Over my 30-some years of managing organizations and resources as a nonprofit leader, I’ve been blessed to see significant growth and expansion in the organizations, but I’ve also experienced significant failure as well. I’ve experienced the highs of growth in mission, resources, and funding, but I’ve also overseen the failure of an endeavor that resulted in the loss of almost a million dollars.
What is the steward leader’s role as a manager of risk? How does the steward leader approach the management of resources that belong to another when the investment of those resources can as easily result in loss or reduction as gain or multiplication? When resources are “put to work” and invested by the steward, the intention is that there will be gain, with the output larger than the input. But good intentions don’t always translate into gain. Sometimes good ministry ideas don’t work out, and investments are sometimes lost.
Webster’s dictionary defines risk as “exposure to the possibility of loss, injury, or other adverse or unwelcome circumstances.” Risk is a negative possibility, a chance that things will not work out as planned. Risk is generally approached with two processes: “risk assessment” (planning that gauges the degree of possible loss, such as building a tower or going to war in Luke 14:28, 31) and “risk mitigation” (taking proactive steps to reduce the possibility of loss, such as Saul’s armor on David in 1 Samuel 17:38). Risk is hypothetical, the chance of loss, whereas failure is a perceived result where loss has already occurred.
Secular theories of risk management generally approach the manager’s role with caution, control, and often strong consequences. Various theories called Theory X and agency theory assume that the manager of resources cannot be trusted to act in the interests of the owner and therefore need to be controlled and held accountable for failure. Assessing the appropriate level of risk is generally the sole responsibility of the manager. In God’s stewardship economy, the relationship between the divine Owner and the steward leader is based on trust, mutual understanding, and actions that are in the interests of the Owner. The steward’s character of faithfulness, trust, and respect for the interests of the owner are critical.
So what happens when the steward leader faces the consequences of risk, whether good or bad? Several parables told by Jesus help us to realize that in God’s economy, risk is still a natural part of stewarding resources. As steward leaders, we are not to be “risk adverse,” but “risk managers” (see Luke 13:6-9). But a significant difference exists in the steward leader’s approach to risk compared to the secular leader. When the steward leader has a clear understanding of who the Owner is and what His expectations are, he is able to assess the level of appropriate risk just as the Owner would do.
When the steward puts the goals and objectives of the Owner above that of her own goals, the steward hears “Well done” regardless of the outcome (Luke 19:12-27).
On the surface, the Christian steward leader may not look like he or she is approaching risk any differently than the secular leader. But the steward leader is driven by completely different character traits, spiritual realities, and relationships than the non-Christian leader. The steward leader may still engage in risk assessment and mitigation, but he will do so with freedom and trust because of who his Owner is.
Kent Wilson (PhD) is a leadership coach and nonprofit leadership specialist. After running nonprofit organizations for 30 years, he now serves as an executive coach with Vistage International and program coordinator for CLA’s Leader2Leader peer advisory program. He is also co-founder of the Steward Leader Initiative, and frequently trains boards in steward-governance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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