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Spring 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 1 · pp. 55–62 

Partnership in the Gospel: Misers, Accountants, and Stewards

Paul G. Hiebert and Sam Larsen

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. —1 Corinthians 4:1-2 (NRSV)

The new fact in our day is that the church is a global church. Gatherings of believers are found in almost every country on earth. The emergence of a global church does not mean that pioneer mission work has come to an end. There are many areas where the gospel has never been heard sufficiently for people to make intelligent decisions regarding Christ. It does mean that in many parts of the world, missions now takes place where churches already exist, and people in missions should not ignore such churches in outreach ministries. This concern raises the critical question, How should missions be carried out in relationship to these churches?

In serving Christ, the only loser is one who refuses to risk everything out of devotion to the greatest honor of the master.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson saw the dependence of young churches on mission agencies and called for young churches to become independent and autonomous. Hans Kasdorf (1979) traces the impact of the “three-self” philosophy on the mission movement. Today missions and churches are moving beyond discussions on independence to discussions on partnership in {56} mission in which missions help churches reach out to their regions, and missions and churches work together to pioneer new fields of ministry. But what shape does true partnership take?

We often use “root metaphors” to give flesh to our thoughts (Pepper 1949). 1 One that has often been used to portray partnership between younger and older churches is that of two oxen tied to the same yoke. In one sense, this is true, and in another it is misleading. In church and mission partnerships we often have the rich working with the poor, the powerful with the powerless, the old, mature, institutionalized body with the young body full of creative vitality and life. How do these partner as equals?

We need new metaphors to explore models of partnership, particularly with regard to power and resources. One set of metaphors that may be useful is found in the parable told by Jesus to his disciples in Matthew 25:14-25 where he speaks of three ways in which people deal with resources.


One recipient of resources was a Miser. He was given one talent to use for the benefit of the master, and he knew that one day he would be asked to give an account. He was driven mainly by a fear which completely overshadowed love, trust, and faith. What if he invested the talent in a risky business venture and it failed? What if he put it in a bank and it collapsed? To be safe he buried the talent, and in the end he returned it fully to the master. He accused the master of being hard and austere, of giving him a task too big for him to do. 2

In the church, the Miser mentality keeps Christians from using their God-given opportunities and turns their vision away from the lost world outside to caring for their own needs. Today the North American church spends more than ninety-five percent of its income on itself. There is no end to our needs, all of which seem legitimate: good church buildings, adequate ministry staff, Christian education for our young, reaching the lost in our neighborhoods, and making sure we are a good light to the world where we are. Moreover, the task of global mission is too great for us to do. That belongs to the greater church. We must focus on the tasks around us that are doable.

We have no one on our church committees to speak for the lost, to constantly remind us in every decision we make that that decision has an effect—positive or negative—on the proclamation of the kingdom to the ends of the earth. Mission becomes one department in the church, a minor segment in the budget, and the responsibility of a few specialists. {57}

In missions we are often tempted to be Misers. Misers do not learn the languages and customs of other cultures well for fear of making mistakes; and people can only learn these by making mistakes and laughing with the people at their own faux paus. Nor do Misers risk their lives and comforts for fear of evil consequences; they play it safe and do not go when called. There is also a risk in joining a venture in which we do not have control, so Misers avoid partnerships lest they lose control of power and resources and these be misused; it is safer to keep everything to themselves, under their control. A miserly approach to missions creates dependency in young churches and does not allow them the greatest privilege we all allow ourselves: the right to make mistakes and learn from them.


The second metaphor Jesus alludes to is the Accountant. When chiding the Miser for not using the resources given him, the master said he could have at least invested it in a bank run by Accountants. These are human calculators that keep accurate track of all the funds and give account for each cent entrusted to them. They must follow the rules of accounting which are based on an algorithmic logic. This logic defines processes (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and other calculations) which, if performed correctly, produce the one right answer to each calculation. 3 Emotions, such as compassion, love, and forgiveness, should play no role in their decisions.

Accountants have little discretion to invest resources according to individual needs and the common good, or to take potentially profitable risks. They look for safe returns, control, predictability, and security. They quantify, because if they can reduce something to numbers, they can manage it. They expect others to whom they entrust resources to give account for every penny and moment of time. An accounting mentality places priority on economic resources. Ultimately these determine what can and should be done. The more resources people or institutions have, the more they can do. Without resources they can do little.

