Setting up for a large event, there was still some last minute preparation needed before the participants arrived. As I looked over the room, I noticed two staff members. They held the same rank and had the same years of experience. And both were excellent leaders. But at that moment, there existed a very different air about each one.

One was working diligently to ensure proper table alignment, to perform the final check of the sound system and to give final instructions to the greeters. The other staff, however, stood in the middle of the room, laughing and talking calmly with a VIP who had arrived early. Engrossed in pleasant conversation, this staff did not seem to notice the swirling activity around her. The event planner saw my observation of the two and jokingly remarked that they were a good example of Mary and Martha.


I thought about those words. Both of them were actually performing important, if different, tasks. And I wondered which personality worked best in a child welfare organization.

Which sister are you: Mary or Martha? Mary was often depicted as the one who cared about others. Martha was depicted as just caring about getting the job done. When I hear someone called a “Martha” I often think that they are being derisive in their criticism without thinking about the whole picture. Also, I think some people might take the one glimpse we have of these two women and form an opinion of their personality based on a moment in time.

In my opinion…Martha got a bad rap.

The origin of the Mary v Martha debate comes from a story in the Bible where Jesus, traveling and teaching, is welcomed into the home of two sisters: Mary and Martha. Now to have such an important guest in the house was a great honor and much needed to be done to complete the extravagant dinner prepared for him. As the story goes, Martha was working diligently in the kitchen, saucing the lamb, dicing the vegetables, kneading the bread and pouring the wine. I believe Mary was probably helping in the beginning. But then Jesus arrived, and Mary left the kitchen and her frantically busy sister to see the celebrated guest. She sat at his feet, listening to his words of wisdom, never returning to the kitchen. After some time, Martha realizes her sister has no intention of returning and enters the sitting room complaining of this slothfullness to Jesus and asked him to order Mary back into the kitchen. Jesus gently rebukes her and says that she is worried and upset about many things but only one thing is needed. He told her that Mary chose the right thing and it would not be taken away from her.

I have heard many people say that Martha cared more about the preparation of the dinner (the process, the details, the doing things) while Mary cared about the relationship with Jesus. As usual, I see things a little differently. I do not profess to be a bible scholar, but I think Martha cared every bit as much as Mary, but demonstrated her devotion in her desire to perform service to her guest. You don’t know, for example, if Martha stormed off in a huff and took her hurt feelings out on the bread dough, pounding it ferociously. Or, perhaps, she realized that dinner could wait and joined her sister at her Master’s feet to listen to his wisdom. We don’t know. And yet this one event has created a dichotomy between the Mary’s and the Martha’s of the world.

How do these archetypes translate to social work? There appears a similar dichotomy in the practice of social work: the organizational, detailed oriented worker and the engaging relationship oriented worker. Which one is better for the practice of social work?

I would dare say, most would vote Mary. The ability to engage, form and maintain relationships could possibly be the most important character/personality trait needed when partnering with families. Working with mostly involuntary clients amid crisis requires a level of genuineness, sincerity and caring to break through the natural resistance stemming from distrust of agency involvement in their private affairs. Because, by title and governmental authority alone, Child Welfare social workers wield invisible power over the clients they are trying to help. Engagement and genuineness can bridge that power gap and lead the family towards trust.

So, yes, being a Mary is certainly valuable and important in providing needed services to hurting families.


If engagement builds a bridge, lack of follow through tears it back down. Thus, expelling those who were trying to cross, back into the murky water, worse than they were before. Trust, that was tenuously given due to engagement is shattered now at the broken promises and agreements.

Enter Martha.

Martha’s attention to detail and organizational skills are necessary for the success of the intervention. Once partnership has begun, there is quite a bit of work to do to help the family achieve their vision: referrals to service providers, paperwork to ensure those providers get paid, updating the record on all activities with the family to demonstrate the need for the services and copious data entry into a Sacwis system for monitoring, audits etc. But it doesn’t stop there. Once the service starts there are regular visits to assess and ensure progress, concrete needs to address, follow up with providers and, of, course documenting all of that as well. Martha’s skills are a Godsend in any service agency.

So…Is a good Social Worker a Mary or a Martha?

There is one phase of the story that nobody dwells or talks about. Perhaps it might shed some light. In the first sentence, the verse says MARTHA invited him into her home. Why would she invite someone: not a neighbor, not a relative or a community member into her home? I surmise that Mary had the same engaging heart that has been attributed to her sister. She knew that Jesus had been travelling and would need to rest and to eat. Her love language, perhaps, was service. She wanted him to feel welcomed and to be treated like a king. Hence her hustle.

In truth, the best social workers who work with families and help them achieve goals are a mixture of both solid engagement skills paired with organizational energy with attention to detail. Engagement without follow through just will not be successful. However, to be fair, organizational and detailed service delivery is great, but if the family doesn’t feel genuineness or sincerity they will not build trust necessary to try those changes.

So, in the end we need them both. They just need to be two sides of the same person. Find the Mary AND the Martha in you. The combination will ensure that the bridge you build will support the family as they cross to a positive permanency.

7 thoughts on “Martha Got a Bad Rap!

  1. I agree with you that the two women are really two sides of each of us. Someone had to feed the people gathering around Jesus, after all. And someone needed to be at his feet. Both are needed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree completely that Martha got a bad rap!! I’m not a very social person, but I LOVE to play hostess (in the sense that I feel good when people have the things they need) obviously it’s important to make your guests comfortable and make sure they’re entertained. But, a lot of the stuff behind the scenes is ALSO important!! Not everything can be done ahead of time, so how will food be made and drinks be served if no one is willing to take some time in the background getting stuff done?? Both tasks are equally important in my opinion!

    Liked by 1 person

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