A “steward” is someone entrusted with the responsibility of caring for certain possessions, gifts, or other valuables, valuables which the steward usually does not own. While the original meaning of steward and stewardship was primarily economic—care of a master's property or household—it is the religious interpretation of stewardship that has animated philanthropic giving and service for centuries. The religious notion of stewardship holds that everything we have—and even the earth we inhabit—belongs to God, and while we are permitted to use it we must take care to use it well, and perhaps even to improve it.
The Christian principle of stewardship, as articulated by Calvin and Wesley, has long been the primary foundation on which religious institutions promote giving and voluntary service among their members. But this religious idea has also been adopted by non-religious philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie. And stewardship has also become the central value of the modern environmental movement, one of the more vibrant parts of the voluntary sector in the United States and elsewhere. These secular uses of the religious idea of stewardship illustrate one way in which religious values have predominated throughout the history of the western philanthropic tradition.
In classical Greece, the word most closely associated with what we call “stewardship” was oeconomia (for steward, oeconomicus ). It meant the person charged with care of a household—this term is also the root for what we now call “economics.” “Household” meant real property, the land and the improvements on it, but stewardship often extended to protection of a family as well.
“Steward” appeared for the first time in English about a thousand years ago. According to the Oxford English Dictionary , in this early use a steward was “an official who controls the domestic affairs of a household, supervising the service of his master's table, directing the domestics, and regulating household expenditures… (19XX, p. XX).” The original written form of steward is stigweard . Stig meant a domestic building of some sort; weard meant guard—the word from which “warden” has also come down to us. In these uses, it is clear that the property over which the steward has responsibility is not the steward's property, but the master's. In the medieval context in which the word originated, the steward's sole focus of loyalty was to his master. When that master was in fact the king of the realm, the king's steward became an important and powerful official.
The meaning of “stewardship” in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition adds a spiritual dimension while retaining this original economic dimension. Stewardship, especially in the Christian tradition, has become a spiritual metaphor, a pious responsibility, and a weekly religious practice. This is the meaning of the term for many Americans.
The idea of stewardship has a long ecclesiastical history. The spiritual metaphor of stewardship is drawn in Judaism and Christianity first from the Torah or Old Testament (Leviticus, for example). In Christianity, in particular, the word “steward” carries a weighty heritage, and there are key references to Christians as God's “stewards” throughout the New Testament. The apostle Paul identified himself as a steward: “This is how one should regard us,” he wrote to the Corinthians, “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (I Corinthians 4:2).” The apostle Peter exhorted his fellow Christians: “As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received (I Peter 4:10).”
The “Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27) is usually interpreted as a lesson in stewardship, as a call to make positive use of the gifts—even monetary ones—that God provides. In this parable, a master gives different amounts of gold (“talents” were gold coins) to several servants for safekeeping, and the servants who use the gold to procure more gold for return to the master are rewarded as “wise and faithful stewards,” (Matthew 25:23—sometimes translated as “good and faithful servants”) while the servant who simply hid the gold away is punished.
The medieval church also perpetuated and extended the idea of stewardship, “based on the recognition that all gifts come from God and must be used to his glory, and applying equally to all types of gifts, whether of money, time or talents (Maquarrie 1967, p. 333).” The church claimed the right to be the mediator between God and humankind in matters of human claims to use God's property.
In the late 19 th century, especially in America, as the Christian churches professionalized their fund raising appeals to meet their growing budgetary needs, the term “stewardship” became widely used as a virtual euphemism for “giving money” or “tithing” (Conway 1995). Stewardship in this narrower usage did have theological origins, however, especially in Protestantism. John Calvin made this connection between the spiritual and practical philanthropic responsibilities of stewardship: “Let this, therefore, be our rule for generosity and beneficence: We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbor, and are required to render account of our stewardship (1950, III: VII: 5, p. 695).”
Even more significant is John Wesley's famous explication of the Christian as “good steward,” which provides a religious rationale for philanthropic responsibility. Wesley, the founder of Methodism, gave a sermon in Newcastle, England, in May 1768, entitled “The Good Steward.” In this sermon, Wesley addresses three points: 1) that we are God's stewards; 2) that our stewardship ends when we die; and 3) that we may expect to account for what we have done or failed to do as stewards. Wesley says that we have been entrusted with “our souls, our bodies, our goods, and whatever other talents we have received. Of all these,” he observes, “it is certain we are only stewards (1991, p. 421).” Among the goods over which God has given us stewardship, Wesley declares that God “has committed to our charge that precious talent which contains all the rest, money… Indeed, [money] is unspeakably precious, if we are ‘wise and faithful stewards' of it; if we employ every part of it for such purposes as our blessed Lord has commanded us to do (p. 422).”
