Leadership Is Stewardship, Part 1

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We live in the Age of Quantification. We want to know how many, how much, and for how long. When it comes to leadership, we like to grade skills, measure behaviors, and add up accomplishments. However, the essence of leadership is broader than possessing certain skills and expertise. It's deeper than what any leadership assessment can reveal. And it's much more profound than being accountable to shareholders to impart vision and reap financial results. Business consultant Peter Block suggests that leadership should be viewed more as stewardship.

If the term stewardship makes you think of sermons you've endured about church budgets and building programs, think again. In the ancient world, stewardship was not a religious term. Rather it was a key component of commerce. Almost every business concern had a steward who served like an ancient chief operating officer, running the daily affairs of the master of the house. Simply put, a steward was someone entrusted with the management of someone else's affairs.

In a business setting, Peter Block defines stewardship as “the willingness to be held accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than control, of those around us.”

More and more global enterprises are embracing this “new” concept of leadership, but many churches seem stuck in the 1980s. Command-and-control pastors emphasize their own vision and authority when they should be stewarding others' individual talents and potential leadership. Vision is important, but the church seems to be the last to catch up to what the business world has rediscovered—and the Bible clearly teaches.

In the Bible, stewardship is the inherent standard to which God calls leaders—whether we're leading a country, business, church committee, community organization, pack of Cub Scouts, our family, or ourselves. Paul's exhortation to Timothy on the topic of leadership selection for the early church is applicable to leaders in all these areas.

Contrary to popular understanding, the opposite of a leader is not a follower. It is a passive spectator—someone who waits for others to take responsibility. Rather than stepping forward, a nonleader steps back. Leaders don't wait for someone to tell them what to do. Leaders take the initiative and responsibility to be a faithful steward in God's Kingdom in both public and private life.

In Greco-Roman culture a household [oikos] was not just a family group or dwelling but the basic economic unit of the community, and it included everyone who lived in or worked at the house or estate. An oikos included immediate and extended family members, slaves, hired servants, skilled workers of various sorts, teachers, and tutors. The influence of an oikos extended into the community to those who did business with the household. And if a church happened to meet in a house, the influence of the oikos extended to the members of the house church and each of their oikoi too.

The Greek word for stewardship, oikonomia, is a compound of two words: oikos, household, and nomos, which means law or rule. In ancient culture, the words used together meant the administration or management of a household. (We get our English word economy from this compound word.) The translators of the King James Bible used the English word steward to translate oikonomos. The New International Version uses more modern terms, such as manager, management, administering, those entrusted with, and those being given a trust. But none of these English words capture the rich picture of leadership, authority, and accountability that the original Greek words portray.

An oikonomos, or steward, was indeed the “ruler of the house,” but he was not the ultimate ruler. In fact, in New Testament times the steward was almost always a slave to the head of the house. Although he was a slave, he was second in command, entrusted to manage the family and affairs. He was in authority as well as under authority. But—and this is the point of this Greek lesson—the authority granted to him was never to be used for his own self-interest. He was to use it to advance the interests of the master to whom he was accountable.

Looking at leadership through the lens of stewardship—authority over people and accountability before God—is the key to understanding what it means to lead from a biblical perspective.

The essence of stewardship implies a two-party proposition. One person owns the resources and the other person is entrusted with the resources. By definition, a steward is accountable to his master for how resources are invested. So how does this apply to us today? Since God owns all things, he is the Master; he distributes gifts and resources at his discretion. We are stewards, accountable to him for all that we do with all that we are given.

Thoughts for reflection and discussion:

  1. Get the Master's instructions. If we are responsible to God as our Master, then learning his desires is one of the steward's chief responsibilities. Making decisions that honor him, as good stewarship demands, means knowing his likes, dislikes, vision, and values.
  2. Do you know what God expects of you in each area of your life?

Editor's Note: This article has been adapted from Bill Peel’s book What God Does When Men Lead, part 1 of a 3-part series called "Leadership Is Stewardship."

>> Read Part 2, Not Ownership But Responsibility
>> Read Part 3, Living as Faithful Stewards in a Fallen World