The philosophy of stewardship

Stewardship is a biblical concept that has not received proper attention in our Catholic Church until recent years and has been particularly promoted in pockets of the U.S. Catholic clergy and laity, following Vatican II.

Bishop Robert J. Baker

In his “Pastoral Invitation to Cath-olics of South Carolina,” announcing 2006 as the Year of Stewardship, Bishop Baker observed that, “Among the special fruits of renewal and revitalization of our Church in the period following the Second Vatican Council was a deepened appreciation of the role of stewardship in the life of our Church.” Yet, as the bishop also observed, the concept of stewardship has not fully taken root throughout the U.S. Catholic Church. Bishop Baker has devoted considerable energy in the past year to promoting a fuller appreciation of Christian stewardship, especially in his many visits to parishes across the state for the Sacrament of Confirmation. Indeed, the bishop has expressed repeatedly his personal belief that in a “unique and special way, Confirmation is the Sacrament of Christian Stewardship.”

Still, many Catholics continue to see stewardship as simply another name for fund raising.

Stewardship as a way of life

Discussions about stewardship in recent years have usually taken as their starting point the document titled “Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response,” a pastoral letter issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1992. The bishops expressed three convictions at the outset which underlie their teachings on stewardship. First, we must be committed followers of Jesus Christ. Second, stewardship begins with conversion, a change of mind and heart. Third, “stewardship is an expression of discipleship, with the power to change how we understand and live out our lives.”

The thrust of these convictions may be summed in the idea of stewardship as a way of life. Conversion, the bishops tell us, “is expressed not in a single action, nor even in a number of actions over a period of time, but in an entire way of life. It means committing one’s very self to the Lord. Christian disciples who practice good stewardship “recognize God as the origin of life, the giver of freedom, the source of all they have and are and will be.” True Christian stewards express gratitude for what they have received and are “eager to cultivate their gifts out of love for God and one another.”

The call to follow Christ in a life of Christian stewardship, therefore, asks much of us. And the more gifts we have received from God, the more we are expected to return. The bishops teach us that we will each be judged by the standard of our own individual vocations: “Each has received a different ‘sum’ — a unique mix of talents, opportunities, challenges, weaknesses and strengths, potential modes of service and response — on which the Master expects a return. He will judge individuals according to what they have done with what they are given.” In other words, we are not all called to give back to God the same amount, we are called to sacrifice in proportion to the gifts we have received.

We often hear that stewardship involves giving of our time, talent and treasure. This reminds us that we are asked to share all our gifts, not simply a financial contribution in the weekly offertory. We each possess unique gifts and talents which can be used in the service of others. There are countless opportunities to volunteer in our parishes and communities. Nor is the “treasure” aspect to be overlooked in terms of the gifts we have received. The biblical concept of the tithe suggests that 10 percent of our wealth should be shared with the church and other charities. Bishop Baker has asked that we consider tithing five percent of our incomes to our local parishes, one percent to the Bishop’s Stewardship Appeal, and four percent to charities of our choice — including the ongoing diocesan “Our Heritage, Our Hope” capital campaign.

Tithing is not a practice which has achieved widespread acceptance in the Catholic Church. Yet a life of Christian stewardship calls on us to share our material wealth also in proportion to what we have received. Christian stewards adopt the practice of sacrificial giving in a planned, proportional and consistent manner, realizing that while the church requires funds to operate and to serve the needy, a more important need is our need to return to God a portion of all we have received from him. The bishops tell us that a Christian steward is “One who receives God’s gifts gratefully, cherishes and tends them in a responsible and accountable manner, shares them in justice with others, and returns them with increase to the Lord.”

As we near the end of the 2006, the “Year of Stewardship,” let us endeavor to make 2007 and the years beyond not only years of stewardship but years in which we achieve a conversion to a lifetime of Christian stewardship.

Jim Myers, Ph.D., is director of the Office of Stewardship and Mission Advancement for the Diocese of Charleston.