Chapter 13: Investing Our Resources: Christian Stewardship
By the grace of God I am who I am. How then can I, as the unique person God has made me, be stretched in the service of Christ and of people, so that nothing he has given me is wasted, and everything he has given me is used? (John Stott)
Tom and Sue are good people. And successful. In their mid-forties, they live in a lovely home in a good suburb and have three teenage children. Until recently Tom worked for a multi-national as a senior manager, while Sue was nursing. They’re involved in a church, having been committed Christians since their teenage years.
Dig below the surface though, and you’ll find that for quite a few years Tom and Sue have been very frustrated with life. There were worrying signs. Tom worked 60-70 hours a week in his job. It was hugely stressful, and he knew (more so once he became a senior manager) that he was involved in an industry with many questionable practices. For several years Tom didn’t know what to do about this. In fact his situation at work completely drained him. He would come home exhausted and have very little energy for anything else. When he attended church no-one could relate to his struggles. It was not an issue anybody wanted to talk about.
Sue went back to nursing ten years ago to help pay the bills. As the children grew they found that even with her income they were only just getting by.
One result of all this was that Tom and Sue felt they had little energy for the major task of parenting, let alone for friendships, church and community involvement.
Tom desperately wanted to “get out of the rat race”. He was very disillusioned. His goal had been to work his way to a position of influence and really use that influence well. That meant taking promotions, and often moving as a family. But he realises now that he actually became just like everyone else. Decision-making at work was more about survival than transformation.
Tom could see his predicament, but that didn’t help. In fact, it just made the agony worse. He was 45. He wanted to make a significant difference with the last twenty years of his working life. But he felt trapped. He couldn’t afford to rock the boat because he and Sue needed all the money they earned in order to pay the big mortgage on the house, and to maintain their standard of living. Losing his manager’s income was too big a risk.
Besides he often thought to himself, “What could I do? I’ve spent my whole life in this industry. It’s all I know.” Sue felt the same.
Perhaps saddest of all, they had no one who could help them in this dilemma. They felt isolated.
And yet it hadn’t always been like this for Tom and Sue. When they were in their early twenties they were excited about making a difference for God. They were bright young people, gifted, intelligent – involved in lots of good stuff and passionate about God.
So what went wrong?
There are a number of interconnected issues we have raised throughout this book that apply directly to Tom and Sue’s dilemma. Issues such as “fit”, life stage, busyness, balance and integration. All connect with the desire to make a difference – to develop a SoulPurpose.
But there is a further issue Tom and Sue struggle with. That is the question: “What do I do with what I’ve been given?”
Fundamental to discovering our SoulPurpose is acknowledging that our abilities, personality and life circumstances are a gift from God. All that we have is from Him. It’s not ours to do with as we please. As the Psalmist sums it all up: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.”(Psalm 24:1, NIV)
If everything is ultimately God’s, then we are, by implication, only stewards. What we “own” isn’t simply ours. There’s a sense in which the term ownership is unhelpful. It tempts us to think we have rights over all the resources that have come our way in life – resources that include not just our money and possessions, but also our time, our heritage and background, the environment, our relationships and community, even our personal gifts and abilities.
The biblical concept is not one of ownership, but of stewardship – and that concept is foundational to developing a SoulPurpose.
Stewardship is a consistent theme through both the Old and New Testaments, beginning with the creation mandate of Genesis 1:26-29. It is a central feature of a number of the parables of Jesus. The Greek word for steward most often used in the New Testament is oikonomos, the manager in a large household, which included servants, slaves and all their activities. The oikonomos was ultimately responsible and accountable to the master for the running of the home.
However, as Leonard Sweet notes, a more helpful word for this role may well be “trusteeship”, because for a number of reasons “steward” and “stewardship” are either redundant or loaded words. Sweet argues this on two counts – firstly that steward is an anachronistic term (there are no stewards around any more in the biblical sense), and secondly that the concept has been so misused by the church. Nowadays it simply means money and church fundraising, rather than “whole-of-life discipleship” and the “costly care of creation”.
In contrast, “trustee” is a term in common use today. Most people are vaguely familiar with the many trusts that exist in our society – particularly school boards, charitable organisations and family trusts. Trustees are appointed to run and manage these trusts. Their role is the responsible stewarding of the resources of the trust in order to fulfil the goals or charter of the organisation. Trustees do not own the trust they represent, even though they carry legal responsibility for what happens. They are caretakers, managers, custodians.
