Girl Talk: The St. Martha Syndrome

Have you ever read the account of Mary and Martha and thought that Martha got a bum deal? 

Let me refresh your memory. Two sisters opened their house to Jesus and his disciples and realistically had their hands full preparing meals and whatever else was necessary to accommodate such a crowd. While Martha was busy taking care of the details and making sure that everyone’s needs were met, her sister was “just” sitting around, talking with Jesus.  Mary wasnt serving or helping. She seemed pretty content to leave all the hard work to Martha.  When Martha hinted to Jesus that perhaps he should tell Mary to pull her share of the load, Jesus said: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42 NIV)


I always feel a little sorry for Martha.  Isn’t it a little selfish of Mary to just sit and enjoy Jesus’ presence instead of serving others?  If Martha is being a servant, why does Jesus rebuke her?  Most people suggest that Jesus rebukes Martha because she was worried about earthly things, while Mary was concerned with “more important” heavenly things.  That answer doesn’t totally satisfy me!  The physical part of ministry and servanthood IS a heavenly concern, right?  There must be more to it. 

However, Jesus was very clear in his reproach to Martha; so I realized that I needed to take this story pretty seriously as well. 

I pondered this question for some time.  It was in the back of my mind as I was on a flight.  The flight attendant was going through the seatbelt and emergency landing information (you know, the part we all tune out).  She said that if the oxygen levels became too low, masks would drop from the ceiling.  If that should happen, we were told to secure our own masks before helping others.  At that point, the little light bulb in my head lit up.  Our own oxygen mask needs to provide us the air we need before we are able to help others. We can’t help others if we are dead!  Wow. 

Martha was right about the need to serve others, but she didn’t understand that the oxygen to fuel her service came first from Jesus. Jesus’ teaching would fuel her service, enrich her service and even change her service!  Mary wasn’t being selfish or lazy, she was making sure she was connected to Christ and fed by Him so she would have the personal resources to serve others.  She knew her own needs and boundaries. Christ alone expands our limited capacity to serve!

I was fortunate enough to interview Ruth Koch, MA, NCC for this article.  Ruth is a mental health educator with a Bachelors Degree in social work and a Master’s degree in counseling.  She serves church workers and their families as well as congregations and church-related groups.  If you read The Lutheran Woman’s Quarterly you have doubtless read her articles.  When I asked her for advice for women in youth ministry she had much to say:

“I would encourage women serving in youth ministry to stay strong in the Word, to be regular at Holy Communion, to find a group of fellow believers not associated with her work setting with whom she can share the joys and challenges of being a Christian woman. 

“One of the most challenging things about women being in ministry vocations is the need to set healthy personal and professional boundaries.  Women, in particular thrive on connections and relationships and it is often very difficult for a woman to restrain herself.  This is made doubly difficult because women in ministry deeply desire to serve God by serving others. 

“One way to reclaim personal and professional boundaries is to honor the Sabbath day.  All week long you are a moving target for God, but on the Sabbath, if it is kept in quietness and peace (and, yes, I’m a pastor’s wife so I know it is a challenge, but it can be done!) God can get hold of  you to renew your joy and remind you why you are in a church profession in the first place

“Professional church workers can lose the joy of their salvation and the joy of serving in professional ministry because poor professional and personal boundaries shift the focus of ministry from serving God by serving others to, in the end, trying to make others happy and avoid criticism and failure.  I think that church work can exacerbate the temptation that all women face: being people pleasers.  Ministry depends on good relationships with people, so we will often go to any length to keep relations cordial and  “nice.”  Others become our god and the God of our salvation begins to fade into the background as we try to do more and be more and tap dance faster and faster. 

“Under such circumstances, ministry life loses its joy and our spouses and families can sour on church work….sometimes the people closest to us are profoundly neglected because we are over in someone else’s backyard, moving their bushes, fertilizing their trees and trying to plant flowers that will make them happier.  In the meantime, our own yards go untended and the people of our “first ministry,” our spouses and families, are hanging out in a yard beset by weeds and unpruned bushes and decorated only by a few hastily-planted flowers.

“Healthy personal and professional boundaries help us serve others well by not doing for them what they can do for themselves–with perhaps our coaching and cheering them on, or teaching them how to care for   their own lives.  Healthy personal boundaries also can prevent resentment and can keep us from feeling used, used up and put upon.”

Ruth Koch’s exhortations and encouragements hit me hard!  It wasn’t easy to take, but I needed to hear it.  I often think of Martha as the patron saint of women youth workers.  We work hard and serve others and often this happens at the expense of our family and our own spiritual health.  God is working in us through Word and Sacrament and this doesn’t take time away from our ministry; it is what makes God’s ministry possible through us. 

Published April 2008

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