Stewardship is both a worldview and a practice. Stewardship is a way of relating to God’s creation, not simply something we do in and for the church. Stewardship is about how we choose to live our Christian faith in the world.
The concept of Christian stewardship was so corrupted and co-opted during the twentieth century that many faithful churchgoers cringe when they hear it mentioned. For most mainline Christians, stewardship is nothing more than an annual fall campaign to raise money. While the wise and faithful use of money is one element of good stewardship, it is by no means the most important. Since the concept of stewardship suffers such distortion, it helps to reframe the discussion from “what is faithful stewardship?” to “what does it mean to be a faithful steward?”
One foundational image of a steward comes from the gospel story (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27) of the landholder going on a journey and entrusting his wealth to his servants. The two gospel accounts are very different stories with the same message – God has high expectations for the way we use what we have been given. This, at the core, is what it means to be a faithful steward: God is a generous giver of multiple gifts, we are created in the image of God, therefore God expects us to be generous givers as well.
Everything in our possession comes to us by the grace of God. Certainly, we may work hard, strive for success, achieve many wonderful accomplishments, but ultimately we reap our bounty from God’s abundance. We are fortunate and blessed, and it is God’s desire that we learn to share our blessings with those less fortunate than we are. Our blessings are sacred gifts entrusted to our care by a loving God. And our God is deeply interested to see how we will manage what we have been given.
In our congregations there is deep ambivalence and confusion about stewardship. This confusion stems from an unfortunate misrepresentation of what stewardship is all about. Stewardship isn’t about supporting the institutional church – keeping the doors open, the pastor paid, the lights on, Sunday school supplies stocked, and a few dollars floating out to support mission work. Stewardship is about becoming the body of Christ for the world – taking what we have been given as Christian disciples and using it to serve God’s kingdom-building purposes here on earth. One of the most important functions of the gathered community of faith is to create an environment where faithful Christian stewards can be formed, empowered, and deployed.
So much of what happens in our churches is conceptual and abstract. People can sit in worship, listen to scriptures, sermons, hymns, and prayers and come away inspired, comforted, and stimulated, but rarely transformed. Worship and learning are often passive activities. Discipleship is defined in vague, broad terms. We often emphasize belief to the exclusion of behavior. Stewards are not judged by their thoughts, however, but by their actions. Unless what we hear and learn in church results in more fruitful behaviors, we are failing to help people integrate their faith into their daily living. And this is an essential point: the place of stewardship is not limited to the congregation, but most appropriately found in the community and world. As the body of Christ, our stewardship is lived out in our homes, schools, workplaces, and stores every bit as much as in our churches.
But this is not merely about behavior modification, but radical transformation — becoming new people in Christ. Creating an environment for the nurture and development of Christian stewards isn’t about offering a prescription or formula for each person to follow. It is about engagement in practices that will unleash the gifts and graces of each individual as they awaken to God’s will for their lives.
There are three essential aspects of a healthy environment for the formation of faithful Christian stewards: education, invitation, and accountability.
If stewardship is defined as the way we manage all the gifts God gives, then it is essential to name those gifts and understand what it means to manage them. There are many forms of gifts – spiritual, material, temporal, emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic. Too often we limit the exploration of gifts by using a “time, talent, and treasure” survey that collects data, which gets filed away to be used (or ignored) when leadership positions need to be filled. But the exploration of our gifts is at the heart of why we gather as a congregation. The more we are aware of what we have been given, the more grateful we will become, and the more heartfelt and meaningful our worship will be.
The discovery and exploration of spiritual gifts is an excellent way to engage people in a deeper understanding of who they are in relationship to God and one another, and challenges the whole community of faith to reflect on God’s will. There are many excellent tools for spiritual gifts discovery, but it is not the tool that is important – it is the process and rich discussion and dialogue that follow.
The most valuable resource in our world today is time, not money. Helping people learn how to manage their time, prioritize and set goals, and give time for good and worthy causes may be one of the most critical ministries we can provide.
Teaching people to be good stewards of their attitudes and emotions is also incredibly important. Celebrating good behavior and lovingly confronting bad behavior in the congregation goes a long way to avoiding conflict and establishing a context of peace and good will. We are to be stewards of the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Our faith communities provide the context in which we learn to grow, nurture, and share these fruits with others.
Christian education is more than gaining information. At its very best, Christian education is formation-for-transformation – learning to be Christ for the world in community with other faithful disciples. We don’t make an offering to God, we become our offering to God. As Romans 12:1-2 instructs, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is what it means to be a Christian steward.
Beyond just knowing the will of God is the challenge of doing the will of God. As daunting as it may seem, the whole point of the church is to do the will of God. Jesus himself raised the bar for us in John’s gospel, where it is reported he said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12). Involvement in a Christian community is an invitation to be Christ for others — stewards doing the will of God.
Effective and vital congregations offer not only the information needed to learn to be a Christian steward, but also numerous invitations to put such learning into practice. And this vision for employing our gifts in Christian service should never be limited to the programs and ministries of any one particular church, but to the fullest opportunity to live and serve throughout our communities and world. Stewards do not only serve a congregation; a congregation equips and supports stewards to live their faith every single day of their lives.
Whenever we gather as the church, we should extend an invitation to serve, to give, to share, and to bless others. This invitation is a challenge to put our faith into action.
Perhaps the most valuable stewardship of all is the stewardship of our relationships. How we grow together is as important as how we develop alone. In fact, without the support and nurture of a Christian community, it is impossible to fully live as the body of Christ. Stewardship is a corporate act. When we bring together our gifts we soon find that what is impossible to any one of us becomes possible to us all by God’s grace and guidance. Christian stewards speak the truth in love, and hold one another to the very highest standards. The stewardship of any community of faith is only as strong as the stewardship of its weakest member. When we hold each other to the vows and promises we make to God and the community of faith, we exercise excellent stewardship.
James wrote to his community, “be doers of the words, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (1:22). Those words are every bit as pertinent today. Stewardship is measured by our behaviors – the way we relate to God’s creation in both big and small ways. What we say, and think, and do matters greatly. We have been given so much, and as the body of Christ we are called to share our abundance and blessing with everyone we meet. One of the gifts God gives us is our church – our congregation and fellowship. How well we manage this great gift can make all the difference in the world.