Whatever word we use, it needs to carry with it this sense of responsibility for resources that aren’t our own. In this chapter we will use steward and trustee interchangeably.
In his Parable of the Talents Jesus shows that we are not all entrusted with the same number of resources. The greater the resources we are responsible for, the greater the accountability. Faithfulness in taking care of what we have been given is the key attribute required of a trustee.
Jesus picks up on this accountability theme when he ends his teaching on the Wise Steward by stating, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Or in one version, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Luke 12:48b, NIV).
This perspective has huge implications for those of us who are resource-rich. Whether the resources are material things, or whether it is the “head start” that a loving and supportive family and community have given us, the message is the same: “To whom much is given, much is required.”
Many of us are blessed by a large volume of discretionary time, or by exceptional abilities, or by the capacity to significantly influence others. Jesus says to us, “To whom much is given, much is required.”
Whatever God has entrusted to us, we are required to invest the Master’s resources wisely, for the benefit of his kingdom. For those with substantial resources, this is a weighty and sobering responsibility.
In the realities of life then, how do we flesh out this need to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us? Using Tom and Sue’s very honest reflections on their own journey, let’s examine some of the implications.
Trusteeship involves embracing a view of our paypacket and possessions which asks, “What of these resources will the Master allow me to use to take care of my needs, and how does he want me to employ the rest in the service of others?” This is fundamentally at odds with much evangelical teaching on giving, which works from the assumption that we should give the “first fruits” to God … and then subconsciously presumes that the rest is there to do with as we please.
As we noted in the chapter on busyness, affluence can complicate our lives immeasurably and cloud the growing picture of our SoulPurpose. Whenever Tom and Sue looked at their lives they felt an ongoing pressure to earn more, in order to cope with their increasing expectations of consumption. Not that their workmates or Christian friends ever thought Tom and Sue particularly extravagant. The way they lived was fairly normal within their social context.
However, looking back both Tom and Sue recognise that many of their choices were poor, and are part of why they now have limited options. At the moment they’re in the most resource-poor period of their lives. Raising teenagers, they’ve discovered, is incredibly expensive! But, as Sue commented to Tom recently, “Why didn’t someone tell us early in our married life that the excess income we enjoyed then should be saved for later? Then we wouldn’t be feeling the kind of financial pressure we do now.”
Tom has a similar comment. “The problem,” he explains, “is that even though we have always wanted to serve God, we’ve never really understood that our money was not ours to just do with as we pleased. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve always been faithful tithers and given where we could. But we’ve also chosen to upgrade our cars, furniture and appliances on a regular basis. And I now realise that shifting three years ago to a bigger house in a better part of town was not a good call. It just put more pressure on us financially. Not only did it give us a bigger mortgage – we then had to buy more furniture to fill the house!”
“The truth is we’d simply grown tired of our surroundings. And most of our friends were doing it, so we just assumed it was a good idea. Sue saw this really nice house across town one day, and next minute we found ourselves moving!”
Sue agrees. “Yes, it’s quite ironic really. I thought having such a dream home would make our lives easier to manage. But quite the opposite occurred. And not just financially. It also tore us away from the people we had been getting to know in our old suburb and church – our network of relationships.
“Because our lives were so hectic, with both of us working fulltime and the kids involved in all kinds of activities, I was regularly ‘buying time’ by using pre-prepared foods. Plus, it wasn’t uncommon for us to eat out or have takeaways two or three times a week. We were on the run so much that it was the convenient thing to do.”
Both Sue and Tom also agree that their loose patterns of spending spilled over into other areas as well. “I’m horrified at it now,” says Sue. “It’s no wonder, looking back, that we felt we were struggling financially – all the stuff we convinced ourselves we needed, the expensive holidays we thought we required because we were so exhausted and needed to spoil ourselves a little. We were really caught in a vicious cycle – spending most of our income simply to maintain our lifestyle. If we’d dropped our lifestyle expectations earlier, we would have released a substantial amount of money for other purposes. Even more importantly, it would have freed up time and energy to think about how we could meaningfully invest the next twenty years of our lives.”
Being trustees of time involves valuing it as a divine gift rather than a commodity to be used and abused. Rather than trying to squeeze as many activities as we can into our days and weeks, we need to treasure the time given to us and think carefully (just as a wise manager does) about how to apportion it.
When it comes to stewarding our time, it helps if we appreciate that even though we each have only a limited amount, God has actually given us all that we need for doing what he has asked us to do.
