Definition: Stewardship is managing somebody else’s stuff.
A “steward” is a manager of resources that belong to another. Historically, the word has been used for a prime minister, who administrates a kingdom in the name of a king. Or for someone who runs a plantation, ranch, or farm for the landowner. Or for someone who cares for the needs of passengers on a train or ship.
The essential idea of stewardship is trust. Not that the steward trusts the owner or king, but that the owner or king trusts the steward. Stewards are entrusted to care or manage the resources that do not belong to the steward. Faithful stewards manage the resources not for themselves, but for the purposes of the one who has entrusted them.
In Christian stewardship, God entrusts the creation to people. In Genesis, Adam was trusted to care for and protect the Garden. Tragically, Adam failed, resulting in shame, fear, alienation, ruin and death. In the redemption of humanity, God not only forgives and restores people to life, but to their role as the stewards of God over creation. In other words, Christian stewardship is at the very center of our identity as human beings and as Christians. Stewardship is not peripheral, but central. We are created and called, not to be served but to serve, to give ourselves to the world, for the glory of God, just as Jesus gave himself. Stewardship is who we are, and why we are here. The most common word in Scripture for steward is “servant.” “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” We are the servants of the Lord, entrusted to manage God’s resources for God’s purposes. Christianity does not have stewardship, it is stewardship.
Stewardship is about All of Life:
Many people like to talk about the stewardship of time, talent, and treasure. God does not give us, but rather entrusts us with time, talent, and treasure. How will we manage the 24 hours each day, the 7 days each week, for the good of the world and the glory of God? In a self-centered world, one says, “Make time for yourself.” In a God-centered world, we ensure that our bodies have time for rest, recreation and restoration, because we were entrusted to take good care of God’s tools. Someone said, “If I had known I would have lived this long, I would have taken better care of my body.” The Christian says, “I have no right to treat God’s creation shabbily… I must take care of this body whether I live long or not.” Our faithful management of entrusted talent is illustrated in “The Little Drummer Boy.” Our faithful management of entrusted treasure is seen neither in poverty nor acquisition, but in our attitude toward possessions, in our wise investment for the good of others, in our great generosity to others, and in our practicing the beliefs that “I am not my own, but God’s” and “this is not my time or treasure, but God’s.”
Three Theological Myths about Stewardship
The most persistent myth about stewardship is that it has something to do with God’s needs, with funding ministry, with church budgets, or with controlling how others use our gifts. These are simply and entirely false. God has no needs. “If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” (Ps 50.12). Stewardship is not about funding the ministry, funding the church, or funding God. It is how God transforms us into servants; it is a basic way in which God is changing us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. It’s not about what God needs – but what we most desperately need in our deepest, must fundamental being.
Another popular myth is that somehow giving releases God’s power, that it triggers miraculous power. One may hear that by giving sacrificially, God’s power is released into the world. This is simply and entirely false. God’s power is not passive, latent, or dormant. It needs no external release mechanism or trigger. On the other hand, people find themselves in bondage to fear, greed, and envy. By becoming faithful servants of God, we discover who really owns all of heaven and earth, and we become free. Stewardship does not release God, but it does release us. Stewardship is essential to our discovering our own spiritual freedom.
A third popular myth is based on human greed. It views giving as a kind of investment. The more I give, the more I get. This is simply and entirely false. Although God may entrust some of God’s faithful servants with great wealth, Scripture claims that many of his most faithful servants live in poverty, while many of the most evil become rich – sometimes at the expense of the faithful. On the contrary, the Scriptures consistently teach us to give ourselves, to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others, with the assumption of no reward in this life. We are to follow the example of Jesus, who “made himself poor that others might be made rich.” Stewardship assumes that we God’s flock, the sheep of God’s pasture. What God chooses to do with us is entirely up to God. God calls us to become servants, to be faithful stewards, regardless of whether we become wealthy or poor in the process of our stewardship.
The Spirituality of Stewardship:
Stewardship is about Spirituality. The Scriptures present faithful stewardship as the means, the basic discipline, for learning how to follow Jesus. Stewardship is not the goal of the Christian life, but a method. It is designed to break our addiction to control, greed, the demand for personal security. This is why Jesus told the young man first to sell it all, give it all away, and then to come follow Jesus. It was not the goal, but the gateway.
Most often, when people hear about tithing, they think of it as an ideal, as a goal. Jesus viewed it quite differently. For him, the ideal, the goal, was not 10%, but 100%. He pointed to the poor widow who gave 100% as the target, and he chastised the tithing Pharisees for not understanding the “weightier things of Torah.” (Matt 23.23) He is clear that the Pharisees needed to have been tithing, but that it was not enough. Tithing is not a goal, but a beginning; Where we start, not where we end.
Christian spirituality is not an experience, but a process, an infinitely long and difficulty journey. But every journey begins someplace. The beginning of Christian spirituality is trusting Jesus enough to follow him. The goal of Christian life is, having trusted Jesus, to have followed him to the end. The way to practice following Jesus is literally to trust him with whatever you have: your time, your talent, and your treasure. By trusting Jesus with these things, we learn to follow him. Bit by bit, we can become like him. There are a great number of spiritual disciplines that are designed to help us become people of deep prayer: journal keeping, Sabbath keeping, lectio divina, spiritual direction, contemplation, meditation, fasting, etc. But the most simple and basic of the disciplines, the beginning place where one practices trusting Jesus, is the tithe. This is where one begins the serious path to spiritual transformation and fulfillment.
