‘Be a Good Steward’ – Charge to the Class of 2013 by President Kent Chabotar
Stewardship is a core value of Guilford College. Stewardship promotes personal responsibility and a commitment to making decisions that ensure our survival.
But stewardship is more than outrunning the undertaker. The biblical definition of stewardship is having “dominion” over the works of God. So it also means acting responsibly to ensure that God’s creations are fruitful and fill the earth.
This College has endured 175 years. The stewardship of Nathan Hunt and Mary Mendenhall Hobbs to Ernestine Milner and Joe Bryan got us here. Rising generations of new stewards must surmount new challenges if we are to last another 175 years or even 25.
Psychologist Alice Miller reminds us “never to take your college as a matter of course – because, like democracy and freedom, many people you’ll never know have broken their hearts to get it for you.”
Stewardship assumes many forms.
Financial stewardship means budgets are balanced while not forgetting our mission or hurting: the endowment by overspending, buildings by deferred maintenance, employees by inequitable compensation or students by high tuition and low financial aid.
Senator Barbara Mikulski argues that while College should be the American dream, it should not also become a financial nightmare. Financial stewardship also entails giving back. Every graduate here was subsidized by endowment and annual gifts. Pass it on.
Environmental stewardship recognizes that our planet is not unbreakable. Genesis 2:9 tells us that God “made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.”
We cannot act as if the world is an untouchable Garden of Eden whose natural resources should not be developed in the service of humankind. Neither can we allow strip mining, fossil fuels or clear cutting that will haunt our children with the ghosts of old forests to wreck the air we breathe, water we drink or the food we eat.
“What’s the use of a fine house,” Thoreau wrote, “if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Unfortunately, civilization is kicking the environmental can down the road for the next generation to get really serious about it.
Historical stewardship bequeaths a bodyguard of facts to our successors rather than a shroud of lies and stereotypes by not masquerading your own prejudice as the truth; not forgetting past nearsightedness, bungling and neglect when others selectively reminisce about the “good old days;” not ascribing to a wrongheaded exceptionalism that claims we are too unique to learn from the best practices of others; and not defaming others with bad data or slanted reports meant to injure rather than inform.
Theologian Tryon Edwards argued that “to murder character is as truly a crime as to murder the body: the tongue of the slanderer is brother to the dagger of the assassin.”
Spiritual stewardship does not serve one creed or religion. It does serve beliefs in forces beyond what we can see and touch, caring for one another, pausing for inner reflection, and knowing that ethics should matter whatever we do to earn, live, and learn.
As Dr. King said, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
How do you know you are a good steward?
A good steward inclusively develops and then communicates a clear vision and a commitment to its achievement, mobilizes others to action, and produces results. Without vision, the Bible tells us, the people perish. Without vision, institutions drift and eventually succumb, thereby abandoning the people they were created to help.
A good steward thinks long-term. Benjamin Franklin was wrong when he said that no one escapes death and taxes. Colleges do. We pay no taxes and we tend to last forever, sometimes despite the enthusiastic incompetence of our leaders.
We must think inter-generationally. We must recognize the trade-off between short-term inconveniences and long-term paybacks.
The Class of 2013 has accommodated successive renovations of Founders Hall with entrances and even whole floors shut down summer after summer. But you also benefitted from accommodations made by earlier classes for the Frank Science Center, South Apartments and Community Center and renovated Armfield Stadium, Duke Hall and King Hall, among other architectural creations of stone and steel, beauty and simplicity.
They paid it forward. So will you.
A good steward is a role model, a steeple of inspiration, by focusing on others rather than self, serving the community’s best interests, and flourishing moral courage. Everyone can be a role model but prepare for others to watch your every move.
When you hurt with thoughtless remarks or uncaring attitudes, deride excellence as incompatible with equality, or sanctify groupthink while trivializing leadership, people learn from you and it’s not the right stuff.
A good steward lives in the real world. It is easier to criticize from comfy armchairs of inexperience those in the arena of action than to offer solutions or to appreciate the sweat and focus that gets things done.
Realize the tough trade-offs between limited resources and unlimited needs because stewardship requires the courage to make some people unhappy with you. Don’t be blind to the truth, no matter how unwelcome.
Absolute power deluded Napoleon, said Marshall Marmont, “into living in a non-existent world, created by his own imagination. He built structures in the air, he took his desires for realities, and gave his orders … ignorant of the true state of affairs.” To paraphrase the Quran, God set a seal upon his heart and ears and dimmed his sight.
A good steward leaves the institution in better shape than he or she found it by prizing improvement and change as well as preservation; realizing that doing nothing is often riskier than acting boldly; and understanding that technical and scholarly expertise alone are not sufficient to oversee complex organizations in the modern era.
Baby boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials and Net Gens should all compete to become the next “Greatest Generation” that triumphed over a depression and world war. We still benefit today from the mighty sacrifices they made then.
My parents were that generation. They never had much – our first city apartment had a bathtub in the kitchen – and neither graduated from college.
But they were determined that their four children have better lives financially, educationally and spiritually. “More of the same” or “average” never cut it with them. “Faster, higher, stronger” did.
Amazingly, about a decade ago, 6 million World War II veterans were living. A decade from now, almost none will be.
So, Class of 2013, show the world what you can do. Show yourselves, too.
As President Kennedy advised, don’t try to blame the past but accept your own responsibility for the future. Don’t let the light go out. Be such good stewards that decades from now, people will pause and remember your accomplishments with admiration and gratitude. Be such good stewards that no one will doubt that you cared, you did your best and that your lives truly mattered.
Good luck and Godspeed!
As prepared for delivery at Commencement on May 18, 2013