In the church, an accountant mentality looks to planning and management to shape the future. There is little room for ambiguities, disagreements or sudden responses to unforeseen opportunities, individual visions or the serendipities of the Holy Spirit. Churches are organized like clubs or corporations (Berger et al. 1973; Ellul 1964).

In missions, an accounting mentality looks to long range planning, goal setting, and program reports. It leads missionaries to see their relationship to God in mechanistic terms: in what they do for God, in setting {58} quantifiable goals, and in giving account for every moment of time and every resource they have. Reflection, study, rest, recreation, family, and friends have low priority. It also leads to the belief that God has only one plan for their lives, and if they stray from this they are in God’s second-, third-, or fourth-best plan for their lives.

This view leads missions to set up strict reporting procedures when turning the work over to the church and to require the church to account for every dollar spent. Givers retain power over resources by controlling the way the recipient uses them. Economic resources are seen as the key to effective ministry. Young churches have often emulated western agencies in this. Patrick Sookhdeo writes,

[E]ither the national Christians do not attempt to engage in mission because they do not have the resources to set up and maintain institutions, or they set up a mission modeled on the traditional mission society and after some local fund raising they quickly transition to seeking support from wealthier countries all over the globe. The result is that traditional structures are replicated, and developing missions are stifled. Thankfully, there are also groups of national Christians that have gone ahead and engaged in mission without all the modern accouterments (Sookhdeo 1994, 63).


The third metaphor Jesus uses in this parable is that of Steward. In New Testament times Stewards were highly valued persons entrusted with the goods of the master. They had the right to use and invest these resources as they best saw fit and to take risks for the sake of great gain. They exercised initiative, creativity, and wisdom in making weighted and calculated decisions in the face of risk and uncertainties. They had to tailor their stewardship to the particular settings and opportunities given them.

Stewards, by definition, are not autonomous. They serve their master and look to the master’s benefit, not to their own personal gains and self-indulgence. They are to be diligent and hard working, not lazy and timid. What is required of them is trust, faithfulness, and total allegiance. Stewardship involves the whole of the steward’s life—it is not a day job. Moreover, it includes obligations that go far beyond economic resources. Stewardship flows out of a heart motivated by a desire to serve rather than to rule and control. 4

Stewards must give account of their actions. This is not a detailed account for every hour and dollar they receive, but the willingness to give reasons to the master for the actions taken. Moreover, the steward is {59} rewarded in proportion to his or her faithfulness by being entrusted with greater tasks. 5 The unfaithful are deprived of their office.

In missions, a stewardship mentality calls for careful planning and work, but it is open to quick responses to unforeseen opportunities and to the unexpected leading of the Holy Spirit. Stewardship also requires accountability. Workers take ownership of the vision and task and give reports of their activities in terms of broad ministry goals. They are evaluated ultimately not on their tangible successes, their having a clear conscience, or their ability to please people, but on their faithfulness to God and the vision of the mission (1 Cor. 4:2). They think and act creatively for their Lord, take risks, and learn from their failures. They recognize that God can call them to different tasks according to the needs of the church and use them in different places. 6

In serving Christ, the only loser, ultimately, is one who refuses to risk everything out of a prudent devotion to the greatest honor of the master. God sees both motive and action, and he honors and uses the earnest, childlike attempts of his servants, in spite of themselves, to further his redemptive purpose in the world. Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).


In partnerships, a steward mentality means that each member views the others as full equals with the rights and responsibilities of joining together in a common venture. Each member has a right not to be involved in particular projects, but a responsibility to give up control of what he or she contributes to the joint venture. In true partnership, each member seeks to build and empower the other. The mission focuses not only on getting a job done, but also on strengthening and teaching the young churches and in building the bonds of fellowship between different churches as part of its goals. This includes teaching them to be creative, to develop their own resources as well as drawing on outside resources, and to do their own theologizing. Reports are given on how effectively the funds and personnel have been used in obedience to God and the vision of the partnership.

In true stewardship, we must take time to listen and learn from one another. Australians have a saying, “I’m alright, Jack,” meaning, “What’s your problem?” In other words, whatever problems exist, the speaker owns none of them. True partnership in missions cannot be done with this attitude. So long as the churches in the West take for granted that others have problems that they can solve and that they having {60} nothing to benefit from the newer churches of the Two-Thirds World, true partnership will not be realized. Without consciously intending to communicate arrogance, Western churches often convey an ethos of smug self-sufficiency. In mission we need one another to know and experience the love of Christ (Eph. 3:17-19). We must risk listening to brothers and sisters in Christ whose views and ways are at odds with our own and value these differences to see the whole more comprehensively. A global perspective means willingness to be partners at home as well as abroad.

