Lead for the Future, Not from the Past

Leadership is a present-tense task, in that others are looking to us today to provide vision, encouragement, and support. Too many leaders, though, face present-tense challenges while living more in yesterday than today. Below is a list of characteristics of church leaders I’ve known who show this tendency. Using this list, consider if you might be “leading from the past tense.”

  1. Your faithfulness to spiritual disciplines was more intense in days gone by. If the acme of your Bible reading, prayer, etc., is a mountaintop in your past, you’re probably leading today on the basis of yesterday’s power. That’s a dangerous, self-dependent way to lead.
  2. Your illustrations of personal evangelism are not current. I learned this problem as a professor of evangelism many years ago. When I realized my stories of evangelism were dated, I had to face the truth: my stories were old because evangelism was something I used to do more faithfully.
  3. You think about a position you formerly held more than your current position. It’s easy to do, especially when the current role is a difficult one. Somehow, we block all the negatives of that previous role and remember it now as if it were almost heaven on earth. By comparison, our current role can never match up – and yesterday seems much more inviting.
  4. It’s been a long time since you’ve read a book. Certainly, we learn through means other than books, but books are knowledge. They challenge us, stretch us, move us, and teach us. If you haven’t read a book in a while, you’re leading on yesterday’s knowledge.
  5. You know no more about God today than you did years ago. Do an honest gut check here – what do you know about God you did not know last year? Two years ago? Do you know more of His Word than you did five years ago? In you’re in a spiritual rut today, you got stuck somewhere in the past.
  6. You have a tendency to remind others of yesterday’s victories. Sometimes we retreat to telling past-tense victories, especially when present-tense wins are few and far between. If you’re the one who keeps bringing up the past, you might be leading from there.
  7. You believe few people can teach you anything. I don’t know many leaders who admit this reality, but I do know some who live this way (and, lest I deceive myself, I can go here, too). If you believe no one can teach you anything today, it may be because you think you’ve already learned all you need to know. That’s leading from the past tense.
  8. You are unwilling to allow others to evaluate your leadership. Evaluation is risky. Honesty from others can be brutal. At the same time, though, an unwillingness to allow others to speak into your leadership limits your growth to yesterday’s lessons.
  9. If you are a teaching/preaching leader, you only recycle yesterday’s material. I am not arguing here against ever re-using material. Most of us, though, recognize the difference between reworking/ updating material and simply representing old material as if it were new. We know when we’re preaching today’s material on the basis of yesterday’s time with God.
  10. You are still haunted by yesterday’s pain. Some of us have led difficult congregations, and the wounds are deep. The scars tissue is thick. If, however, you allow yesterday’s pain to make you a tentative leader today, you’re leading from the past tense. In fact, you may not be leading at all.

What other evidences of leading from the past tense come to mind for you?


  • Mark says:

    Yearning for the “good old days” when times were better, when young people respected their elders, when people came to a revival in droves, etc. I have heard all these and more.

  • H. B. "Sunny" Mooney, III says:

    In addition, I envision what God might possibly do ‘today, these 24 hours, as well as tomorrow’ as a result of staying fresh in my spiritual disciplines and developing leaders who also seek God’s activity in their lives, church and community.

  • Ron says:

    Guilty on 75-80% of these. I for one appreciate being called on the carpet.

  • alan davis says:

    Good read. Thanks for sharing.

  • Isaac says:

    I have found myself leading from the past in the way of allowing past trials to cause timidity in pushing forward. It’s not so much of an issue of “yesterday’s pain” as it is judging the next steps for church growth from past assessments of the body. They might not have been ready for paradigm shifts a few years ago, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t grown into being ready and able to take the next steps in the here and now. It’s difficult to keep from making concrete decisions based upon the heart of the church that was and not the church that is.

  • John says:

    It is like the illustration of Israel in the wilderness: “God told them if they sing Precious Memories one more time that He wouldn’t go any further”…. but alas we know the rest of the story. My issue is possibly leading from the past my self, by what I have saw that worked or did not work, when I was a Youth Pastor and Assistant. Pastor, however, I am trying to lead a church that is still stuck in 1984 when their “new building” was built, same ministries, same inward focus. My thought is how does one lead them out of this thought process?

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Good question, John. My simple response is that we (1) make sure we’re not caught in the past ourselves, and then (2) lead them out of the past just few people at a time. We’ll never move a congregation until we move a few people.

  • Mark Myles says:

    These are helpful in identifying where we’re at or have been in our leadership. I for one would like to see a Part 2 to this post. Something along the lines of how to lead from the future. Any chance you might be working on a post like that?

  • Ken says:

    I have to admit you stepped on my toes with #2. God has been convicting me of that recently. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work of ministry that you neglect something as basic as soul-winning. Warren Wiersbe and others have said it well: the best way to keep your burden for the lost is to witness to them.

  • Justin says:

    Thanks for those thoughts…needed to hear that today!

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