holy Spirit begin speaking to me. He said this: “It’s extremely difficult to lead people to a place you’ve never been before. But if you submit to my way, I’ll lead you to that place so that you can show others how to get to the shore of the Father too.”

Proverbs 21:1-2 says, “The king’s heart is like a channel of water directed by the Eternal: He chooses which way He bends it. Everyone may think his own way of living is right, but the Eternal examines our hearts” (The Voice).

Godly leadership is led by submission. Leadership under God’s mission will always accomplish God’s work. The kings of Israel who submitted to God and His ways experienced the fruit of being in communion with Him. Yet the kings who would not submit ended in their own destruction, and the people of Israel suffered the consequences. Leaders in the church must always remain followers of King Jesus, because He has been where we haven’t, and can lead us as we lead others. Godly leaders are always following, and godly followers are always learning.

May we bend our will to the rhythm of the river of our Lord Jesus, the Liberating King.

Ethan Spivey and his wife, Lizzie, live in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He serves as the Youth Ministry Director at The Mission Chattanooga and is currently in development to become a priest. Contact Ethan.