In partnership, as in stewardship, the initial commitments may be small and limited. As each party demonstrates faithfulness in its participation, larger endeavors can be ventured. Each party also has a right not to enter a new project if trust is lost. This keeps partnerships from leading to dependencies or to large bureaucratic institutions.

A stewardship model of partnership involves several levels of joint activity. It begins with a shared vision of what God wants in the lives of the participants. Out of this vision emerge five steps of concrete activity. First, the partners must define the problem at hand together; then they must jointly decide what should be done; then see what each can contribute to the task; then decide how and by whom the work will be done; and, finally, evaluate the outcome together. Too often we see partnership as doing the first step together and then one of the partners doing the rest. Or we are willing to do only the first two or three steps together. Partnership is not complete until all steps, including the evaluation, are joint efforts.

This does not mean that either partner must give up its freedom to continue or end the partnership. It is, however, a commitment to each other that makes true partnership possible. It means to trust one another in decision making, to jointly evaluate the effectiveness of the work, and to decide further actions on the part of each partner. Effective partnership also calls for appropriate technology which is replicable in the local economy and culture. Here, big is often not better.

If partnership is going to be an effective means in evangelizing the world and building the church, we must reexamine our preconceptions of what it is and look for biblical ways of working together for the cause of Christ. Again, the only loser in Christ’s kingdom is the one who refuses to risk everything out of a prudent devotion to the greater honor of Christ. If we are more concerned with how we will fare and stand to gain or lose—even eternally—than we are with Christ’s honor, our “prudence” is not a sign of devotion but self-absorption. Stewardship recognizes that the goal of mission is not our gain but God’s glory and the extension of his reign on earth. {61}


  1. An example of the power of root metaphors in shaping missions is the picture of the mission as a scaffold needed at the beginning to erect the main building, the church. In fact, most missions were not scaffolds but center poles holding up the main tent, and when they left, church leaders were left to find a new one.
  2. Warren Wiersbe (1985) points out that the word “austere” used by the Miser with reference to his master means “stern, harsh, severe.” Scripture, on the other hand, speaks of Jesus as “meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29), and his commandments as not grievous (1 John 5:3).
  3. The result is a digital view of the world in which things are either right or wrong, good or evil, true or false, clean or dirty, pure or impure. In this world there is little room for ambiguities and of mixtures of good and evil in individuals and institutions. There is also little room for mystery and uncertainty. Algorithmic processes provide us with a sense of certainty and the power to control, and are best performed on quantitative data which is precise and can be manipulated accurately. In fact, machines such as computers are better accountants than humans because they keep track of figures accurately and fast. An example of good accounting from this perspective is the company that spent thirty-two cents postage to collect a twenty-cent debt. If it did not, the accounts would not “balance.”
  4. In the New Testament it is the embodiment of submission in the body of Christ to Christ and to one another (Matt. 20:25-28; Eph. 5:21).
  5. Paul is concerned that he be found faithful (not successful) as judged, not by himself, but by God. He is not concerned with pleasing people, nor with having a clear conscience as judged by himself, nor with honor, applause, and being liked, but with being faithful to the master (1 Cor. 4:1-4).
  6. Often a mission views its missionaries as stewards but introduces an accounting procedure when the work is turned over to the young church. This is a powerful statement that the mission does not trust the national leaders. Many times this is warranted, but we must hold missionaries to the same accountability that we do national leaders, and we must build trust in young leaders long before we begin to transfer responsibility over to them. {62}


  • Berger, Peter L., Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner. 1973. The homeless mind: Modernization and consciousness. New York: Random House.
  • Ellul, Jacques. 1964. The technological society. New York: Random House.
  • Kasdorf, Hans. 1979. Indigenous church principles: A survey of origin and development. In Readings in dynamic indigeneity, ed. Charles H. Kraft and Tom N. Wisley, 71-86. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
  • Pepper, Stephen. 1949. World hypotheses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Sookhdeo, Patrick. 1994. Cultural issues in partnership in mission. In Kingdom partnerships for synergy in mission, ed. William D. Taylor. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
  • Wiersbe, Warren W. 1985. Windows on the parables. Wheaton, IL: Victor.
Paul Hiebert is Professor of Mission and Anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. Sam Larsen is Assistant Professor of Missions at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.

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