Wikimedia Commons Photo Courtesy of National Gallery of Scotland
A UM Insight Editorial Analysis
The New Testament story of Martha and Mary has plagued us churchwomen from the first. After all, if it weren't for the Marthas of the Church, a whole lot of things would never get done, from washing dirty dishes after potluck suppers to bringing snacks for youth groups and Vacation Bible School to marching for social justice.
As with so much of the Bible, Martha's and Mary's story (Luke 10:38-42) has been used historically to denigrate "women's work." Not only does Martha get a bum rap for being "worried about many things;" Mary also gets pigeonholed as a dreamer content to sit at Jesus' feet and absorb his wisdom, rather than taking that wisdom out into the world in ministry. Both stereotypes prove false and unfair when given a deeper reading.
By imprisoning Martha and Mary behind these old paradigms, the Church – especially The United Methodist Church at the crucial 2012 General Conference – misses two of our best models for adapting to a changing world.
I am by nature a Martha, someone who's really good at Getting Things Done. That's my comfort zone, because it gives me a sense of control over life's chaos. I've gone so far as to hang on my wall an icon of Martha, decked out in Middle Eastern dress complete with headscarf and hands firmly on hips. She looks as if she's about to scold me for failing to finish my "to-do" list.
However, as I've matured chronologically and spiritually, I've come to understand more about what Jesus meant when he chided Martha about Mary having chosen "the better part." In her expert household management, Martha was overlooking something that Mary grasped instinctively: Jesus called them to a cataclysmic spiritual and cultural shift that transformed the hospitality Martha was so good at giving. Mary realized that she needed to learn more about this "adaptive challenge" before she set the table.
The Work of Leadership
I saw Martha and Mary immediately when I read "The Work of Leadership" by Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie (Harvard Business Review, January-February 1997). The Rev. Jay Voorhees, pastor of Old Hickory UMC in Tennessee Conference, recommended the article during a Facebook discussion on the UMC. After reading the article in light of my experience as a United Methodist lay leader and senior executive in religious publishing, I concluded that all General Conference delegates should consult Heifetz's work before they converse in legislative committees about proposed changes – any changes.
Professor Heifetz is Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He's known for groundbreaking work on leadership, especially on how to create corporate cultures with adaptive abilities. His book Leadership Without Easy Answers (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1994) is currently in its 13th printing in many languages.