An Orthodox Understanding of Stewardship
By Benjamin D. Williams
How should a person living at the close of the second Millennium, especially one living in our North American culture, approach and understand the subject of Stewardship? Clearly it is not a new subject. We have all grown up hearing about it, being told what it means, and instructed in how to practice it, have we not? Yet if our instruction had been as good as we recall it, if we had learned our lessons well, if we truly understood the historic Orthodox Christian meaning of stewardship, wouldn’t we be better stewards? Would not our Churches be in better condition? The fact is that much of what we have learned about stewardship is either incorrect or only partly correct. There are two main reasons for this: much of what we have learned has been out of context, and much of what we think is Christian teaching on stewardship is not - it has been imported from our culture.
Let’s briefly consider these two problems. Most Orthodox Christians only hear about the subject of stewardship when it is related to money. When dues are being assessed, when there is a fund drive or some other financial program, then homilies are preached on stewardship, much talk goes on about “financial stewardship,” and we are challenged to become better stewards by giving more money! In other words, for most of us, stewardship and the giving of money to the Church are one and the same. That is not Christian stewardship. That understanding of stewardship has been ripped out of the larger context of living all of our lives as “good and faithful stewards.”
As if that problem is not bad enough, much of our understanding, definition and practice of stewardship are shaped by our culture and society. We grow up and live in a society where material advancement and personal pleasure are the number one goals. The purpose of life, our culture tells us, is personal satisfaction. This cultural perspective on the purpose of life shapes our thinking about the faith, and all of us bring it into the Church. It shapes our understanding of stewardship, among other things, because it is the exact opposite of what Christian stewardship is all about. We are persons created in the image and likeness of God, and we were created to be stewards. We are called to live a life of stewardship, stewarding the life and creation of which we have been created a part, in the most responsible and productive way. The message of our culture, that our purpose is to “live the good life,” is the opposite of our purpose as Christians. Stewardship is the golden thread that runs through and holds the Christian life together.
Stewardship As Christian Identity
Within this understanding, we must begin with the acknowledgment that all of life is a sacrament, in that in every aspect of life we may experience and commune with God. This communion ranges from the most natural - like experiencing a beautiful sunset, to the most divine, communion with God in the eucharist. We must come to see that “all the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it.” (Psalm 24:1) As Fr. Schmemann challenges us, our human role is to offer back to God in thanksgiving, all that He has given to us. (For the Life of the World, SVS Press, Crestwood, NY, p. 24)
From this realization comes our understanding of Christian stewardship - managing the resources that God has given us, administering the elements of life. One of the best ways of thinking about stewardship is that it is the only truly appropriate human response to what God gives us. We experience all of life as a sacrament, and we steward all of life in response.
Consider for a minute the original usage of the term “steward.” Our English word steward comes from the Greek word oikonomos, and literally means “house manager.” Oikonomia, or stewardship, literally refers to the management of a household. Stewardship is a task, a responsibility bestowed on one person by another - usually by a master. Our Lord used the terms steward and servant frequently, as recorded in the Gospels. St. Paul uses them the same way in his epistles. In I Peter, every Christian is charged to “be a good steward of God’s grace.” (I Peter 4:10) St. Ignatius of Antioch told the faithful that they were “stewards in God’s house, members of His household, and His servants.” (Epistle to Polycarp, 99) He holds these three aspects of our way of life in dynamic tension: being stewards, being members of God’s household, and being servants. St. Ignatius can encourage us to toil, suffer, run, and rest, because these important aspects constitute our way of life as Christians.
Stewardship does not mean being hit up for an annual pledge to the Church. It is not being enlisted in a financial campaign for the new building. It is not even tithing. Rather, it is a well-rounded view of life and an incarnation of that view based on theology and ecclesiology—the giving of time and talent and treasure. Thus stewardship is a state of being. It is based in service. The steward is in the employ of his master. Therefore the most important aspect of being a steward is serving.
