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The Scope of a Steward Leader by Sara Nagelvoort Marlin

Christian Leadership Allinace

By Sara Nagelvoort Marlin

Last year I joined a Christian ministry for the first time in my career, having spent more than twenty years in corporate marketing environments. Among my early observations was what seemed to be the “de rigueur” concept in Christian ministry:  steward leadership. Everyone was talking about it.

Makes sense, I thought, as I tried to quickly acclimate. I chalked it up to a Biblical spin on what I had learned back in business school and many corporate leadership development programs.

The general definition was clear: one who manages the efficient use and growth of organizational resources. But I wasn’t sure how to apply it. As I dug further, I noticed the concept had been thoughtfully examined by Christian leadership gurus who generally extolled the attributes of an effective steward leader:  integrity, collaboration, transparency, respect, humility, and others.  But I still desired more practical tools.

As I’ve matured as a leader, and I humbly admit that it’s an ongoing journey, I have found it helpful to consider the various types of resources under the care of a steward leader. Moreover, a holistic view of l them is important; when they are well-managed together, the positive impact is multiplied.


I became a people manager years ago when a colleague of mine at a start-up tech company tragically passed away from an aggressive cancer. I was thrust into his role during a hectic time of year for the company. While many of us were grieving over the loss of our friend and colleague, I also selfishly became maniacal about managing my new reports in their workflow. I was not going to drop the ball. But as I became more comfortable in my role, I realized that I had to invest in the fullness of each person – not just their productivity. Recently in my quiet time the verse Proverbs 3:27 leaped off the page at me: “Do not withhold good to those whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” I was immediately convicted that I had not properly acknowledged a person on my staff who had quietly been over-performing and was due a promotion and raise. The lesson I learned through the years: being a leader isn’t about facilitating workflow; it’s about nurturing others to their full potential.


Transitioning my career from a well-funded Wall Street darling to a ministry that was tackling a difficult cause meant spending my marketing budget differently. A few tips: the pot luck holiday lunch in a home was a lot more bonding and tasty than an outing to a restaurant. And free. Secondly, only hire consultants when you sincerely desire new insights and plan to use them to make decisions and plans. Otherwise it’s a waste of money. Showing good stewardship over my budget helped increase the trust of my staff and encouraged their own resourcefulness.


At my organization, we are often approached by outside organizations to support very worthy projects. The problem is that 99% of the time, while we have shared values as organizations, the projects simply aren’t connected to our mission. Rather than feel guilty about politely declining, I have increasingly felt confident that we are being better stewards of the resources lovingly entrusted to us by our donors for a particular mission.   As I’ve explained some of these decisions, I’ve seen staff grow in their discernment, deprioritizing off-mission activity and attacking key opportunities with new confidence, focus, and effectiveness.


So many books have been written on time management that words from Ecclesiastes come to mind: “There is nothing new under the sun.” But those books mostly talk about how to better utilize time and protect schedules each day. I have been convicted of my need for the opposite:  to be more generous with my time. Spending time to have lunch with colleagues rather than multi-tasking at my desk, spending time listening to the long answer of “How are you today?” when a staff person has a sick child, spending time in prayer.

As my pastor Tim Keller in New York City commented from the pulpit about his financially generous but time-starved congregation, people can be quite stingy about the currency of time. I’ve been one of the worst offenders. While my daily goal has remained to leave at a decent hour each day to spend quality time with my husband, I need to reprioritize the time within the work day—no longer speeding up meetings and tasks, but slowing them down by starting with a discussion about how everyone is doing. Then we can pray. Then we can work. I have noticed that it helps unite hearts, calm nerves, build trust, and invite our Creator to help us be better at what He called us to do.

In business school and my corporate work environments, I often felt a sad emptiness participating in leadership training. Why? It wasn’t rooted in anything substantial, just profit, productivity, and nothing eternal. With the steward leader model, I have found a surprising and rewarding system for managing the diverse resources under my care for God’s purposes.


Sara Nagelvoort Marlin is the vice president of marketing and communications for Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, former prisoners, and their families.



What is Christian Leadership Alliance?

Christian Leadership Alliance equips and unites leaders to transform the world for Christ. We are the leaders of Christ-centered organizations who are dedicated to faithful stewardship for greater kingdom impact.

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