Tips  on spiritual growth, emotional health, and relational healing.


Row the Boat! Getting Unstuck and Moving Again

Dec 13, 2016

“My son died five years ago. Your whole life changes, so there are no bad days after that one.” -P.J. Fleck

Row The Boat!

row the boat western michigan university football

P.J. Fleck is the football coach at Western Michigan University. He has turned the team around in the last couple years. This turnaround came after he lost his own son in 2011. Up until recently, WMU had the worst record in college football. Since then, they’ve won their first bowl game, beat top 25 teams and ended the 2016 regular season with an undefeated record.

At the center of this resurgence, Fleck has been pounding a mantra into his players, the university and the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan at large. The mantra is simple – “Row The Boat.” In speaking to Scott Van Pelt on ESPN’s SportsCenter this fall, Fleck explained the Row Your Boat mentality.

“The oar is the energy you bring to your life. You choose whether you oar is in or out of the water…the boat is your sacrifice – what are you willing to give for something you’ve never had?…The compass is the direction you’re headed – who are you surrounding yourself with?”

***Fleck’s message is inspiring. (You can watch the full interview here.) One of the men who attends my church shared this video and story with me after a recent service.

In the service, I had shared a message about what keeps us from following God’s direction in our lives. I concluded the message by getting in a kayak and explaining how the actions of a successful crew team are not much different from our actions in life following God.

row the boat sermon illustration

You can watch the full message here (the boat illustration begins around 28:45) but I wanted to briefly recap my metaphor for you here.

We’re All Rowers

Crew teams are small (4 or 8 members). The rowers have their backs to the finish line, yet they must move their oars in unison with incredible intensity. (If you’ve never seen a crew race, watch this one here from the 2012 London Olympics).

How do the rowers know where they’re going? Well, one teammate is sitting at the foot of the boat looking ahead and calling out instructions to the rowers. This person known as the coxswain (pronounced cox-sin, I mispronounced it in the video link above) can see what the rowers cannot and knows how the team is doing in relation to their competitors.

The team must show complete trust and commitment to the direction of the coxswain. He or she can see what the rowers cannot. The coxswain calls for greater effort and intensity than the rowers would likely give normally. And they make course corrections in light of the information the rowers don’t have themselves.

As a follower of Jesus, I see tremendous parallels to following Jesus. Jesus is the coxswain, we’re the rowers. We cannot see, we must trust and obey God as a result. When we don’t trust and we don’t obey, we’re unable to get where we need to go or we run the risk of crashing into an obstacle. Without a coxswain, we’re either rowing blind or looking behind us (which prevents rowing.)

row the boat reflective person

Why Do We Remain Stuck?

In that recent message where I got in the boat, I shared 3 reasons why many of us remain stuck in our boats, unable to reach our destinations.

1. Lack of understanding

I doubt 2016 turned out exactly the way any of us planned. Events happened which never sent us a calendar request in advance. Our plans fell apart. People we began the year close to are no longer as trusted anymore. And people we didn’t even know litter our recent call and message logs.

When things don’t go the way we planned, we struggle to understand and ask “why?” Our lack of understanding can paralyze us from taking action. We want to wait until we understanding things completely. Yet, complete understanding rarely comes on the front side of a decision or step.

In his now-famous commencent speech at Stanford University in 2005, Apple founder, Steve Jobs, said, “You cannot connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.” Jobs accurately understood our human propensity for risk-aversion and understanding-addiction. He knew we have to risk first and understand later.

2. Refusal to give up control

Whether it’s the TV remote control or our smart phone, we like having devices in our hands which give us the sense that we’re in control. Yet, our addiction to control often keeps us from following God’s direction and seizing opportunities. We are afraid of uncertainty and vulnerability, so we settle for control instead.

In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen writes, “The temptation to power is greatest when intimacy is perceived as a threat.” Power is all about control and intimacy is not. Controling situations and people are a sorry replacement for courage and love.

If we always have to be in control, we’re shrinking the kind of life we’ll live. We’re shifting from surprises to manageable. A life we control is not abundant; it’s actually fairly small.

3. Lack of trust

Several years ago, I was reading an article about how essential trust is for team health. A thought popped into my head as I was reading, “relationships move at the speed of trust.” Since then, I’ve been surprised how many people resonated with this simple idea.

We know the truth of this concept from our bad experiences as much as from our good ones. When we lose trust in a person, it’s like someone pulled the emergency brake on our car as we’re flying down the highway at 70 miles per hour – we come to a violent, screeching halt. Yet, when we have high trust with someone, our friendship can go far.

A lot of our trust issues stem from past wounds. We’ve been unable to heal, forgive and move from disappointment, betrayal and pain. While we’re physically in the present, our emotions are stuck in the past. As author Pete Wilson writes in his book, Let Hope In, “your past is not your past if it’s still affecting your present.”

Our inability (or flat refusal) to trust God and/or others can mean we miss opportunities or struggle to thrive.

Welcome to Humanity

You don’t have to be a follower of Jesus to not understand how the dots connect in your life. Nor do you have to be a spiritual person to have trust or control issues. But these struggles can and do become roadblocks which impede our progress towards hopes, dreams, and bright futures.

Next Steps to Row The Boat

So, what’s the next step? I ended my message (after stumbling out of the boat and cursing myself for doing so many leg exercises the day before) with a call for people to surrender their lives to Jesus. That is one major next step. I think we’ll struggle to experience life fully if we remain disconnected from the One who created us. Here are a few more.

Name your hangups.

If you aren’t aware of your hangups, you cannot address them. If you don’t know what your hangups are, ask those around you. The people who know you well can probably tell you. Where we lack self-awareness, others can help. 

Write down your fears.

Our fears, when unaddressed and unnamed, can determine the plot for our future life stories. Fear often sets our limits. Like shame, fear thrives in the darkness. When we write down our fears, permanently putting them on paper, it’s amazing how our perception of them can change. And if we share our fears with safe people, it can become funny how differently we perceive them.

Connect the dots from a previous season.

If Jobs is right, then what we lack in our present season we have for a previous season. We may struggle to connect the dots now, but could we connect the dots for something “back then?” For lack of a better term, do an “autopsy” on a situation or season from your past. Deconstruct what happened and consider why events played out the way they did. Using the mind map model, begin drawing lines between events, feelings, people, and choices and see what is clear now but wasn’t then.

If you can connect the dots from a previous season, then encourage yourself. One day, this season will connect in ways it doesn’t today. I’m not promising you’ll agree with, like or completely understand what happened in this part of your life. But you’ll probably see it differently.

Identify one step you could take today.

Jon Gordon is a best-selling author, coach, and speaker. His books, most notably The Energy Bus, have reached the New York Times Bestseller List and sold millions of copies.

After a recent speaking engagement (citing research from Stephen Covey), Gordon tweeted, “When you leave a talk and have several ideas, just start with one. 97% success rate if you just start with one idea.” Later, he continued on the same theme, “If you try to implement 2 ideas at once, only a 50% success rate. 3 ideas, 30%. Implement one idea until it’s ingrained. Then add the next.”

What one thought came to mind as you read this post? Take that step. Come back to this post later (star it in your inbox, bookmark the link, share it on social media, send it to your Evernote), so you can return for steps 2 and 3. But today, finish this sentence, “I will __________.”

I’d love to hear from you about your next step and where you’ve been stuck. Leave a comment below or on the post where you saw this article on social media. I read all of my emails at

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