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The Meaning of Stewardship

Are you a true steward or just a caretaker?

Summer is just around the corner, the time of year many of us look ahead to the summer onsite “show season” as well as some time off if we can arrange it. It’s also the time of year my thoughts often turn to camping in west-central Pennsylvania, where I’ve spent much summer “down time” since I was a small child.

Then, my parents lived in a small, rent-controlled apartment in the Bronx, near 149th St. and St. Ann’s Ave. I spent most of my time in a classic kid’s urban environment: hanging out on the stoop, in our block’s many alleyways and in our building’s small courtyard, entry hall and stairwell. I took a city bus to school and played skelly with my friends on the sidewalks.

Both of my parents hailed from small towns in Pennsylvania. They had been part of the great post-war migration of small town America to its large cities, in search of opportunities. But in the summers, they would drive our Studebaker back to their hometowns of Ridgway and DuBois to visit family.

Just outside Ridgway, we had a camp where they’d put up an old third-hand trailer on cement blocks. My grandfather, who ran a small grocery store in town, had deeded the land to my mother—a small, quarter-acre clearing surrounded by the Allegheny forest.

Our milk came from a local farm and had cream on the top. Corn and tomatoes came from other nearby farms. We brought in water in large milk cans, cooked on a propane stove and lit the trailer in the evenings with a Coleman lantern. Some days we visited family in town; other days my siblings and I picked blackberries or went on hikes or swung from ropes hung from the trees.

It was an idyllic time for me in many ways and I have fond memories of the three or four long summers we spent there before I turned nine. That’s when our family moved from the Bronx to Connecticut, when my parents’ lives and careers became more demanding and our summer vacations became more conventional, with visits to places like Washington, D.C., Montreal, or the beach.

Years later, after my wife and I married and we were ourselves just starting out, I told her about the land and we began going there in the summers to camp. At first, it was completely overgrown, but we began spending weekends there in a tent, cutting down the underbrush and briars, the joe pie weed and saplings, carting off the remnants of the old trailer that still remained.

It was my first real sense of stewardship, of responsibility associated with respecting a piece of land and ensuring that each time we left it, we left it in better shape than when we’d arrived.

Stewardship was an idea I’d learned in the Boy Scouts, but during those summer weekends, it was a concept that suddenly had real, emotional meaning. As we sometimes sat by the fire in the evenings, the years of memories associated with that land, that place and my sense of self became very important to me. Seeing the care we took, my mother eventually transferred the land’s deed to me.

Later still, we took our own children camping there and sought to instill the same values of stewardship: Take responsibility for what is given to you; make it your own and make it better than when you received it; remember that there are some things you never really “own,” that your role is to protect and cherish and maintain and improve them for those who come later.

Over the years, I’ve come to see that the same concept applies to the work environment. Many work roles are also stewardships, particularly in institutions—whether it is a college or hospital, a B&I or school, or even a magazine. One’s role is a mantle that one wears for a time, with responsibilities that go beyond those assigned to the job.

In that context, as you look back over a period of tenure, ask yourself: have you been able to add value to the role, to the position? When you leave it, will you leave better place than when you joined? Have you developed your team to its best and fullest capacity? Have you played the cards you have been dealt well, or have you let the play be ruled by chance? Have you been a real steward, or just a caretaker?

These are questions that are well worth asking.  A sense of stewardship teaches that one’s responsibilities are broader, and deeper, than we often assume. But there is a great deal of satisfaction in answering that one has indeed done one’s best to be a good steward.

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