“To husband is to use with care, to keep, to save, to make last, to conserve.”
Wendell Berry, The Way of Ignorance

In this post I want briefly to examine the meaning of stewardship. In two following posts I will examine more specifically how stewardship pertains to the household and then give a concrete plan for stewardship in every home.

Stewardship is the proper use of what is entrusted to one’s care. My focus here is on stewardship in the most the common meaning of the word: the proper use of the wonderful and diverse natural resources of the earth. The place of human persons in the natural order calls for our exercising such stewardship. To be stewards of the natural world is part and parcel of being who we are–rational animals. We can rediscover this calling, this aspect of who we are.

Good stewardship has three aspects: gratitude, taking responsibility, and executing.

The foundation of stewardship is gratitude. To be grateful is to recognize and receive a gift. Something has been entrusted to me—in this case the natural world around us, and I see this and accept it. How wonderful it is! To accept it is already to be disposed to give back in some way. I’m engaged by something amazing that has been given to me.

Taking responsibility is the natural next step. It is to recognize that something is ‘mine’ to do. I have an irreplaceable role in the natural order, and I’m on the line to do it, according to my condition and abilities. Taking responsibility is a powerful and uniquely human response to the natural world.

Executing comes next. This is actually using well what has been given. All of us can do this; it’s just a matter of discerning how and then acting. Execution rooted in gratitude and taking responsibility has a firm foundation, and so it will take a very care-full approach.

The stewardship of which I speak here concerns the whole range of natural ‘resources’—creatures living and non-living of all kinds, especially those most connected to human life. The true steward is willing to step-up to his unique responsibility, but he does not claim a greater prerogative than he should. Recognizing the human difference and the human vocation to step into this unique role, he uses and cares for other creatures that the natural order itself might come to fulfillment, and for the true good of the human communities to which he belongs.

Selfishness and greed spell the demise of stewardship. The natural world is given for the good of all people, for generations to come. It is so easy to fall into a self-oriented stance that justifies all manner of abusing or neglecting what has been given. At issue here is a real moral challenge, and so also a unique opportunity to grow as a person. Good stewardship will demand more than first meets the eye. But the fruits will be manifold, and they will last.

Forthcoming: Household: The Home of Stewardship; and Stewardship: A Plan for Every Home.

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