When you scan the front page of any major newspaper or news magazine today, you can quickly recognize a plethora of catch phrases that defines today's business paradigm and methodologies. Phrases such as Return on Investment (ROI), operational productivity, de-leveraging, asset allocations, performance management, employee ownership and virtual teams fill the business pages. However, one phrase that is not commonly found in the business vocabulary is "stewardship."
Most people associate "stewardship" with church offerings or a fund-raising campaign of non-profit organizations. In recent years, "stewardship" also describes the emphasis on environmental protection and green policies. Otherwise, in today's corporations and factories, "stewardship" is seldom mentioned. In reality, every business is in the stewardship business. Businesses are formed for the purpose of harnessing all their available resources to produce substantial value for their stakeholders. These resources include not only financial resources; they also include human resources, finished products, raw and in-process materials, equipment, intellectual properties, relationships with suppliers and customers, manufacturing capabilities, service attitudes as well as management skills.
For example, a local clothing retailer harnesses its available resources of sales associates, store managers, inventory control system, merchandise, store ambiance, store location, pricing strategies, marketing approach, merchandise displays, supplier contracts and customer relationships to deliver maximum value to its stake-holders. For its customers, the store delivers value through a combination of pricing, merchandise and service. For its employees, the store delivers value through salary, medical insurance, job satisfaction and relevant job experiences. For its owners and investors, the store delivers values through its profit and its positive return on investment. The store manager and employees are ultimately stewards of the multitude of resources available to them for the purpose of maximizing value for their customers, employees and owners/investors. Stewardship, therefore, refers to the business of managing and using all available resourcestangible and intangibleto deliver maximum value for their stakeholders.
As believers, our ultimate "stakeholder" is our Lord, the Creator God who made everything and owns eve-rything. David writes in Psalm 24:1, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it." In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells us that God, our master, expects us to use the talents he has given us to fulfill the plans he has for us. In this parable, the master's expectation was not defined by the amount of revenue increase generated by his servants. Rather, the master's expectation was the wise management and usage of the talents entrusted to the servants. Jesus said, "The one who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more." The emphasis is on the action of the servantimmediate obedience and diligence to manage and utilize the talentsputting them to work to deliver results. The master rewarded the two faithful servants not because of what they achieved; they were rewarded for their obedience to faithfully put their talents to work. The stewardship lessons we learn from the servants are twofold. First, God expects us to faithfully utilize the resources he has entrusted to us. Second, God expects a full accounting of our actions.
In biblical terms, stewardship is acknowledging that everything comes from God, and we must use all that God has given to accomplish all that God desires.
As Christians in the business realm, stewardship not only pertains to how we handle our personal resources, but extends to our work, our companies and all that God has entrusted to us to manage and utilize on his behalf for his glory. In the past few years, business owners, entrepreneurs and white-collar professionals in the urban cities of China are increasingly seeking a faith that will buttress the shifting morality caused by rapid modernization. Therefore, as God turns the hearts of these business leaders toward Christ, they try to integrate biblical teachings into their workplaces and families. These Christian business owners and entrepreneurs strive to understand and apply biblical stewardship principles.
The first step of good Christian stewards requires acknowledging the multitude of resources God has given them for his purposes. Business leaders in China today understand that God has entrusted to them a unique set of resources that includes their talents, skills, finances, products, services, relationships, opportunities, spiritual truths and personal influence. Next, they recognize that as God, in Genesis 12, blessed Abraham to be a blessing to the nations and peoples, God has likewise blessed them so they can bless the local church, the local community and the business culture. Consider the above examples of creative and steadfast ways that Christians exercise their stewardship responsibilities in the business community. In each of these situations, stewardship led to greater glory and praise for God and directed blessings toward the local community.
In China, the concept of stewardship is not commonly discussed in business seminars and business fellowships. Chinese Christian business leaders work daily in a culture that does not value biblical principles and face growing economic and market pressure to conform to the prevailing business culture. Admittedly, good stewards in the business community are still an exception instead of the norm. However, God has other ideas. These examples give us a glimpse into the possibilities. In the past few years, God has been raising up groups of committed believers in cities across China who are daring to imagine God's plan for their businesses and to invest their resources in actions and initiatives that will maximize glory for his name while extending blessings to their local community. One day, as the Lord leads, the exception will become the norm.
Some Examples of Creative Stewardship
Julia Sun is the owner of a beauty salon and spa. One day she confesses to her business fellowship, “I used to count how much money I made at the end of each day. After I became a Christian, I now count the number of opportunities God gives me to share his Word with my customers.” Ms. Sun demonstrates right understanding of the biblical purpose for her business and good stewardship of the business that God has entrusted to her by focusing on God’s success criteria instead of her own.
Joshua Wang is the CEO of a multinational company with operations in China. To conserve much needed water, Mr. Wang asked his in-house engineers to design and build a sewage water treatment facility for their factory to recycle their water. The recycled water is given to a local nursery to water their plants. In return, the nursery provides plants for the company’s corporate offices. Mr. Wang stewards the resources of his staff and their technologies to reduce their water usage, contribute to sustainable growth, bless the local communities and increase their results beyond water conservation to financial savings and community goodwill.
John Liu is the president of a hospitality and retail group. He needed to restructure a key financial contract with their bank. However, the bank managers came to the meeting seeking kickbacks in return for restructuring the contract. As a Christian, Mr. Liu knew paying kickbacks was unwise stewardship of the God-given resources of finances, spiritual truths and biblical witness. He declined to give any kickbacks and persisted in the negotiations until he and the bank came to mutually agreeable terms without any bribes or kickbacks. At the celebration dinner, one of the bankers asked Mr. Liu why he adamantly refused to pay any kickbacks or bribes. Mr. Liu shared his faith and explained why he relies on the God who provides everything. By wisely managing the talents, biblical values, finances, influence and moral authority, Mr. Liu uses these resources to honor God and to testify of him to others while saving his company precious funds and demonstrating valuebased leadership to the local community.
Stetson Wu owns a small business that employs 25 local staff. As a Christian, he was concerned for his employees and wanted them to learn about Jesus and his gift of new life. Mr. Wu decided to sponsor a weekly class at his office where his staff can learn and study the Word. He asked a local pastor to teach the weekly class, arranged his staff schedule so everyone was available during the class time and set aside office space. He encouraged his staff to attend each meeting. Within weeks of starting this class, several employees accepted the gift of new life and became believers in Jesus. Mr. Wu has continued to sponsor the class and prays that the remaining employees will all embrace Jesus as their own. Mr. Wu uses his resources of influence, time, physical property, relationships and biblical truths to maximize glory for God’s name and yield fruit many times his own.
David Jiang owns a local hotel with over 250 rooms. On an overseas trip, he experienced firsthand the impact of the Gideon ministry that places a Bible in every hotel room. Upon returning to his city and his hotel, Mr. Jiang decided to invest his own funds to buy Bibles so they can be placed in each hotel room. This action demonstrates that Mr. Jiang understands God has given him the hotel, his funds and his guests. He obeys God’s call to be a steward of these resources (finances, influence, positional authority and physical property) to maximize glory to God and blessings to the local community.
Image credit: Shanghai panorama by Vladimir Yaitskiy, on Flickr