Stewardship Across Domains

Below is an adaptation of a passage from the essay “All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision”.

A simple definition of stewardship is “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted in one’s care.” In the context of organizational or project leadership, stewardship involves the commitment to the creative, professional and personal development of the people themselves.

Responsible stewardship of a culture has an enormous impact on a group or organization’s  mission. This is why stewardship has become so popular in recent years in the fields of organizational learning and in academic circles.  In fact stewardship has become a trend across multiple domains, including religious ones. Although the framework is markedly different, the principles of stewardship appear to be very much the same in all of them.

Christian theology, for example, has embraced the principles of stewardship over the past few decades and goes by a number of names, including Christian Stewardship, Biblical Stewardship, and Co-management with God. In the essay, “Four Principles of Biblical Stewardship”, Christian writer Hugh Whelchel presents a framework elucidating the four principles of ownershipresponsibilityaccountability and reward, all of which form the foundation for stewardship in the Christian faith. The fourth principle is explicitly Biblical in the sense that the reward for carefully and thoughtfully attending to what is needed in our sphere of influence is rewarded in the Afterlife. The overall message of Whelchel’s conception of stewardship is the expansiveness of this worldview, the sense that we have responsibility for the world we’ve inherited.

But, this expansive take on stewardship can be seen in Mahayana Buddhism as well. In that tradition, the Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) forestalls complete enlightenment until all other sentient beings are saved (or are liberated from the wheel of rebirth). From the standpoint of a cosmology which includes billions of lifetimes for each seed of consciousness, the Ultimate Steward is one who vows to return to the world of suffering to offer healing and compassion to those who continue to traverse the lower rungs of karmic life (animals, insects, and human beings born to misfortune or “lower births”).

A number of Mahayana traditions forgo the entire cosmology and define the Bodhisattva’s commitment to include putting other’s first and doing all that one can to take care of the world . As the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it, “instead of holding our own individual territory and defending it tooth and nail, we become open to the world that we are living in. It means we are willing to take on greater responsibility, immense responsibility.”

Of course, religions and spiritual movements have not cornered the market on stewardship. For example, we have the secular strand from the Progressive movement in the form of Environmental Stewardship. This movement stands on the premise that we are called upon to take care of our world -literally, as the world in this instance means “the Earth.”

Regardless of the particular domain in which stewardship is sought to be employed, the overarching philosophy and practice is very much the same. But, there is one domain in which stewardship takes on a deeper dimension, and it’s impact cannot be overestimated: Interpersonal stewardship.

More on this at a later time.