Stewardship

I wrote earlier this week about the importance of acting “as for years“—treating your home, your job, and your other responsibilities as if you would have them forever, and investing for the long term. I quoted Brigham Young saying that he would continue to spend money to improve his home until the very last day he lived in it.

How is that possible? The key is to think differently about ownership. Instead of thinking of our possessions and our jobs as part of our identity—letting them define us—we can think of them as things we hold in trust on behalf of someone else. When we pass them on, we want to ensure that we have taken good care of them.

The “Come Follow Me” manual explains how the law of consecration was administered in 1831. Church members would sign over everything they owned to the church. The bishop would then allocate to them what they needed, which was often exactly what they had just donated. In many ways nothing had changed, except for their perceived relationship with these worldly goods. Instead of being owners, they were now stewards.

A steward is “a person employed to manage another’s property.” It comes from two Old English words: stig, meaning a hall or part of a house, and weard, meaning a guard, someone who looks after something. A steward acts on behalf of the owner and strives to be as conscientious as the owner would be in caring for the property.

Economists have observed a phenomenon known as the “principal-agent problem.” When an owner (the principal) hires or delegates responsibility to another person (the agent), there is a risk that the agent will not act in a manner consistent with the principal’s desires. Because the agent may not feel the same level of responsibility, he or she may be negligent or even make decisions contrary to those which the owner would have made. The difference between the agent’s actions and the actions the principal would have taken is called the “agency cost.”

A good steward limits the cost and the risk of agency. When Ammon, who was himself the son of a king, volunteered to be a servant to King Lamoni, he was fully committed to act in the king’s best interests. When a marauding band attempted to steal the king’s flocks, the other servants were tempted to give up quickly, even though they knew the king would be furious and would likely have them executed. But Ammon inspired them to action and defended the king’s property at the risk of his own life. (See Alma 17:26-39.) After heroically driving away the attackers, Ammon meekly proceeded to his next task—preparing the king’s horses and chariots for a journey—which prompted Lamoni to say, “Surely there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man; for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them” (Alma 18:10). No principal-agent problem here. Just a trustworthy steward, fulfilling his responsibilities as if he had been the owner.

A good steward is more than an order-taker. To members of the church in 1831, the Lord said, “Whoso is found a faithful, a just, and a wise steward shall enter into the joy of his Lord, and shall inherit eternal life” (Doctrine and Covenants 51:19). We are expected to be not only obedient but also thoughtful and proactive as we fulfill our responsibilities.

Elder Quentin L. Cook has pointed out that a hallmark of a good steward is a willingness to hold ourselves to a standard that others would be unable to impose upon us:

My hope is that each of us will review individually and as families the stewardships for which we have responsibility and accountability. I pray that we will do so knowing we are ultimately accountable to God and that in this life we will be adhering to the unenforceable.

Stewardship—a Sacred Trust,” General Conference, October 2009

Today, I will be a good steward. I will take seriously my responsibilities at work, at home, at church, and in my community and will consider how I can more consciously take care of the things that have been entrusted to me.

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