Three Essential Practices:
The easiest form of giving is a bequest. It costs no personal effort or pain, for it is given at death. On the other hand, because there is no pain, there is no gain, personally and spiritually. It does not transform us. Yet it may transform the world. So for the good of others and for the glory of God, we should all leave a significant portion of our life insurance and estate for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Ultimate giving can never take the place of ordinary giving, for ordinary giving is a basic, essential discipline for changing us.
This is the most fun form of philanthropy. In extraordinary giving, we have the opportunity to influence the world by investing in our favorite causes, charities, programs and interests. We give to capital campaigns, organizations and ministries in ways that will please us, because we feel it will make a significant difference in our world. We feel great satisfaction in knowing that we helped start new churches, helped restore the a poor church or ministry center, and helped feed the hungry. We feel pride, in the most positive sense, of knowing that we can make a difference in the world. In the old phrase “tithes and offerings,” the word “offerings” referred to extraordinary giving — extra gifts given on a special occasion for a special purpose. But extraordinary giving can never take the place of ordinary giving, for ordinary giving is a basic, essential discipline for transforming us in our core being.
This is the most difficult form, but also the most personally beneficial. This is the basic spiritual disciplines that work on our inner life, our fear, our insecurity, our greed. Ordinary giving is intended to be regular, consistent, and sacrificial, in order to help break us of our addictions. It is the primary discipline that teaches us self-regulation, self-control, and impulse control. In order to do all this, it must be large enough to make an actual change in our lifestyle. Most of us give something, but many fail to give enough to make a difference in their own life. So when someone tells me that cannot control their temper or their addiction to Twinkies, they are always surprised that I prescribe tithing as the first step. Spiritual transformation begins with trusting Jesus Christ with at least a tithe: at least ten percent of your income, whether your income is earned weekly, monthly, or annual. The tithe is not the goal, but the place to begin. The goal is to become like Jesus Christ… to be able to give 100%.
Unfortunately, sometimes people miss the point. They think they’re tithing when they generously invest ten percent of their income in their favorite causes. But the essential genius of tithing is that it is about giving up control. It transforms us because we are letting go of something, trusting God to do with it what God wants. It is a practicing, on a very small scale (10% rather than 100%) of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, “Not my will, but your will be done.” This is why we have both tithes AND offerings. When we designate where our offerings go, we may be influencing the world, but we lose the benefit of the spiritual discipline. It no longer breaks us of our addiction to control things; indeed, it enables our addiction to continue. So we need both. This is why, spiritually, it is a tragic mistake to divert one’s tithe from one’s local parish because one is unhappy with one’s vestry. The whole point and purpose of tithing (ordinary giving) is the spiritual discipline which transforms the inner life. This is why so many reflective clergy would prefer to be pastor of a poor flock that tithes than a wealthy flock that gives much – yet only a tiny share of their income. Those who tithe experience a spiritual transformation that is missed by those who don’t. I’ve never met an experienced tither, wealthy or poor, who regretted their practice. Yet there are many people, wealthy and poor, who so desperately need to break free from their fear, insecurity, and envy about money.
Often people ask, “Isn’t there some compromise? Can’t I work up to it?” This question reveals that they view tithing as the goal. It is not! Total transformation of the human soul is the goal. Tithing is only the starting place. To give 100% is to die, which ultimately is what Christ is calling us to. “Come, take up your cross…” But God has given us a compromise, a starting place, a place to begin. The compromise is the tithe. The tithe is not large enough to kill us, but it is large enough to demand a change in our daily lifestyle. It causes us to make different choices than we would make otherwise. It is far easier to practice than a life of sacrifice and prayer… but it is the beginning place. Without it, we will never become the Christians that God is calling us to be.
The Bottom Line for All 3 Essential Practices:
1) Check your will and your life insurance.
You do want to influence the world for its good and the glory of God. You are a steward, the manager of God’s resources for God’s purposes. So make sure you have taken steps to exercise your stewardship in your ultimate giving.
2) Do something special.
Enjoy the pleasure of philanthropy by making free-will offerings to special causes, events, and programs. Consider giving a large and influential gift to the Capital Campaign.
3) But first and foremost, get regular.
Consider your ordinary giving. If you are not presently tithing, begin today. Do not wait for your parish pledge drive. Begin today. The next paycheck. Put your parish name on it, enter ten percent of your paycheck, sign it, do NOT put anything in the memo, and let it go. Just let it go. Experience the transforming power of letting go of something, large enough to make you rethink your future plans. It is the gateway to spiritual transformation and the path to becoming a faithful steward.
Rick Laribee became a Christian as a junior in high school, in 1969. He prepared for Christian ministry in college and graduate school. He and his wife have three grown children about whom they are shamelessly proud. He is a pastor, retreat leader, conference speaker and spiritual director. His idea of a perfect day is to talk with good friends about Scripture and the spiritual life while sailing.