Today, the larger religious meanings of stewardship—e.g., as a general philanthropic responsibility to take care of God's world—are often submerged in what becomes a dreary burden of annual pledge appeals in churches. But yet, the people in the pews are the backbone of American philanthropy, considering that one out of every two philanthropic dollars is given to a religious institution. Moreover, the general religious notion of stewardship as more than just an obligation to tithe, as an obligation (owed to God) to “do good,” as Cotton Mather preached in early America (see Bremner 1988, p. 12), has remained.
In fact, this general meaning of stewardship has been adopted by philanthropists, social reformers, and activists—some religious, some not—who think of and describe their work as fulfilling an obligation of “stewardship,” an obligation owed either to God, to previous generations, or even to a specific individual. Many famous philanthropists in America turned to the doctrine of stewardship to explain their motives and justify their philanthropy. John D. Rockefeller and William Penn believed that wealth was a gift from God entrusted to certain people for proper management, like the master's property was entrusted to his steward. Andrew Carnegie ( 1962) espoused an explicitly secular “gospel of wealth” that mirrored the religious gospel of stewardship; he believed that along with great wealth came a great obligation to use that wealth for the public good. Recent studies by Paul Schervish, et al. (1994), suggest that this sort of gospel continues to motivate wealthy benefactors. They analyzed the “narratives” offered by wealthy philanthropists to describe what guides their giving, and identified a “moral stewardship model” that recurs in many of these narratives.
Perhaps the most prominent contemporary use of the idea of stewardship by philanthropic actors is in the modern environmental movement. The need for responsible “stewardship of the earth” is a common refrain heard from both environmental philosophers and movement activists (Nash 1989). Environmental stewardship involves the recognition of our responsibility to maintain, and perhaps improve, the natural world which we have inherited and which we will bequeath to future generations. Stewardship is the opposite of both neglect and abuse of the environment. It requires, at least, the preservation and proper management of “natural resources” (following the original economic meaning of stewardship); but more than this, it usually requires the restoration of over-exploited nature as well.
The modern notion of environmental stewardship is typically presented as a wholly secular one; only occasionally are the religious origins of the idea acknowledged. Among those who do trace these religious origins, there has been considerable debate over whether the Judeo-Christian responsibility to be a “steward of God's creation” does, in fact, encourage environmental stewardship (Passmore 1974). When God gives man “dominion” over nature (Genesis 1: 26-28), does this justify total human control to use nature for human needs, or does having “dominion” really mean being a “steward” or “caretaker” of God's creation, to “till it and keep it (Genesis 2: 15)?” Many religious environmentalists, and proponents of what has been called “eco-theology,” have tried to advance the second interpretation, that God's natural resources are entrusted to human stewards for preservation and improvement rather than exploitation (Moody 2002). However, this religious environmental ethic has been further criticized for being too “anthropocentric” in conceptualizing man as a separate steward managing nature rather than man as a part of nature (see Dubos 1972).
Overall, stewardship in modern usage is a powerful philanthropic concept, deeply moral in its concern for the well-being of others and rooted in ancient and enduring religious and social values, but also economically grounded in its concern for wise investment and management of our resources. Stewardship is about more than maintenance, it is about visionary management. Stewards have temporary control over, but not ownership of, an inheritance. They also have an obligation to manage this inheritance in such a way that it can be passed along even better and stronger than it was when they received it. There is a profound implication of trust in the idea of stewardship—“steward,” “trustee,” and “curator” are in many ways comparable terms.
Being a steward means accepting responsibility, but fulfilling this responsibility is never easy. Stewards lack an adequate job description or work plan. Stewards must decide what, exactly, they are stewards of . Should all parts of the inheritance be preserved? What parts should be improved upon or, perhaps, discarded? And modern stewards may have a variety of “masters.” These can be individuals, institutions, or generations. Nevertheless, it is the desire to fulfill these difficult responsibilities of stewardship that motivates a great deal of the activity we call philanthropy.Bibliography
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Dubos, Andre. 1972. A God Within . New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Maquarrie, John. 1967. Dictionary of Christian Ethics . Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
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Learning to Give wishes to express appreciation to Dr. Dwight Burlingame, editor/author of Philanthropy in America, a Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia of Philanthropy Information, and the publisher ABC-CLIO for graciously sharing this resource information with Learning to Give. The complete encyclopedia may be purchased through ABC-CLIO.