Monthly Letter – March 2023


Dear Friends,

Ms. Sturgeon. Nothing like getting straight to the point!

Did she jump (as she herself was at pains to insist)? Or was she about to be pushed (as some prominent, street-wise, battle-hardened pundits have averred)?

It’s not for us to speculate, of course. So, we may well never know.

But I was struck by the observation that her 8-year occupation of the foremost role in modern Scottish politics was viewed as being a mark of real longevity. Is 8 years now to be understood as the upper-end of the ‘leadership life-expectancy’ which any individual can expect – at least in the world of politics? Or at least, perhaps, in the ever more brutal world of contemporary UK politics?

Compared to the 7 short weeks of Ms. Truss’ recent premiership, of course, 8 whole years in office must seem near to an eternity. But compared to the number of British Prime Ministers who’ve stayed the course for a good 8 years or more (some 21% of them – or thereabouts, when you check the thing back to the early 18th century: some 21% have lasted longer than just 8 years), Ms. Sturgeon’s time in office isn’t really that uncommon. And compared to the number of US presidents who’ve occupied the White House for a second term – almost half of them – 8 years in Bute House is little more than par-for-the-course and average.

Without engaging in any speculation, perhaps we do well to reflect for a while on the issues underlying such a sudden, unexpected resignation at this time – because it certainly seems that it did come rather ‘out-of-the-blue’ (which, I appreciate, is an unfortunate colour-coded idiom!) and took even ears-to-the-ground observers by surprise. And it left them asking – Why?

That’s a slightly different question from the somewhat more imponderable one with which I began: not quite the same as the classic ‘jump-or-pushed?’ dichotomy – it’s somewhat more nuanced than that. It’s an attempt to understand the better the ‘dynamics’ which invariably will play into the exercise of any sort of leadership.

So why that resignation? Why that stepping down from the post in such a swift and unexpected way? What were the factors involved? And how do these factors illumine for us some basic, foundational qualities leadership needs?

Let me start, then, with Ms. Sturgeon’s own analysis, and speak about, first of all, stamina.

“I get up in the morning,” she said, “and I tell myself, and usually I convince myself, that I’ve got what it takes to keep going and keep going and keep going. But then I realise that that’s maybe not as true.”

Have you got what it takes to keep going? Do you have the necessary stamina?

Leadership is demanding; there’s no getting away from that. It’s physically demanding, mentally stretching, emotionally often draining – the more so in these days of often vitriolic public scrutiny. We do well to be aware of that and understand the obvious limitations on the leadership our leaders give. Men and women make lousy saviours, and we do them no favours in seeking to view them as such!

Our leaders are human; and however impressive their talents and CVs may be, they still have feet of clay. Ms Sturgeon’s resignation followed hard on the heels of another nation’s leader stepping down, and between them both there was a striking two-fold witness to the fundamental need there is for stamina in any sort of leadership.

When Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand stepped down (taking everyone there by surprise again), she explained why she’d taken that step in strikingly similar terms. She confessed that she “no longer had enough left in the tank to do the job justice.”

‘Enough in the tank.’ A car can’t run on empty; and leadership of any kind is heavy always on fuel.

I remember, more than four long decades back, reading the “Memoir and Remains of R M McCheyne” and being challenged and humbled, excited and stirred, by reading of the ways in which this gracious 19th century Scottish pastor was so wonderfully used by God – before his sad, untimely death aged 29. But one of the lessons I learned from reading the book was the care that I would need to take in learning to pace myself well in pursuit of God’s call to pastoral ministry.

For all his noble and notable qualities, McCheyne simply worked himself to death – not merely to the point of burnout, but to the point where his health finally broke. And before he died aged 29, this is what he wrote: “God gave me a message to deliver [he meant the gospel, of course] and a horse [referring to his body] to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.” That telling final sentence spoke huge volumes to me at the time and started flashing warning lights across the dashboard of my living.

Leadership within Christ’s church is mostly of the long-haul sort: more like an arduous marathon than any 100m sprint. And stamina is, therefore, quite invariably required.

The Scriptures are always so very down-to-earth and practical; and they highlight in a range of different ways precisely this. Remember Moses? There was a man who was certainly in for a long-haul sort of leadership: and remember how Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, approached him in the early days and told him that he’d simply ‘kill the horse’ if he didn’t take care, that he’d rapidly wear himself out (Ex.18.18) if he carried on the way that he was going. Leadership needs to be plural, he declared, its burdens shared by a team.

That’s part of the key to the stamina leaders require. And apart from Moses himself there are some notable other examples of God-centred, long-haul leaders. Like Joshua and Caleb, for instance, next generation on from their mentor Moses; or Paul pressing on in the face of the trials and troubles he faced. Where did they get what it takes to keep going and going and going?

Part of the key to the stamina all of them had was certainly their humble recognition that leadership is, and must be, in the end an ultimately plural thing. But part of it, too, lay in their awareness of the strengthening grace of God – what Paul describes as “all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col.1.29). That’s one of the five basic, A-to-E requests which I have always offered those who ask how they can pray for me: the ‘E’ is for that Spirit-given ‘Energy’ of which Paul wrote. Leaders need it.

