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A Servant-Hearted Woman: How Turning Outwards Left Us Disconnected

Rachel WatsonBlog, Church

I met a friend while serving with an international non-profit overseas. We were both in “helping roles” that seemed impressive on paper and to our church communities back home. My friend and I arrived in this new country with zest, ready to offer our whole hearts, serve, and be put to use.

But just below the surface of that feeling, cracks were beginning to form. We were both separately experiencing mental health challenges. She was learning about her new diagnosis of anxiety, and I was trying to push away the feelings of isolation I felt living in a new country, without structures to support me in my missional work.  

She was also an incredible emerging artist. We’d put in our hours of service, then she would paint with any spare minute she had left. When I was over at her place, my favourite thing was to ask her what she had been creating lately. Her eyes would go wide as she led me into a room filled with half-finished paintings. They were beautiful, depicting a range of people and landscapes from the context we were living in. She painted portraits that would soon be gifts for her family and the other service workers on the team. Seeing her creativity in action became an infectious joy that connected us, though this was not formally part of our service roles. 

Only a few months later, she left her service term early. While there were many layers to this decision, one simple truth was that she wanted more room in her life to paint. For myself, the cracks were also becoming more evident. My mental health was languishing, and I could barely keep myself together doing normal, everyday work tasks. In response to my subtle admissions that I was not doing okay, I would get blank stares and furrowed brows from Christian leaders who would respond: “I don’t understand, this service role is what you signed up for.”  So I clung on until the bitter end. It felt as though I was in a contest to see how long I could hang on, despite what it might cost me.

I followed in my friend’s footsteps just a few months later, when I just couldn’t hang on any longer.

How did I get here? I have, after all, been taught about the value of service-oriented roles my whole life. In the church context where I grew up, I was praised from an early age for being servant-hearted, representing the hands and feet of Jesus out in the world. This affirmation felt good for a long time. The message I was getting from the Church always seemed clear and well-intentioned: by giving up your own will and laying aside your desires, you can better serve others and live more like Jesus. I thought this is what I was supposed to do as a Jesus-follower.  

Yet at the same time, I was taught an opposing lesson from the Mary and Martha story. Do you know the one? Martha spends all day preparing meals and cleaning her house for Jesus’ arrival. But Mary, the one who sits by Jesus’ feet and listens to him, is the one who is ultimately praised by Jesus. “Mary has chosen what is better,” Jesus says (Luke 10:42).

Many simplistic narratives have been pulled from this story. Mary and Martha are often pitted against each other, and since I was a young girl I have been asked to identify with one of the two options—am I a “Martha,” who serves, or a “Mary,” who listens? 

I see this dichotomy reflected in a lot of weary faces around me. So many of us—myself included—are disconnected from ourselves and the things that might bring us back to life. Many fellow ministry workers are now experiencing mental health challenges and burnout, and feel guilt over no longer having the capacity to serve like they used to.1 I see women putting aside art and creative endeavours because they were told their energy could be used to help others instead. In a world that needs things from us at all times, and in a Church that upholds servant-hearted qualities, sometimes it feels frivolous to take the time to create and connect with God. 

Shortly after cutting my service term short and returning home, I decided to put aside the traditional way I’d been taught to serve for a little while. I spend much of my free time now walking beside the ocean, taking in the rugged Canadian landscape, and attending to the vibrant sunsets as if they are critical appointments I must not miss. I have found myself following in the footsteps of my painter friend, connecting back to what is good and beautiful, and healing along the way. While she may not have taught me how to serve in the traditionally-defined sense, she taught me that it was okay to leave, and that there is space for both rest and beauty within a life of service.

Session eight of The Sanctuary Course talks about reconnection as a “bringing together of things that were once connected, but have become separated, fragmented, and isolated.” I think about Mary and Martha, and the fragmentation I have experienced when I have tried to identify with one or the other. I wonder if there is a way to hold these Mary and Martha parts of me in a more balanced and holistic way. There are parts of me that want to serve and care for the people around me. There are parts of me, too, that value being with God in the lapping of waves over the shoreline, or within the messy swirls of paint splashes on a canvas. 

Whatever it is that helps you reconnect to parts of yourself, I believe that God wants to be involved in this process. From this place of rest and reconnection, perhaps then we can look towards the other and invite them in.

1. Pastors Share Top Reasons They’ve Considered Quitting Ministry in the Past Year. 2022. Barna. April 22, 2022. https://www.barna.com/research/pastors-quitting-ministry/.

Commentary on Mary and Martha inspired by Janet Thiessen’s sermon: “The One Thing”

Cover photo from Unsplash

Rachel Watson


Rachel loves storytelling in non-profit spaces, and has been doing this through various mediums for seven years. With a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies, Rachel has worked with non-profits around the world, from Zambia to Bolivia and now back to Canada, working with Sanctuary as the Social Media and Content Specialist. Rachel loves listening to people’s stories and finding common threads that connect us across cultures. She currently lives in Victoria, BC, because she heard it was one of the warmest places to live in Canada. When she is not writing, you can find her by the ocean.