Mary & Martha Leadership

Luke 10:38-42

38As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

I was born a Martha.

The reliable, get-it-done, keep-things-moving, aware-of-all-the-details, task-oriented person.

And so I’m naturally a Martha leader.  Martha leaders tend to be second-chair leaders.  They usually complement the highly relationally, people-loving, first-chair Marys of the world.

Both leaders are essential and necessary, but I believe that great leaders know when to be a Mary and when to be a Martha.

As a very natural Martha, learning to be a Mary does not come easily to me.  And while it’s true that I will probably always think “Martha” first, I think it would be irresponsible for me as a leader to not attempt to learn to be a Mary in the right situations and circumstances.

This tension has become very real to me since I launched Cultivate Her – a leadership environment for women.  In this organization, I’m the first-chair leader.  I’m responsible for the leadership and direction, the vision and the communication.  I’m the face and the voice of this organization and with that comes an expectation for me to be a Mary. 

I need to lead relationally. I need to engage with people who are attending.  I need to be fully present in conversations and not wondering if the food is out and whether the pens are at the tables.  I need to sit at Jesus’ feet rather than hustle about with all the preparations.

The tug of my natural Martha tendencies causes me great turmoil: 

Aren’t I supposed to be attending to the details?  That’s what I normally do.  Will my team really see everything that needs to be done?  Surely they’ll miss something if I don’t check in.  Don’t these people see that there is so much to do?  I don’t have time for chit chat.

And even more troubling for me is my fear that the Marthas on my team are irritated that I’m “just talking” and not helping with the stuff that needs to get done. In the passage from Luke you get the impression that Martha just assumed that Mary was totally preoccupied and not paying attention, but I wonder if Mary really wrestled with her decision to be relational?  Did she feel like she was letting Martha down by not helping her?

I’m learning that each role is equally important.  Marys aren’t “just talking”.  They are helping others feel valued.  They are speaking words of encouragement and hope.  They are helping people feel connected and loved.  I wonder how many times I’m shirked my responsibilities as a Mary because I felt convicted that I wasn’t doing the Martha duties? How many people felt my lack of engagement and interest?  In those cases, I didn’t play either role well.

As a leader, I think you have to fully understand when you need to be a Mary and when you need to be a Martha and you need to educate your teams as to which role you need to play… and when.  If they understand the purpose of why you’re fulfilling that role, they are much more likely to complement and support you.

Mary and Martha both had an important part in the story.  If Martha had never opened her home, Mary may have never been able to sit at Jesus feet.

Some days you’ll be a Mary.  Other days you’ll be a Martha.  We need to learn to appreciate both roles and the unique opportunities they bring.

Who are you more naturally like, Mary or Martha?

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  • Chad Rowland May 12, 2010  

    Huge idea here! It's a source of tension for all of us (Marys and Marthas). Thanks for putting it out there and making us think.

  • Sweetie Berry May 12, 2010  

    It is always interesting to try to define what I am (or who somedays!) In my deep South upbringing a dear old friend answered this by saying "a wise woman must be Martha when she rises and before her family wakes, and Mary to greet them, as they come to partake" "Martha plans and prepares which is important you see, but Mary spends time with Jesus, and when confused that is what you need"

    • jcatron May 12, 2010  

      Thanks for adding that Sweetie!

  • rebeccannb May 12, 2010  

    I'm definitely naturally more a "Martha" but I have had to learn how to be a "Mary". Not easy for me at all!

  • lashorne May 12, 2010  

    Thanks Jenni! I'm naturally a Martha and understand the importance of engaging the Mary role… leading relationally. I can relate to those conflicting thoughts of the expectations of those on your team, whether they be Mary or Martha. The key point – educating your team on which role you are needing to fulfill and why… remembering that both roles are necessary.

  • waswrittenin May 12, 2010  

    I think that I am a Martha for sure. I totally know how you're feeling. It's weird because, honestly, I am "envious" of the Mary's. As an example – this year, for Ellie's Run, I took a step back because of everything going on. Um – let's talk about how hard it is for me to go to events that I didn't plan. I am always like, well, who did this? or, how is this going to happen? It's a struggle. Sigh. Maybe you can teach me how a Martha can be a Mary. PS – I really sound like a control freak, don't I? Probably something I need to be praying more about 🙂

  • Lisa May 13, 2010  

    Great post, I can so relate. Recently I have been put in a roll at work in which I have to lead also. As a great friend told me just a few weeks ago, Lisa, you can organize anything, lead the best most productive meeting, and have great out of the box ideas that work but you need be more relational when leading. It was the honest truth. I knew this deep down. Like you I am very much a Martha. So I am taking on the challenge of being more Mary. Not sure I am succeeding but I am trying but at the same time realizing maybe god has designed me to be the “leader second chair” because honestly I think I enjoy it more:)

  • Heidi May 13, 2010  

    I'm very MUCH a Mary. Funny though I graviate to many "Martha's" in my life. I have heard many people say that I am the weakest of the leaders because I would rather be in a heat of conversation, than planning the next event.
    I need to have Martha tendacies!

  • Jessica May 13, 2010  

    hmmmm Well I am pretty sure I am more of a Mary, But I still work more like Martha (i think) Love you great post!

  • Debbie Mc. May 13, 2010  

    I LOVE this post! This is something that I have been rolling around in my brain for months now, but just couldn't put words to it. Great job!

    Anything that I've ever read, any sermon that I've ever heard on Mary and Martha involves Martha getting the finger-wag! As a Martha, it can feel as though my natural tendency to be a workhorse, and all of my efforts to serve others are scoffed at and belittled. There's no doubt that all Marthas should make an effort to be more like Mary, and that time spent at the feet of Jesus is essential, but my desire to serve others through good old-fashioned work is God-given! Thanks for putting all of this into words without totally smacking Martha down! 🙂

  • Sweetie Berry May 14, 2010  

    This post has continued to resonate with me all week…I grew up with some of the strongest Southern lady role model who can still in their eighties make my days look quiet with their active lives…I think this has reminded me of how important it is in my world to plan my life so that when the events, lunches, studies are happening I can be fully present with whomever is before me….I am pretty much both Martha and Mary, Mary perhaps comes more naturally to me, yet I have such respect for choosing to live in such a way that the necessary work is done in time to appreciate the extraordinary moments….and of course, the best of all is when they are happening at the same time…such as the conversations as we pick up after Cultivate Her each month!

    God honors planning and certainly rewards those who do, but as with all things there are boundaries to how much attention we give anything but our love for him and others…but I've found He adores our presence in loving and attending those before us.

  • alece May 17, 2010  

    i'm naturally more a martha than a mary. extremely so. i want to lead more balanced than i do…

  • Kevin May 18, 2010  

    If a man can chime in…..I am a Martha, but for me to be the best Martha I can be, I need to be more of Mary…..This is one of my favorite passages in the Scriptures – probably because this is an area where I struggle – not choosing to be a Mary enough. She chose what was best that day. She sat at Jesus' feet. Personally, I think she was "Being with God"……I get too busy "Doing for God" (Martha), that I chose too often to not spend time Being with God. I find that when I am running and doing on my own energy, I end up many times being a frustrated Martha and not at my best.