So much, then, for ‘stamina’. Next a word about the importance of continuing freshness.

This is not entirely unrelated to the need there is for stamina, but it isn’t quite the same. And, though never quite stated as such in her resignation speech, there were hints in the things which Ms. Sturgeon did say which suggested that maybe there wasn’t the same sort of ‘freshness’ as once she had known and displayed.

Leadership needs constant ‘freshness’. And early on in my walk with Christ I resolved to discover the key to continuing freshness. I saw it in the octogenarian Caleb, as infectiously eager and bold in his ‘give-me-this-mountain’ perspective as ever he’d been in his youth: and I read it in the psalmist’s words – “they will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” (Ps.92.14). They will stay fresh and green. I wanted to learn how that happens, how ‘the righteous will flourish’ both perennially and increasingly.

I saw that it had something to do with a daily pattern of reading and pondering the Scriptures, the sort of thing which the very first psalm commends, and which, I noted, the Lord impressed on Joshua from the start: delighting in the law of the Lord and meditating on it day and night. Do that, the psalmist (indeed the Lord Himself) assured me, and your life will be as a tree planted by streams of water: fruitful, flourishing, fresh. Forever. Whatever you do, it prospers.

That’s what I think is meant by the ‘river whose streams make glad the city of God’ (Ps.46.4). Freshness in leaders requires of them that submission to Christ, the good Shepherd, who makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside those quiet waters. But all of that takes time! And politicians, pastors, leaders in whatever sphere, they’re busy, busy people, of course: there are always so many demands on their lives, which, all of them, gobble up time: and it’s tempting for leaders, with so many tasks to address – it’s tempting to bypass those pastures and stride right past those waters. But neglect the Shepherd’s wisdom, and the freshness soon enough will one way or another simply dissipate.

I think, as well, that’s why, before he died, old Moses had insisted that the message he’d been teaching should, each 7 years, be thoroughly rehearsed. A ‘refresher’ course, for people whose memories are often short and whose perspectives can be quickly rather blurred. It’s also, in part, the reason why we all of us need, each 7 days, refreshment in the worship of the Lord. It’s that same crucial putting down roots by streams of living water.

How hard it can be – but how important as well – for leaders to maintain that constant freshness in their work! Stamina, yes: but always that freshness as well.

And above and before all else – let me try and say this as carefully as I can – there is the need for a fundamental godliness.

The role and position a leader will have – whatever the context, from the state right through to the home, and everything in between – the role and position a leader will have, with the power and influence they wield, is a delegated post: an appointment by God, the servant of God, and accountable to God. Always.

That’s the perspective the Scriptures spell out, and that remains the unchanging, basic reality, no matter who the leader is or what the context of their leadership may be. Ms. Sturgeon was no exception. She may have been (and doubtless remains) an astute and able politician: she may have been a good communicator: she may, and doubtless does, have many qualities which placed her head and shoulders, way above her parliamentary colleagues. But that’s not why, in the ultimate sense, she was in that place of leadership, as Scotland’s own First Minister.

She was there by appointment of God. And accountable finally to God. Whatever the context, leaders will always forget that at their peril. In the turbulent world of political life, those entrusted with authority can subtly misconstrue that privilege given them as being a position of power. It’s easy in the maelstrom of political life to confuse the two, because that world must often feel just like a battle ground: the battle of the power-hungry four estates, in which, as Oscar Wilde observed, the monster of the media has largely ‘eaten up the other three.’

But authority and power are not the same. The former, when rightly understood, will drive an individual to their knees: the latter can go to your head. And the longer a person’s in office, with that distinction never truly recognized, and no great sense of being accountable, at last, to God, the more that power is likely to go to your head. Ms. Sturgeon’s resignation had one respected critic speaking of what he called “over-mighty politicians, drunk on the power that the pandemic handed them:” and bereft, we might add, of that key, essential godliness – the lack of which will always, in the end, catch up with those in leadership. The Scriptures are full of examples.

Psalm 82 expresses that solemn reality well. “God presides in the great assembly: He gives judgment among the ‘gods’…” Those entrusted by God with leadership can begin to think of themselves as little ‘gods’, able and entitled to do pretty much as they please: to pontificate boldly on behalf of the people they rule, to overthrow God-given and proven parameters, to redefine humanity and all its basic institutions. The ultimate in so-called ‘self-determination’.

Yes, I know, that’s putting it starkly! But is that not increasingly just what we’ve seen in our land in these past few years: a leader disdaining the law of the Lord, and with a certain brazenness defying the living God. That’s what the psalm is on about. “I said [that’s the Lord speaking], ‘You are “gods”’ [that’s to say, they’re in that place of authority by His appointment, they’re there as His servants – and accountable as such] .. but you will die like mere men: you will fall like every other ruler.”  Maybe, just maybe, there’s an element of that in what happened as well?

Giftedness can never be a substitute for godliness. And the lack of the latter will always catch up with a leader. Stamina, and freshness, yes: but godliness, always, too. Pray, oh pray, for your leaders!

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord

Jeremy Middleton