Tom admits that he never really understood this until recently. He could never say no to new commitments, which meant that he was forever swamped by tasks, and under immense pressure to get the multitude of jobs done. No wonder he wanted to “opt out of the rat race”.
Tom’s inability to draw the line and limit the tasks he tackled was probably a symptom of too high a view of his work. (We touched on some of these issues in the chapter on busyness). “I know I suffered from a bad imbalance in my life. Recently a friend helped me to begin thinking strategically about what God really wants me to be involved in. But for years I got no help – though the truth is that I may not have been open to advice even if someone had offered it! I got into this pattern of making myself the exception. I mean, I knew about the Bible’s emphasis on Sabbath rest, but I always thought my circumstances left me no option but to ignore it. Quite destructive really.”
As Tom’s experience highlights, the pace of life in our culture means that our time may be one of the most difficult resources to steward.
We’ve already written much in this book about how unique God has made us. Our personalities, gifts, talents and motivations are entrusted to us for a purpose – that we might serve God and others through their use.
Good trusteeship involves working hard to understand how God has put us together, and then to realise that this is just the starting point. We’re not fully formed from the beginning. We have a responsibility to nurture and develop our gifts, talents and potential skills, honing them so that our service can grow and become better. The temptation is often just to rely on our natural flair – and not to improve on it.
Tom and Sue are both talented and skilled people and have certainly worked at developing their gifts over the years. However, both felt cramped serving where they were. Intuitively they knew that there were other ways they could use their abilities more fully. But as we’ve seen, their poor use of money and time resources left them trapped, feeling unable to do anything about re-ordering their lives.
Until recently a strong sense of SoulPurpose eluded them. However, some of the exercises and perspectives mentioned in this book really helped the two of them to re-consider who they were and how they could best serve. For example, as Tom explains it, “One thing that really limited me in the past was thinking that my career was where I served God most. When I was helped to see that it was just part of my life’s work, then it freed me to see the potential of using my skills in other areas. Actually, that’s what led me eventually to quit my job and join a smaller company working in the same area. It came to a head when the CEO wanted me to take on a position at head office. The thought of moving half way round the world when we’d just begun to make a life here didn’t appeal in the least.”
Sue adds, “That’s when I said, ‘Enough is enough!’ We’d just begun to get involved in other things which genuinely excited us. I’d taken on a part-time nursing role at the hospice – not because we needed the money but because I could see a way for me to make a difference. Plus, friends up the street lost their daughter in an accident and I’d been spending a lot of time supporting Keri. I couldn’t just run away from that.”
Sue’s reaction to the possibility of moving yet again, was a clear sign that she was beginning to recognise another key resource in her life – relationships. Strong friendships and immersion in a community of people are also areas that a good steward needs to manage well.
Building genuine community takes time. It requires developing a culture of openness – inviting others to be significant in our lives in shaping our values, making decisions, finding where we fit, asking the hard questions and providing a safe environment to learn and grow.
Tom comments “It’s only very recently that I’ve realised how important friendships really are. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve always got on well with people and tried to get involved in the communities we’ve lived in. But when I look back I can see that the regular moving we’ve done was very disruptive to establishing strong relationships. We basically did what we wanted. We made the decisions on our own.
“I can clearly remember the reaction of a friend of ours – he was at the church we were attending at the time. After I told him we were moving city he obviously thought hard about it. A bit later he came up to me and told me he was quite upset that we could just decide to up and leave; he’d thought that our friendship meant more than it obviously did.
“Of course I couldn’t understand his feelings at the time. But looking back I guess presenting people with a fait accompli was our way of protecting ourselves. It meant we didn’t have to worry about others interfering with our decisions or thinking that they had a right to tell us how to live.”
Sue agrees. “I remember that occasion too. I don’t think we understood Brian at all. He wasn’t trying to run our lives for us. I think he just placed a much higher value on true friendship than we did. And the sad thing was, he and Anne knew us well. We’d shared quite a lot with them about our struggles, and I think they were quite committed to helping us work through some issues. Plus, they were very open about their lives too. They were a gift to us. But we just up and left!”
It’s clear as Tom and Sue talk that there are many regrets about their utilitarian approach to relationships over the years. But they are determined to change this and have been working at nurturing a group of friends who are also committed to helping each other discover and outwork their SoulPurpose. “We now realize,” says Sue, “that developing friendship requires time and patience.”
