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Mustard seeds give better cover

13 November 2015

Stephen Spencer finds that the ‘new broom’ should not sweep in

Church Uncorked: Leadership that releases our potential
Catherine Cowell and Sean Kennedy
Instant Apostle £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70


A NEW leader arrives in a church or diocese and immediately announces their vision for the future of that community. What is the likely outcome?

Many will be pleased that there is now a sense of direction coming from “the top”, and it may bring a sense of order and security; but will the vision inspire and motivate the people of that community? They have not had any direct say in the appointment of their new leader, nor have they contributed to the formulation of the new vision. It has simply been handed down to them. So, while they will wish their new leader well, they will have little sense of ownership of the vision and, therefore, responsibility for turning it into reality.

This lively and engagingly written book from Catherine Cowell and Sean Kennedy is part of the burgeoning literature on leadership in the contemporary Church. It is refreshing, because it is arguing against a prevalent view of leadership as a top-down purpose-driven phenomenon, where the determined leader imposes his or her vision on everyone below.

Cowell and Kennedy describe some bruising experiences in congregations that they have known where this form of leadership has led to the dissipation of energy, and decline. Instead, they argue for a shift from an institution-centred model to a person-centred model, where the vision, direction, and growth come from the people who comprise the community as a whole.

This is described as a mustard-plant model, because the mustard plant germinates rapidly and spreads quickly, a bit like knotweed or Himalayan balsam. It does not have a centralised structure like an oak tree, but, “if you want to take a lot of ground, you need mustard plants.”

Cowell and Kennedy provocatively describe this model as the leaderless organisation, and cite Alcoholics Anonymous and Wikipedia, among others, as examples. “A decentralized system allows people maximum freedom to get on with their chosen things. It means that I can participate because I want to, not because you are making me. If I am empowered and choosing what to do, I will often be much more motivated and energized than if someone is organizing things for me and telling me what to do.”

Church Uncorked, despite its confusing title, is a passionate and compelling plea for churches to seek this decentralised kind of leadership, a kind that looks first to the gifts and capabilities of the odd-ball group of people whom God has called together in that place at that time, and then supports and encourages their vision and growth, a mustard-plant growth.

The first half of the book provides a range of biblical and historical perspectives on this paradigm shift, a helpful overview of a fresh way of understanding the Church and leadership within it. The second half looks in detail at practical skills, practices, and thinking that can help churches move towards this person-centred leadership. This draws on insights from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, among other sources.

Even though it has a conversational and in places chatty style of writing, this is a timely and important book for everyone wanting to see church growth in a culture that is increasingly resistant to top-down “I-know-what-is-best-for-you” approaches to spiritual and religious life.


The Revd Dr Stephen Spencer is Vice Principal of the Yorkshire Ministry Course, Mirfield, and author of Creative Ideas for Seasonal Retreats (Canterbury Press, 2015).

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