Missing Martha: Preventing Burnout

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Missing Martha: Preventing Burnout

Marvelous Martha has been the head deaconess for as long as anyone can remember. There is nothing that she cannot do more efficiently than anyone else in the congregation. Year after year her consistent dedication has been there, at times taken for granted, as Martha put in the effort to keep the church functioning. The flowers were always in place for Sabbath services, the potluck tables filled with nourishing meals and the building left spotlessly clean.


Yet the desire to serve masked an uncertainty in Martha’s life. Was she good enough in all that she did? Martha had been raised in a home where the duty of service was a paramount obligation akin to a works-based salvation. Somehow she’d picked up not just what to do and how to do but a skewed view of the why to do all that she did.  For Martha near enough was not good enough. She strived for perfection as a means to be viewed good enough by not just those around her, but by God as well.


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The problem is Martha could never quite live up to her own unrealistic expectations. The more she tried, the more she knew she should do better. Eventually, she hoped to please everyone enough to gain their approval. It was not that she didn’t receive thanks and praise for her work. It’s just that Martha only ever really picked up on the negative comments that came her way. The flowers were too scented, the position of them was not quite right, and the vases were not color-coordinated. Martha had picked up all these messages while growing up that were meant as tips but acted as a rod to reprove her faulty actions. Somehow Martha missed out on learning to make do with what she did as her best effort.


As she grew into adulthood Martha craved fulfillment through service seeking to satisfy others around her. In moving to a larger congregation the demands on her time grew. Needing to hold down a full-time job Martha stretched her capacity to serve. Refusing the assistance of others she soon became a one-woman band who excelled at all things church-related. Year after year her name was readily accepted for the position of Head Deaconess.


Pastors came and went while Martha sailed along. That is until the cracks began to show as inevitably crises came beyond her control. For Martha, this was a disaster as she had always been able to keep up appearances even when she struggled underneath. But now life had thrown a curveball burning some of the communion bread as she struggled to meet the time demands of a full-time job, family and church commitments.  Burnt out and embarrassed Martha went missing from church as her life fell apart unable to cope with illness, depression, and exhaustion…


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You will meet  Martha’s in many congregations and like their biblical sister of the New Testament, many struggle in their works-based relationship to God.  Sometimes they give signals of needing help. Sometimes they don’t communicate their needs all that well. In desperation, and in hindsight, they may even seek others to blame for their habitual overwork. Luke 10:38-42 records the ancient story ever so real today:


As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But 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!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,  but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”


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All too often by the time the Martha’s of the church have realized their need for change they have burnt themselves out. They find it difficult to reset their priorities as well-entrenched behaviors take over. How can we help prevent this and what can be done to refocus these servants of God into a wholesome functional servanthood.


  1. Promote the priesthood of all believers  


The New Testament focus on the gifts of the spirit expressed as the body of Christ sees an emphasis on each member contributing where they are able. All believers form a priesthood of service for the church and wider community. Sharing the work of the church is a supportive approach that seeks to avoid overburdening anyone. Bearing each other’s personal and spiritual burdens has a broader application in picking up tasks when a servant is failing.  No one is an island. All believers are an integral part of a servanthood.


  1. Share and Rotate Tasks


A local church community often allocates tasks for a set period of time to individuals. Usually, wherever possible, assistants are appointed to share the tasks and to rotate the duties often as part of a roster. When all fulfill their duties the load is shared avoiding the potential for burn-out. Rotating tasks builds capability across a wider pool of people preparing those new to service for an ability to step into new roles. Allowing younger people to be mentored by those accomplished in service acts as a role modeling of service that is functional in its application.


  1. Minimize the Burdens


Careful consideration of the time constraints of servants takes into account the total demands on their time. Too often in a busy society, people are reluctant to take on tasks. This can lead to a few people being asked to do a larger range of tasks. They may spread themselves too thin to do all tasks effectively. Minimizing the burden on a few may mean forgoing some tasks when fewer servants are available.  Allowing people to lay aside a task as other life demands increase permits others to pick up and carry on. Reducing the complexity of a task makes it easier for someone else to say yes to taking it on.


