Where Is Your Heart?

Lowell Cooper interviewed by Larry Evans

LRE: You have served in a number of leadership positions in different parts of the world. As you look at the world church from your perspective, how important is stewardship to the mission of God?

LC: Very important. The church is the body of Christ and as such is called to carry on the mission of God.  We must see ourselves as stewards before seeing ourselves as leaders. Leadership is then placed in the right framework—engaging others in advancing the objectives of someone else—in this case, God. The objective in Christian leadership is to further the work of God, not to build my empire.

LRE: When we speak of stewardship, we normally think about the dedication of our whole self. What personal qualities does the effective steward-leader have, and can they be learned?

LC: I believe leadership and stewardship qualities can be developed. One quality that would need to be developed is a genuine interest in others. Self-interest diverts leadership from its real goal and ultimately undermines effective service. Another critical quality is that of integrity. This is where my inner motivations are aligned with my observable behavior, which in the end reveal the leader’s inner motivations.  We should also add humility to this list of essential qualities. Humility is the maintenance of self-confidence without the need for pretense or arrogance.

LRE: Are there qualities that disqualify a person from being an effective leader?

LC: I believe it is important to note that leadership is not about power and control. Yet, so often, that's the image we carry unconsciously. Leadership moves in a different direction. Christian leadership has a different dynamic. It is not the exercise of power and control but rather helping people to live according to a higher purpose. It is not necessarily about my pet project or me. It is more about helping people to see the larger purpose for their own lives and helping them move into the realization of that purpose.

LRE: Is there a point when the leader stops being a steward?

LC: No, there shouldn’t be in Christian leadership. It infiltrates everything one does, really—the recognition that this is for someone else; this is not for me. It is the nature of the human makeup to default towards self-centeredness, and leadership can easily amplify that because of access to power, influence and information. Leadership happens at the intersection of information and influence. Opportunities provided a leader could be misused and at this point a person ceases to be a steward. LRE: There are numerous models of leadership today but not many speak about the steward-leader. How would you describe this kind of leadership?

LC: In a sense this is coming back to Christian leadership. It is important to make a distinction between Christian leadership and the models of leadership that dominate the world. Leadership is not about my power or my ability to control somebody else. Rather, it is about helping to show another person or another group a way for them to find higher fulfillment in their lives. In Christian leadership, the attention isn’t focused on me as a leader but upon the bigger purpose at hand.

LRE: Is it possible for a steward-leader to help create an environment where generosity becomes the norm rather than something to be promoted?

LC: I think we have to approach this from an understanding of what we mean by generosity. If by generosity I am the one who makes a judgment call about your generosity based on your response to my priorities, I may draw the wrong conclusion. Generosity should be seen in light of how a person responds to the realization of another’s need. My agenda should not be the basis of my judgments concerning the generosity of others. It is important for leaders to understand that generosity can burst out in so many different ways and be exhibited in a person’s life without that person necessarily being overly committed to what I think is important.

LRE: It seems that one of the characteristics of Jesus was to release for a greater or more effective use the possibilities/abilities a person had. Isn’t that what a leader does?

LC: I'm so impressed with the way Jesus spent the last few hours with His disciples before His crucifixion. I would think, from a leadership standpoint, this would have been an ideal time for Jesus to give specific instructions of what to do or what not to do. For instance, He could have settled some theological controversies that plagued the church through history. But He didn't talk about such things. Instead, He talked about relationship issues. “I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide in me you will be fruitful.” Jesus wasn't putting them on a trajectory of a certain list of activities. He was releasing them to life. He was enabling them to lead creatively out of relationship with Him.

LRE: Relationships are important but if we are giving emphasis to stewardship shouldn’t we be speaking more about money or is it important to do so in the context of a relationship?

LC: I don't think that it is wrong to speak about finances. I believe financial needs should be addressed in an atmosphere of trust and there are two kinds that the steward-leader should consider.  There is the question of trust in the individual. Am I a trustworthy person? When I'm talking to someone about a project with the hope that they might provide some needed resources, it's important that I am seen as a trustworthy person. There is also a second of kind of trust, and that is a trust in the organization. People need to have a sense that this is an organization that keeps its word, that it has fair policies and is focused on the right mission or project, etc. When there is trust in leadership and in the organization, resources will come. When there is a lack of trust, resources will diminish. When you ask the question, “Is it appropriate to talk about money,” the answer is, “Yes, it is.” It is important that people understand how they can participate in something much bigger than themselves. Often their financial participation is the opportunity for them to live beyond the limitations of time and geography.

LRE: When speaking of finances, are there cautions the steward-leader should consider?

LC: I think it is exceedingly important when leading a stewardship emphasis that we approach the question of resources of any kind without using the argument of guilt.   It can be a very powerful, and unfortunately, a very destructive argument for a life of stewardship, even if in the short-run it can unfortunately be seen as rather effective.

LRE: How do we motivate others to be better stewards?

LC: There are probably many ways. Example is a powerful motivator. This needs to be a part of our leadership. We can also share inspiring stories that show how generosity has resulted in the blossoming of blessings far beyond what a person might have thought possible. To help a person become generous is to sensitize that person to the whole range of needs that exists in society and the ways in which a person can contribute to the betterment of society or the building of another’s life. 

LRE: Does philanthropy have a role as part of our stewardship?

LC: Oh, absolutely! I personally prefer the term of philanthropy to fundraising. There is a tendency to think only in terms of money if I am involved in fundraising. But in philanthropy we are thinking about connecting resources to opportunities and helping people to invest, not just their bank accounts, but also their other energies. Jesus said something that was very important. He said, “where your treasure is there will your heart be also….” Isn't it just as true that where your heart is, there your treasure will be? I think a combination of philanthropy, stewardship and leadership is a way of helping people discover where to put their heart so that they themselves experience the joy of service.

LRE: Any closing thoughts?

LC: I really believe that the essence of the gospel is realized when we come to understand that life is ultimately about giving. We never come to the point where we have given enough. We never reach the point where giving is no longer needed because there are so many ways in which we need to be invested in improving life for someone else. This is the restoration project that the gospel talks about. Paul talks about preaching the “riches of the gospel.” The gospel is more than “sin management.” It is actually all about “life management.”  

Lowell Cooper
Canadian-born Dr. Cooper is a general vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He holds a master of divinity degree from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Michigan and a master's degree from Loma Linda University School of Public Health, as well as an honorary doctorate from LLU. Lowell’s wife, Rae Lee, is a nurse and musician. The couple has two adult children.