We Act As If We “Own” Creation
We modern humans act as if we “own” the creation and can do with it as we wish including destroy it. We treat and mistreat animals as if we had the right to destroy them. In a passage by Erik Herbermann (a contemporary horse trainer) that should give us pause about how we order our lives and how we treat creation (or those we are responsible to lead), he says:
Since by the power of our free will, we are agents over our own desires, we are fully responsible for our thoughts and words and, subsequently, the deed or physical manifestations which result from them. We are responsible for what we do with all the things over which we have stewardship. We horsemen, therefore, are responsible for our relationship with the horse and for its well-being while it is in our care. Accordingly, it is our duty, as stewards, to come to know enough about the horse that we do not, in any way, cause it mental or physical grief, either because of ignorance about its nature or due to lack of control over ourselves while we are dealing with it.
(Erik F. Herbermann, “On Stewardship,” Dressage and CT’, August, 1992, p. 5)
This is a Biblical view of stewardship, and it should typify our lives. If it should be true of the horseman and the horse, how much truer for the Christian? Think of the parables Christ Himself used to convey the same message: the vine dresser, the good and faithful servant, the good Samaritan, the talents. Out of this understanding of stewardship, out of this worldview, we realize that all we have is really the Lord’s, that we must care for it and offer it back to Him in thanksgiving. We are all called to be “good and faithful stewards.” Then, and only then, is stewardship real. Then, and only then, are we fully living life. Then, and only then, are our tithes and offerings acceptable in the sight of God. (This principle is reiterated at every Divine Liturgy, when after the Commemoration the priest proclaims with the Gifts of bread and wine elevated, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, in behalf of all, and for all.”)
Transforming The World In The Wrong Way
We have a world full of examples of bad stewardship: e.g., pollution, brutality, pornography, waste, servitude, apathy, abortion, environmental destruction. We must understand and incarnate stewardship at both the micro and the macro level. The micro level means me: where I live, how I live, and how I interact with all with which I come into contact. The macro level means the world and how I interact with it, and how I am a responsible member of the human race.
These are not just abstract philosophical concepts having no direct bearing on our lives. Bad stewardship is in fact transforming our world in precisely the wrong way. The negative health and economic consequences of it fill the news. Such things as the deforestation of the Amazon, the desertification of large land masses in Africa caused by over-grazing and stripping the land of all vegetation, the changes of weather due to depletion of the ozone layer, the unchecked release of pollutants that destroy ozone, are directly caused by bad stewardship. The rampant increase in world population is due to many different causes, but it also adds up to bad stewardship - more people than our world can support.
The imbalance between available food supplies and rampant population growth fuels much of the death and suffering in our world today. Consider the growth in world population: in 200 AD it was approximately 200 million people; by 1825 it reached the one billion mark. “The next billion was added in only a hundred years. A further billion (taking the total to 3 billion) took about thirty-five years from 1925 to 1960. The next billion was added in only fifteen years (by 1975) while the increase from 4 billion to 5 billion took about twelve years and was completed in the late 1980s.” (Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World, New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991, p. 240).
Need we be concerned that the population has grown so exponentially? In one sense, perhaps we needn’t, as long as we can feed and care for all those people and not irreparably damage the earth. But we cannot. Notwithstanding the development of agriculture and industrialization, most of the people in the world live a meager existence with inadequate food and shelter. However, since stewards are supposed to care for the world and to “steward” its resources, consider a very graphic example of the consequences of human population growth: animal extinction. “Between 1600 and 1900 an animal species was made extinct about one every four years. By the 1970s this had risen to a rate of about 1,000 a year. At present about 25,000 species of plants, 1,000 species of birds and over 700 species of animals are on the verge of extinction. In the tropical forests about fifty species of plants and animals are being eliminated every day. At this rate it is estimated that in the 1990s about 1 million species (almost 20 percent of the total in the world) will become extinct.” (Ibid., p. 193)
Would it surprise you to hear that even the AIDS epidemic may be the result of bad stewardship? In a recent article on viral epidemics, the following excerpt describes the process and the future consequences for the human race of this form of bad stewardship:
The emergence of AIDS appears to be a natural consequence of the ruin of the tropical biosphere. Unknown viruses are coming out of the equatorial wilderness of the earth and discovering the human race. It seems to be happening as a result of the destruction of tropical habitats. You might call AIDS the revenge of the rain forest. AIDS is arguably the worst environmental disaster of the twentieth century so far. Some of the people who worry in a professional capacity about viruses have began to wonder whether H.I.V. is the only rain forest virus that will sweep the world. The human immunodeficiency virus looks like an example rather than a culminating disaster.