This doesn’t mean they have ruled out the possibility of moving again in the future. Just that if such a possibility arose, the way they went about deciding and what criteria they used would be very different from what they have been in the past.
“I think I’ve had a conversion of sorts,” says Tom. “When I began to grasp the idea that relationships were right at the centre of what God was about, it caused me to take a serious look at my priorities and what really counted in the long run. It was actually very liberating because I began to see that parenting, friendships, helping my staff grow and develop – all this stuff was part of my SoulPurpose.
“If I’d had that attitude earlier in my career it would have made a big difference. But I just couldn’t see the wood for the trees. I was always too caught up in the task, rather than letting God use me to serve people. As a manager, I hated people problems. But now in the new company I’m finding a real excitement from helping my staff work things through. In fact, I’ve discovered a lot more about myself – what I’m good at and what I really enjoy doing. Plus, the guy who owns the company sees that as part of my role. Which helps a lot – because in my old job I was made to feel really guilty about being interrupted by people. Productivity was everything.”
“Things at home have been a lot better as well,” says Sue. “For both of us – but particularly for Tom. He’s really motivated to invest in the kids. And he has a bit more energy to do it, too. Not that life isn’t hectic. Just that we’ve somehow started to say no to stuff that might be good but that doesn’t fit what we need right now.”
“Put it this way,” says Tom. “My family and friends aren’t getting the leftovers like they used to!”
Most of us will be able to identify with some of the struggles Tom and Sue have experienced. We certainly can! Answering the question, “What do I do with what I have been entrusted with?” is an ongoing challenge for us, as it is for them.
There’s no neat and foolproof path to becoming wise and responsible trustees. We are all so very different, as are our circumstances. How we exercise our stewardship over money, time, gifts, relationships, etc., will differ greatly from one person to another, and from one stage of our lives to another.
However, as Tom and Sue are discovering, there is real joy and fulfilment in using well what we have been given. It’s a key to discovering our SoulPurpose.
Lord, I remind myself today – all I have is yours; not mine.
So help me to manage your gift of time well.
Help me to invest your gift of money and possessions wisely.
May the unique personality, skills and abilities entrusted to me be well nurtured, developed and used, for your purposes.
May I appreciate the gift of loved ones you’ve placed around me.
All of creation is a gift to be stewarded.
Let me be your servant this day – not abusing or misusing, always treating with care.
Lord, help me to know what to do with what you’ve given,
that you may be glorified and your kingdom built.
In the name of the supreme example of trustees – Jesus.
In what ways can you identify with Tom and Sue?
Do a stocktake of the resources you are a trustee of (money and possessions, time, “fit”, relationships, environment, heritage, etc.). How “wealthy” or “poor” do you consider yourself to be regarding each one? In what ways has this changed for you over the past ten or twenty years?
Reflect on the words of Jesus – “To whom much is given, much is required.” How might understanding resources as gifts affect the way you use them?
What is the biggest challenge you have in being a trustee of money and possessions? List any steps you can take to overcome this challenge. Is there anyone who can help you with this?
Make a list of the people in your life with whom you want to develop a deeper sense of community and accountability. What steps can you take to build a stronger relationship with them? Are there any particular ways they can help you work out your SoulPurpose at present?
Share some of your struggles over stewarding money, time and gifts.
Discuss the claim: “God has actually given us all the time we need to do what he has asked us to do.” What implications do your conclusions have for the way you approach your week?
Brainstorm ways in which you could restructure your lives to better utilise what you’ve been entrusted with.
Christine and Tom Sine, Living on Purpose (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002)
Gordon Fee notes that this person was frequently a slave. See The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 159. A second Greek word, epitropos, is sometimes used, which also means steward or manager.
While we don’t address it in this chapter, creation is also a key resource and one whose responsibility we are entrusted with. Our stewarding of the environment – “earthkeeping” – is an important aspect of trusteeship.
See for example, Luke 12:42 and 1 Corinthians 4:2.
As Craig Blomberg notes, people in positions of power and wealth have no increased privilege – just increased responsibility. See page 84 of his book Neither Poverty nor Riches (Eerdmans).
Of course, there are risks inherent in building accountable relationships. Some people treat such openness as an opportunity to impose their view of how we should live our lives, rather than allowing us to ultimately determine what we believe is the best option. So we must be aware of who we invite to journey with us, lest we become accountable to people who think they know better than we do what decisions we should make!