The Spirituality of Deep Stewardship
The term “stewardship” is often taken to be a code word for “tithing” or for “fundraising for religious purposes.” Certainly, if we have a proper spirit of gratitude for all that we have received from God, and are resolved to act as responsible trustees of God’s gifts (and that is, in fact, the real meaning of stewardship), then we will be disposed to contribute financially as members of our Church community, and this might involve tithing, or participating in raising funds. Even when the Church was young, St. Paul was greatly concerned about organizing a collection (see I Corinthians 16:1-4; II Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:25-28). We do not live in a dream world, and so the work of the Church must be effectively funded. We have to pay the bills, and care for the practical needs of the poor. That, however, is only one aspect of stewardship, and will take care of itself if the more profound aspects (stewardship of time and talent) are emphasized.
As we seek to enter into the experience of stewardship, it is essential that we avoid being shortcircuited by emphasis upon its most obvious but superficial aspect, the sharing of material goods. If we start with that, with the fund-raising for apostolic purposes, we will go no further, and stewardship will become just another program. No, we can only be satisfied with deep stewardship, which means a profound inner conversion as individuals and as a community in which we become committed to living generously in every way, as the Gospel calls us to do. Deep stewardship begins with gratitude and ends with accountability. Stewardship is sometimes called “the attitude of gratitude.” We recognize gratefully that everything in life is a gift of God. We do not ultimately own anything, but are entrusted with time, talent, and treasure for use during our brief passage through this life. And at the end of life, we take nothing with us, except the life which arises out of generous love. If each of us is profoundly aware that all is gift, then we are freed from possessiveness, and can be good stewards of what has been entrusted to us in life, sharing generously
and so at the end of life returning all to the Lord with increase. Like the servants in the parable, we will be called to account for the way in which we have used what has been entrusted to us.
Deep stewardship means having our priorities straight. As disciples of Jesus we must be clear about what really matters. St. Ignatius of Loyola early on wisely invites those who take his “Spiritual Exercises” to ask themselves who their Master is. That determines everything. Every spiritual tradition in Christianity insists that we do this. In religious orders, sisters, brothers, and priests vow to follow the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Most disciples do not commit themselves in so formal a way to living by these
counsels, and yet they speak to us all, by emphasizing that we are not masters of our own lives, but are to use what we have for the service of others. All three counsels come down basically to poverty – to trusting in the Lord, being at the disposal of others, not claiming our own mastery of the situation. We are only stewards, and are not in control. That awareness is liberating.
There are two sure ways of discovering what is really important in my life – of discovering who my Master is. The first is to look at how I spend my money, at how I am steward of material possessions. I spend my money on what I consider to be important. Look at the financial statement of any organization, or
family, or individual, to find out what is considered important.
A second, and much more revealing way to discover my priorities, is to examine how I spend my time. Our lives are woven out of time, and my stewardship of the scarce resource of time truly reveals what I really consider to be important. Every day has 24 hours, and time once past will never come again. I must constantly choose how to spend my time, for once this moment is past it is not my time any more.
A profound spiritual theme related to stewardship of time is the “Sacrament of the Present Moment”: my life is found in each passing moment, and I need simply to offer that moment to God in obedience to His will. “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done.” If I do so, I will never regret the past or fear the future. Such is the stewardship of time.
Time, talent, and treasure: these are the gifts that each of us has freely received, and which we need to use responsibly in a spirit of gratitude. If we do that, day by day until the day when we are called to account, then we will experience the joyful serenity of deep stewardship.
Over the past 50 years a whole spirituality and theology of stewardship has been developed in parishes and dioceses in the United States and Canada, and has led to a deep transformation of the life of discipleship within them. In 1992, the American bishops issued a pastoral letter which summarizes the key elements of the vision of stewardship which is found within the scriptures and the living faith of the Church: “Stewardship: a Disciple’s Response.” This letter has been invaluable in providing a focus for thought and discussion to those involved in deepening a sense of stewardship. It defines a Christian steward as: “One who receives God’s gifts gratefully, cherishes and tends them in a responsible and accountable manner, shares them in justice and love with all, and returns them with
increase to the Lord.” As communities begin more consciously to adopt the model of stewardship, I recommend that they study and discuss this letter. Stewardship is a way of life, or as the American bishops put it in their letter, it is a disciple’s response to God’s gifts.
The International Catholic Stewardship Council helps dioceses put into practice the principles of stewardship. It provides expertise and advice, and numerous publications and programs which can assist communities which are entering into stewardship. Those who have participated in the annual conventions of the International Catholic Stewardship Council have been impressed by the deep understanding of stewardship which they have observed in the testimonies of individuals and communities who have been transformed by stewardship.
It is that deep spiritual transformation which we want to foster in all of our parishes, and in the whole community of our diocese. That is why we are trying to approach stewardship in a deliberate and thorough manner, learning from the experience of others, and adapting their insights to our situation, being careful to stress the full engagement of the members of the community in the whole of their life of discipleship. That is vital, for we will be trapped in a dead end if we become distracted by a superficial vision of stewardship, such as one focusing on money. We must be satisfied with nothing less than deep stewardship, in which each of us resolves to make generous use of the time, talent, and