(Richard Preston, “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” The New Yorker, October 26, 1992, p. 58)
Not only does this research neutralize the hysteria about the origins of AIDS, it also clearly lays the guilt at our own doorstep. Like the Pogo cartoon of so many years ago, “We have seen the enemy. . . And he is us!”
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that these “environmental concerns” only matter to the environmentalists. On the contrary, these issues must be of concern to every Christian because we are called to be stewards. Not only is environmental concern part of our stewardship, the enormity of the problem today should make us realize that the solutions are very limited. That is why the late Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios issued a landmark message on the protection of the environment in 1989. After lamenting the extent of environmental destruction, he said, “Man is destined not to exercise power over creation, as if he were the owner of it, but to act as its steward, cultivating it in love and referring it in thankfulness, with respect and reverence to its Creator. Unfortunately, in our days under the influence of an extreme rationalism and self-centeredness, man has lost the sense of sacredness of creation and acts as its arbitrary ruler and rude violator.” (Patriarch Demetrios, reprinted in The Orthodox Church, v. 29, Nov/Dec 1993, p. 5)
A Spiritual Crisis
A sacramental understanding of life drives us to recognize that the environmental crisis is not merely a physical one. It is a spiritual crisis. Consider this eloquent observation by Elizabeth Theokritoff:
Increasing numbers of people conclude that the way out of the crisis requires spiritual renewal: not just a change of habits, but a change of hearts - in Christian terms, repentance. Tragically, the environmental implications of our Christian Faith are so little understood, even among Christians, that the Church is the last place most people look for spiritual solutions. They are more likely to turn to the worship of Mother Earth, or native American religions, or witchcraft, or New Age spirituality. Yet this realization that the world needs salvation requires a change of heart, is a challenge to the Church.”
(Elizabeth Theokritoff, “Thine Own of Thine Own,” The Orthodox Church, v. 29, Nov/Dec 1993, p. 5.)
The proclamation of Patriarch Demetrios calls all human beings to repentance, and asserts that the Orthodox Church believes the solution is to be found in the liturgical, eucharistic and ascetic ethos of the Orthodox Tradition. Theokritoff points out that “A eucharistic ethos means, above all, using natural resources with thankfulness, offering them back to God. Such an attitude is incompatible with wastefulness. Similarly, fasting and other ascetic practices make us recognize even the simplest of foods and other creature comforts as gifts, provided to satisfy our needs. They are not ours to abuse and waste just so long as we can pay for them. We worship as a community, not as individuals: so a liturgical ethos is also one of sharing.”
But what about stewardship in my own life? It is one thing to see and understand and critique good or bad stewardship on the macro scale; it is another to take personal responsibility for it. And, besides, while it may be in vogue to do certain things which smack of good stewardship (like recycling newspapers or not using wood stoves), it is easy to cop out of any responsibility for macro-level stewardship. It is “the government’s problem,” it is “such a big issue,” and besides, “I can’t change anything, anyway!” In our hearts we all know that this isn’t true, but one of our fundamental flaws as humans is to be reactive, not proactive. In other words, rather than be responsible and anticipate problems, we wait for them to develop before we realize we have to change our behavior.
This irresponsible approach occurs on the personal level, too. Consider our personal stewardship of the earth as it relates to the transportation we use. We choose to drive cars that pollute the air, soil, water, and vegetation because cars are fast, powerful, and convenient. We even insist on having multiple cars for convenience sake, largely refusing to be a part of mass transportation. Thus, we Americans have a highly polluted economy that is dependent on oil companies and auto manufacturers - so dependent that we find it difficult to implement better stewardship methods.
