The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
In many churches, this is the stewardship season, and we devote lots of time and energy to building our financial base for the coming year. In most cases, though, we're not being accurate when we call it "stewardship."
What we're really doing during these months is pure fundraising work. Our efforts at education and persuasion are about philanthropy, benevolence and charity, and those are very different from stewardship.
Dictionaries clarify that a steward is one who manages the affairs and resources of another. It is a role of great trust and responsibility. In contrast, philanthropy, benevolence and charity have to do with the humanitarian distribution of one's own assets. They have connotations of generosity and good will.
Stewardship is totally different from ideas of benevolence in asserting whose stuff and whose intentions are important. A philanthropist is noted for generosity with her or his wealth. A steward does not need to be either wealthy or generous, only capable and responsible in dealing with the assets of another.
Our efforts at church fundraising may be practical and effective, but they are theologically shallow. We have conceded that the members of our congregations see their wealth, time and talent as their own. And so we ask them to give out of what is theirs; we don't ask them to be responsible in their stewardship of what God has entrusted to them.
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The best models for stewards and stewardship in the modern world come from the financial realm.
The managers of an investment portfolio, a trust fund, or a charitable foundation truly function as stewards. They have been entrusted with the valuable assets of others to manage. Effective management does not bring profit or gain to the steward. The benefits (and the risks) go to the owner of the assets. The goals and the style of management are defined by the owner, not the steward.
The fund manager -- the steward -- has a legal obligation to work for the specified goals of the fund owners: high or low risk, an emphasis on financial gain or socially responsible impact. If the steward has a different idea for how to manage things, those plans must be approved by the owner of the assets before being implemented.
And, clearly, the steward is not to profit personally from the assets that are being managed. Be paid appropriately, yes. But not dip into the assets for his or her own use. That sort of misappropriation of funds is called "embezzlement" and is a major crime.
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In today's society, even in today's churches, it would be a tough job to convince folk that they are stewards, not owners, of their paychecks, bank accounts and homes. Thus, our "stewardship" campaigns are really about benevolence, about giving generously out of your own possessions.
We may stand a better chance of calling for stewardship when we deal with issues of the environment and natural resources. On some level, many people can understand the often cited proclamation from Psalm 24 that "the earth is the Lord's." We can begin to grasp the notion that the created order does not belong to us as individuals, nations, corporations, or as a species. It is not ours to use and abuse as we please.
It is possible to talk of stewardship of the earth without a religious base. The earth might belong to the entire biosphere, and not to humanity alone. Ownership might be so deeply tied to future generations that it is meaningless to think of this generation as having significant rights. Both of those themes should be a part of our thinking. But the theme of stewardship is most clear and most compelling from the religious perspective. To be stewards of God in our relation to the earth makes our obligation plain.
Those of us who come from religious communities can make a profound contribution to the environmental cause when we stress the theme of stewardship. To see ourselves as stewards of what God owns points us in very different directions than seeing "the earth and all that is in it" as our own property.
If the oil fields, the rain forests, the seas and the atmosphere are human property, then we must convince the owners (however those are defined) to be far-sighted, generous and benevolent in the use of what they have. We must convince them to give up a portion of their rightful claim to profit and the use of their property.
But if we are stewards, then all of that is not ours to claim at all. The question is not how much we give up, but how much we can rightfully use. We must make a defense for what we take, not for what we give. And our defense must be based on our best understanding of God's, the owner's, intentions.
Stewardship of the earth can be problematic. To claim that we are the stewards of God's creation puts us in a powerful role as managers and decision-makers. An arrogant notion of stewardship could benefit from environmental understandings that place humanity within nature, instead of above it. But in any form, stewardship is far more faithful than ownership as a way of relating to the earth.
May our churches have the courage and vision to proclaim that the earth, and all that is in it, is God's.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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