  1. Avoid Martyring Martha


When someone gives their all to a task year after year they become wedded to the role. Alternate ways of completing a task and alternative people to complete a task can at times be resisted by an incumbent servant. Holding on and refusing to relinquish responsibilities creates the potential of a person to place an unhealthy weight on their role. There may even be a tendency to bury oneself and our own life in a role. Susceptibility to criticism taken too seriously to heart can lead to resentments, a lack of trust and support. Effectively people may martyr themselves, in their lack of time stewardship, and time available to others, when they invest all of their self-worth in the recognition gained from an important position.


  1. Don’t Mollycoddle (Pamper or Over Protect)


Dysfunctional roles can occur where people ineffective in a task are left to continue simply because they have always had that role. Unhealthy dependencies can result by mollycoddling around someone poorly performing. This can entrench problems in having a task completed adequately and in a timely manner.


  1. Celebrate Faithfulness with Times for Rest


A proactive and positive approach seeks to celebrate the longevity of a faithful servant engaging them in dialogue about times for rest. Seasons of service followed by a time of replenishment refreshes the servant and those being served. Drawing on an oasis of alternate tasks, times of rest and retreat can refocus and extend a servant often with additional training for other future service roles. Allowing time to draw on deep springs observing other servants in action creates a well that many can draw upon.


  1. Give Permission to Say “No”


Healthy church communities recognize that people have different time commitments and pressures at different seasons in life. Fostering a culture where a reliable regular servant can readily say “no” allows for healthy self-restraint to exist. Giving people time to consider a role, and place it in a setting to consider all of their commitments allows a proper assessment to be made. A “no” reply, for now, may in effect be a breathing space to later say “yes” when life’s demands ease.


  1. Establish a Care for Servants Approach


Taking care of servants needs to be intentional. It is an approach that becomes a culture within a faith community when care of people is placed as a high priority. Nurture is important for service to occur. Nurturing people in service requires a discerned manner of being in community with others. Service is an opportunity for personal growth where ideally someone taking on a new task is supported to develop their skills and to pass those skills on to successors in that role.


  1. Take on a Task, Relinquish a Task


A great approach to take in the stewardship of our own time is to keep a balance in life’s demands. Whenever someone considers taking on a new task they also should consider relinquishing a task. As one door opens, another can close. Ecclesiastes talks about the times in life. There is a season and time in life to take on a new role while also laying another role down.


  1. Reduce the Stressors


No one enjoys doing a stressful role. Taking time to reduce the stressors of a task makes it more fulfilling and reduces the turnover of those involved in the task. It helps improve the enjoyment and the willingness of others to take on the tasks.


  1. Serve the Servants


For many servants its difficult to hang up their servant boots and sit down and allow someone to serve their needs. They see themselves as the ones who have to always serve others needs refusing to realize they have needs themselves. It’s helpful to have times in the year to recognize service and to flip the role where those serving get to have a break and someone else serves them instead. We do it for Mother’s day and Father’s day. Why don’t we have an annual Servants Day?


  1. Address the Works Based Mentality


If the cycle of church role burnout is to cease, churches need to address the works based mentality trap that many can fall into in their servant ministry. Moving cultures along from a compelled servanthood, works-based, thinking to one of living and serving in grace takes a radical shift in service. Love becomes the center of servanthood. Love for others and love for self in loving God. An all-encompassing love becomes the motivator.


  1. Live in Grace


Living in grace, Martha is able to serve and be quick to forgive her own failings and those of others. She takes time out to build relationships that sustain her servanthood. She realizes the giftedness of others and embraces their talents to build a community of all believers where service is shared as freely as love is generated.


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There is hope in recovering those burnt-out by re-engaging a servanthood based around relationships that are nurtured as church members serve each other’s needs and look out for other’s burnout levels. Engaging in regular conversations that uphold the care of servants can become an integral part of the life of a local church. It’s best to take that journey well before Martha goes missing.

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About the author

Garry Duncan

Garry Duncan is the Manager of a large charity shop in Australia meeting the needs of the elderly, the shut-in and the marginalized. As a church historian, he is interested in the intersection of faith and society where the vision of God’s Kingdom finds reality in transformed lives.