What about other resources which we are to steward? Certainly they include the things around us: e.g., land, animals, possessions. And what about our children? Are they not God-given “resources” put in our charge to steward for a reason? Are we practicing good stewardship toward our children when both parents work and our children are raised (shaped and influenced) by others who may not share our values? Is it good stewardship to allow our children to spend as much as 500 hours a year (as some researchers tell us) of unsupervised TV viewing—knowing full well that they are spending more time with the TV than with either of their parents or teachers? Is it good stewardship to allow our children to unquestioningly absorb the values of our hedonistic society? Are we not being poor stewards of their moral and ethical instruction?
We may even see child molestation as a result of bad stewardship. Experts tell us that children who have a poor relationship with their parents are most at risk to be molested. Such children quickly follow someone who seems willing to befriend them - primed for abuse by their parents’ poor stewardship.
If on the Day of Judgment you are asked how you stewarded the God-given resources put in your charge, how will you answer? Will you just say, “But Lord, come on, nobody ever told me they were resources! How was I to know I was supposed to steward them?” And what will Church leaders say when confronted with the fact that the word “stewardship” has come to be narrowly used as a way to get money? Shame on all of us for either letting it happen or condoning and perpetuating the improper use of the word.
Are Humans An Integral Part of Nature?
Why have we lost the Christian ideal of stewardship? To answer this question we must first answer another - are humans an integral part of nature, or are they separate from it and superior to it? The modern scientific worldview regards the world of nature as something external to humanity - not as something of which we are intrinsically a part. This worldview assumes no living connection between humanity and creation. It no longer sees nature as “the living garment of [man’s] own inner being. Consequently, man has also lost the sense of his role in relationship to the rest of creation. Displacing himself from nature, depersonalizing and objectifying it, he has destroyed the harmony and reciprocity that should exist between them.” (Philip Sherrard, The Eclipse of Man and Nature, West Stockbridge, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1987, 39) This change in worldview is so fundamental, so basic to who we are as members of modern Western society that most of us don’t even know it is ours; and fewer still realize that it is an inherently un-Christian and ungodly view of life. The result of this change is that mankind has become the exploiter of nature, rather than the steward of it.
Stewardship is clearly a part of the Christian worldview that is based on the fact of unity with nature and the desire for harmony with it. We have to realize that it is not enough to want to be good stewards, to long for a society that practices stewardship, to try to bring about stewardship in our own society. We have to realize that we live in a culture that is fundamentally opposed to stewardship! Sure, there is lots of talk about stewardship, but most of the talk is romantic and based in idealism. There are lots of hard-working and well-intentioned people trying to improve things in our society, but they are unlikely to make any change, because the society we live in is fundamentally opposed to it. Why is this?
It is because “The West has developed technically in direct relationship to the decline of the Christian consciousness, for the simple reason that the ‘secularization’ of nature that permits it to be regarded as an object and so to be exploited technically, is in direct contradiction to the sacramental spirit of Christianity, wherever and whenever this is properly understood ...” (Ibid., 67) In other words, as soon as you tell yourself that you are not a part of nature, but are apart from it, you are in the position to exploit it. As soon as you lose the sacramental view of life, life becomes something to be used for your own selfish purposes. It is not easy to be a steward in a culture that denies stewardship.
There are as many suggested solutions for the environmental crisis as there are concerned people. So what do we do? Most of the suggestions are good ones, but in and of themselves they will do little. The starting point has to be a change of heart. We have to re-discover the historic Christian view of life as sacred, as a sacrament of which we are a part and which we may offer back to God in thanksgiving. And then, we have to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church, for unless we become part of the sacrament of life, unless we have a eucharistic understanding of life, we will be unable to be good stewards and will have little effect in the world.
