by James Hanson, Senior Consultant
I think everyone at some stage of their lives wants to change the world. Perhaps the change might be to make the world a more equitable, compassionate society, removing racial injustices, hatred, war, and famine. To bring about justice and harmony. Maybe to bring all to a position of faith. Perhaps to see the world free from a tragic and deadly pandemic. As a lifelong learner, I know I have biases, some of which remain unconscious, and I am trying to rid myself of them. I also know I have much privilege. It has become very clear to me that with privilege comes huge responsibility. My ‘change the world’ moment came a few years back when I reflected on the state of the nations, and our lamentable failure to steward and safeguard our planet for future generations.
I had it in mind that the two most populous countries: China and India, would house nearly half of the world’s populations. If you could harness their cultures for the good of stewardship of the planet, then you could bring about seismic change and have a decent shot at bringing the rest of the world with you. I figured that it would be imperative to get stewardship and sustainability, environment and catastrophe into the mainstream curriculum and make it a condition of graduation to have made a significant local difference in each of those areas. I still do think that passionately, but I am learning to recognise that trying to achieve that is not faithful stewardship of my gifts however much I want it to happen. There will indeed be better ways.
When I was at school, a motto / strapline was ever present, yet seldom shouted about. Mine was ‘Altiora Peto’ – I seek for higher things. Loosely understood to be the call to make the most of one’s own potential. Rather vague and woolly if you ask me, and this could apply just about anywhere. It was not until I started teaching at a very well-known school in London that I spotted their own strapline: ‘Donorum Dei Dispensatio Fidelis’ – The faithful stewardship of God’s gifts. Two things struck me: firstly – how much this said about my own raison d’etre, and secondly, how little it was ever mentioned or lived out in the school.
There is a story about a man of noble birth who was going away to become king in a distant land. He gave three of his servants large deposits (monetary): one he gave 1, another 5, and the final one 10 . The one who had the most went out and put it to work to double in value. The second one who received 5 did likewise and doubled his deposit. But the one with 1 buried it in the ground. Upon returning, the new king came back and was delighted with the two who had put their gifts to great work, but furious with the one who had not even bothered to let it gain interest, and took it from him. The moral of the story is clear – what we have been given and entrusted to us, we have a duty to put to good work and grow faithfully.
So, I made it my life’s ambition to live by this motto: ‘the faithful stewardship of God’s gifts’, recognise why it was so important to me, and should be to others too. There is so much to be said in just a few words. So much to unpack about what it really means for us in life. Journey with me as we look at how this simple phrase can help change where you are right now. Four words, and four steps to unlock its real meaning.
Step 1: Gifts are freely given
There must be a real recognition that everyone is gifted. When we become teachers, we look out for those natural gifts in children, help them see what comes naturally to them, and where they can still grow further. As we move into school administration, we learn how important it is to recognise, celebrate and grow those gifts in our staff. The word ‘gifts’ can be interpreted in many ways: talents, abilities, skills, aptitudes, values. But the word ‘gift’ means that it has been given to us; presented to us without us having to learn it, borrow it or graft to build it. Given – freely and wonderfully to be used for a positive purpose. Maya Angelou taught us “that every person is born with gifts”. She goes on to say: “success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it”. The real question is when we recognise how much of a blessing it is to be ‘gifted’ then we stop looking at others longing to be more like them in attributes, skills, or talents. When we see how these gifts can be used for good, then we really learn to fully appreciate ourselves and the gifts given to us.
Step 2: Gifts are to be discovered
Once we recognise all are gifted, then we have the joy of discovering our gifts and, hopefully, the gifts in others. This process sometimes takes a lifetime, and revelation comes in many different guises. Our many influences; parents, family, early years, school, friends, college, working colleagues all provide rich sources of help in this process. Think back to your earlier life: when did you recognise your giftings? Who helped you discover them? Did you just see it in yourself? Are you still discovering? Feedback and advice are so often dished out by those around us – be it family, friends, colleagues, superiors, whether we want it or not. Any advice or feedback is most effective and received well when it is from a place of trusted relationship. Otherwise it might only sometimes land well, but I would not often expect it to do the job intended. The same goes for gift recognition – those who I trust the most are the ones who really show me my giftings, when they point them out to me. They are the same people who remind me of my impatience and stubbornness too.
Step 3: Gifts are there for positive purpose
If, by now, you are still confused about what your gifts are, then I can steer you a little further. Any more than that might spoil the real joy of self-discovery and shift the responsibility away from you too much. For me, impatience and stubbornness are not gifts. Sure, stubbornness is mighty useful when channelled into weight-loss, or determination to achieve a key goal, and impatience can be a force for good to get me off my backside into doing something I should have done. But, generally, they are not positive attributes. Some of my gifts are more natural: compassion, giving freely of my time, problem solving, pastoring, character. Others I have discovered later in life such as leading, teaching, and public speaking. If I look at me – and all the ways I could describe myself (or others describe me), then some of the real positive traits are just that – values, traits, character. Yet character is a gift – one that we can readily shape – but a natural default starting point that wants to be a force for good. To discover my gifts, I just point to myself and ask where I am naturally equipped to be able to serve and shepherd others.
Step 4: Gifts are to be faithfully stewarded
It is not easy being naturally gifted in something – and it is not always apparent someone who is gifted can use their gift well unless they are willing to try it out. Some gifts, as I mentioned, appear to us later in life, while others need pointing out by trusted friends and family enough times that we finally ‘hear’ what they have been trying to say. Ever met someone who replies ‘I’m not a leader’ when you know that they have leadership qualities and natural abilities in spades? When we answer that question: what is it about me that can be used for good purposes? We begin the stewardship process. Gifts are there to be planted, grown, and multiplied; our brains are hard-wired to increase connections through doing, interaction and physical activity. Not buried and forgotten about. If we have been given 1 gift, then grow it. If 5 then grow all 5. If 10, then we stand on the shoulders of privilege, and have the biggest responsibility out there – to grow all 10. What has been given to us has been entrusted like a precious pearl. It is not to be left in the soil, but cleaned, polished, and made to shine. Most of us readily put time into areas of strength in our lives – that is far more appealing than our real weaknesses or fears. “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again” (Abraham Maslow). That is a different question than stewardship. Faithful stewarding means recognising where we have those strengths that can be used for good, and then putting them to real work growing for good. If we seek to use them in other ways, sure, it might be quite successful. But are we not going to really make a difference if we leverage those personal gifts in the areas they are meant to be? How better to thank the giver?
In my own discernment and vocational journey more recently, I am beginning to ask those hard questions. Have I discovered those gifts within me? Am I grateful for being me, and not yearning to be someone else? Have I put them to good work to grow each of them further? Am I faithfully living out my life stewarding those gifts for positive purposes? I have come to think that my answers to those four questions are: mostly, sometimes, quite often, not always, instead of yes four times. Do I still want to change the world? Yes, but I know it will only happen by being a faithful steward; to steward my entrusted gifts, facilitate discovery and nurture of gifts in others, and stewarding the wider world given to us. As educators, we strive to see the gifts in our young charges, to affirm in them what had been given freely to them, and journey with them to help them grow into those giftings. To help them see that “they have the power to determine the future, each and every one of them” (Gavin McCormack). But I know we must go further and inspire them to recognise their call to faithfully steward those gifts for real positive purposes. That is the way we change the world – inspire one child at a time to be a faithful steward.