Origin of “Stewardship”

In classical Greece, the word for stewardship was oeconomia (for steward, oeconomicus), meaning the person charged with the care of a household. It is the root word for “economics”.

The word “steward” appeared for the first time in English about a thousand years ago and its original written form was stigweard. Stig meant a domestic building of some sort and weard meant guard (root of the word “warden”).

From the Oxford English Dictionary, 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.”

Judeo-Christian tradition adds a spiritual dimension to the term as found in the Torah (eg. Leviticus). Key references to Christians as God’s “stewards” are also found throughout the New Testament (1 Cor 4:2, 1 Pet 4:10). The Parable of the Talents (Mat 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27) is usually interpreted as a lesson in stewardship.

In the late 19th century, Christian churches, especially Protestant churches in America, professionalized their fund raising appeals and the term “stewardship” became widely used as a euphemism for tithing. The term has also been adopted by philanthropists, social reformers and activists, used in a secular context.

A deeper understanding

In 1989, the U. S. bishops requested the drafting of a pastoral letter on stewardship from a concern over the amount of resources (ie. cash) needed to carry on the mission and ministry of the Catholic church. An Ad Hoc Committee was formed for this purpose. As the Committee reflected on this challenge, they realized that people are extremely responsive to urgent needs and that professional fund raisers could help ask people for greater support. The Committee envisioned its task as something far more radical and fundamental. They realized that stewardship is part of faith; one of the chief characteristics of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

“Stewardship is a lifestyle that reflects who we are and what we believe. It goes beyond the mere sharing of one’s resources, but asks us to share ourselves – our time, our abilities, our ministry, our relationships. Stewardship is really a call to be a holy people.” (Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy, founding chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Stewardship). In November 1992, the USCCB approved the publication of Stewardship: a Disciple’s Response, a 44-page pastoral letter, rooted in Sacred Scripture, the documents of the Vatican II, and the teaching of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.

Shallow and deep stewardship

In Stewardship: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”, Cardinal Thomas Collins, now Archbishop of Toronto, talks about shallow and deep stewardship:

Stewardship can be, and often is, understood in a shallow and limited sense, as no more than a code word for “tithing” or for “fundraising for religious purposes.” That is, undeniably, one important but limited dimension of stewardship. If we have a proper spirit of gratitude for all that we have received from God, and we are resolved to act as responsible trustees of God’s gifts (which 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.

That, however, is only one aspect of stewardship, and will take care of itself if the deeper reality is emphasized – a profound inner conversion that leads us to live in a spirit of generosity, which is most fully revealed in the sharing of time and talent. It has been noted that even with tithing the key question is not what we do with the ten per cent, but how we use the other ninety per cent. As we seek to enter into the experience of stewardship, it is essential that we avoid being short-circuited by emphasis upon its most obvious but superficial dimension, the sharing of material goods. If we start with the idea of stewardship as fundraising for apostolic purposes, that will absorb our energies and 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.


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