Stewardship As A Way Of Life
If I am serious about stewardship, I have to be serious about restoration and full communion with God. And, if I am serious about full communion, I will undertake the spiritual struggle to achieve it - and with the grace of God and many tears, I will attain it. Then, when I have my own house in order, I may begin to consider focusing on other things. That is the spiritual foundation of stewardship. If we would begin to approach stewardship in that mannerâ??spiritually, and with a commitment to purity ourselvesâ??our stewardship would please God. Instead of just worrying about recycling aluminum and plastic, we would be focusing on fulfilling our role in the sacrament of Life. Only when we see life as a sacrament of which we have an intrinsic part, will we change our hearts and our behaviors, and be good stewards. And only when we have a grasp of the spiritual dimension of stewardship, can we begin to understand and practice servant leadership and be good leaders.
Have you ever thought about your relationship with the Church from the perspective of good stewardship? It is a challenging proposition. We are to care for and nurture all those resources (God’s gifts) within the Church. We are to care for and nurture the Church itself, because she is a resource - a gift from God for the life of the world. We are to love and support, care for and nourish all who are in it - those within and without our little circles, those who dress well and those who don’t, those who are cool and those who are crass, those who are successful and those who are failures. And then, recognizing Christ’s challenge, we have to look at being a good steward within the Church as nothing less than practice for being a good steward outside the Church.
We are each ordained (Contrary to what most lay people think, ordination is not reserved for the clergy. Baptism and chrismation are rites of ordination for every believer into the “royal priesthood.” See I Peter 2:9) by God to be stewards of His spiritual gifts, seen and unseen, material and immaterial, physical and mystical. Stewardship within the Church is not just limited to the building or to financial offerings. A good steward is concerned with the optimal use of all the gifts, talents, and responsibilities of the organization placed in his or her charge. This means that a caring attitude cannot be limited to some aspects at the expense of others. A good steward’s decisions and actions must reflect a caring for the entire body, from the least to the greatest within it.
An Inclusive Way of Life
Good stewardship is an inclusive way of life. It includes the loving treatment and care of others. It includes giving to the poor. It includes financial support of the Church. If we have a Christian understanding of stewardship, and if we are good stewards, then all of these elements are part of our lives. We move beyond selfishness and stinginess toward giving as Christ gave. We do so because we realize that selfishness is a sin; it deceives us into thinking we “own” things eternally. Consider the revelation that was given to St. Anthony, founder of monasticism, about the holiest person he ever met. “It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and everyday he sang the Trisagion with the angels.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLC, Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1975, p. 8) The physician in Alexandria gave to the poor whatever he had beyond his needs.
Holiness and good stewardship are inseparably linked. This physician was a good steward because he was holy. Or, should we say that he was holy because he was a good steward? The point is, we cannot separate them.
Good stewardship is meaningless without spiritual practice, because of sin and its endemic selfishness. Our salvation depends on us being self-less; to give of ourselves to others as Christ gave Himself to us so that we may thereby be restored to the divine image.
Can non-Christians be good stewards? Certainly! Orthodox Christianity teaches us that life itself is a journey in and toward the Kingdom of God. Every human being is on that journey. (Consider the opening sentence from the final prayer of The First Hour: “Oh Christ the True Light, who enlightens and sanctifies every person who comes into the world, may the light of Your countenance shine on us so that in your light we may see the unapproachable Light.”) And, God gives gifts to each one for their life’s sustenance. (”...For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Matthew 5:45.) What motive do non-Christians have for practicing good stewardship? Who knows? Maybe they are close to the Kingdom. Maybe it is out of pure selfishness. Maybe it is out of concern for the environment they will leave the next generation. The point is, our faith teaches us that the higher way of stewardship is out of love for God. We cannot and should not concern ourselves with trying to judge the orthodoxy of the motives of others. Rather, we should focus on our own goals of achieving purity and sanctity.
A Practical Counsel
So then, how do we live as stewards? One of the counsels of St. Anthony is perhaps the most practical and cuts through all of the mixed motives: “Indeed, if we too live as if we were to die each new day, we shall not sin . . . When we awaken each day, we should think that we shall not live till evening; and again, when about to go to sleep we should think that we shall not awaken ...If we are so disposed and live our daily life accordingly, we shall not commit sin, nor lust after anything, nor bear a grudge against anyone, nor lay up treasures on earth…” (St. Athanasius, Life of St. Anthony, 36) Nor, we might add, will we be anything less than good stewards!
If we understand stewardship properly, then being stewards will become our way of living; and this higher calling will experience and encounter life in all its facets - its joys and its sorrows, its victories, and its setbacks. We can muster the courage and strength to travel on this stewardship journey because “God is with us.” Good stewardship brings joy into the lives of others, helps those in need, enables those who desire to improve, loves and cares for the people in our lives, cares for God’s creation, supports the Church financially, participates in the sacramental life of the Church, teaches and guides others, nurtures the gifts which God has given us. All of these factors are qualities of good stewardship. If practiced well, all of these qualities can become normal parts of life. Returning to St. Anthony, which event in his life do you think provided the holy physician in Alexandria the most joy? Giving away all of his excess to the poor-the very thing that convinced St. Anthony of the physician’s holiness!
One of the greatest limiting factors to our stewardship is that we don’t practice good discernment. We make decisions on a legal, contractual level. You see, most of us bring a contractual understanding to the subject of stewardship. This simply means that for most of our lives, and especially at work, we have learned that we are supposed to get something in exchange for what we give! We must have an equal exchange of value. If I give you forty hours of my time per week, then I expect to get paid in return. I contribute my expertise, I get paid. A contractual mindset, applied in all circumstances, will kill stewardship. A contractual approach to giving means we are not truly free. By contrast, unqualified giving without constraint is a mark of freedom. When we bring a contractual understanding to our giving, then not only are we not free, but God is shortchanged. God has already given us much; our life, our possessions, and His Son! And now we want to strike bargains with Him?
St. John Climacus said, “It is better to insult your parents than it is to insult God.” (St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 3, “On Exile,” Classics of Western Spirituality, New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1982) God gives to us without strings. We must reach a level of spiritual maturity from which we can give back to God without expecting to get more in return. If we don’t, then our attitude and behavior are downright sinful. Broadening this discussion to include God’s Church, the problem is that we, in our contractual mindset, expect to receive in like kind from the Church when we give. We expect to get equal or greater value for our money. This attitude can easily degenerate into viewing the Church as a dispenser of goods and services. This is not a Christian attitude, it is a cultural understanding we have accepted. Such a view betrays a lack of understanding of the Church’s vision and misunderstands our identity as members of the Body of Christ.
Toward A Definition Of Christian Stewardship
Can we now build a definition for stewardship? How might we describe “stewardship in action?” The following list is adapted from one prepared by Ron Nicola:
1. Stewardship is our active commitment to use all our time, talent and treasure for the benefit of humankind in grateful acknowledgment of Christ’s redeeming love.
2. Stewardship is caring for the needs of others.
3. Stewardship is offering one’s self to God as He offered Himself to us.
4. Stewardship is what a person does after saying “I Believe ...”, as proof of that belief.
5. Stewardship is learning how to be a responsible and concerned caretaker of Christ’s Church; it is learning how to enjoy Church life and be happy in Church work, for in Her dwells the fullness of the Spirit of God.
6. Stewardship is devotion and service to God and his Church as persons, as families, as deaneries, as diocese, as national Church, and as the Church universal. (Ron Nicola, “Stewardship - A Set of Basic Principles,” The Word, November 1982,4.)
Perhaps we could summarize the points just mentioned this way: Christian stewardship is a life in service to God and His Church motivated by our thankfulness for His love to us . “...In that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It is the wise and proper use of all the gifts God has entrusted to our care. (See Romans 5:8) What then are the essential elements of stewardship?
THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF CHRISTIAN STEWARDSHIP
1. Acceptance of the belief that all life and life itself is a gift from God.
2. Freedom to choose not to sin and freedom from the constraints, pressures and temptations of the world that smother the expression of this belief.
3. Life in the Spirit which is characterized by behavior that uses and nurtures the time, talents, and treasure entrusted to us by God.