Finding Vocational Joy

June 1, 2023 by Rev. Emily McGinley

While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”

The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42


I am 8 months into a new call and I am exhausted.

Last August, I packed up 17 years of life in Chicago, along with a husband and two children, to begin a new chapter in San Francisco. Ten years of building the airplane while you’re flying it is not for the faint of heart and by the end of that decade, I felt like a screw that had been stripped. A sabbatical in 2019 granted some rest but, even more, gave clarity that my days were numbered. Even as I switched into a new role – my Holy Spirit “spidey senses” were attuning themselves to what might be next. The pandemic both slowed and accelerated this process, something for which I am oddly appreciative. Even so, the erosion I had felt was creeping back. If I stayed longer, I knew that I risked becoming a “bad” pastor – resentful, indifferent, or entitled. I could feel it in my spirit. The people deserved better than this, and so did I.

When I think about Martha, so busy busy busy with preparing a meal for all the guests, I have always felt a little bad for her. Why would Jesus admonish her when everyone else was just sitting around? As I return to this passage, I was reminded of a recent study about the cognitive load of women in heterosexual households. In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the amount of working memory resources used. However, in the context of “household management,” cognitive labor is also a gendered phenomenon: the invisible cognitive labor which entails anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress are disproportionately held by women.

I picture Martha, grumbling away as she mixes the flour with salt and water, baking the flatbread and preparing the olives, side-eyes and sighs for days but Mary doesn’t even seem to notice. The resentment grows. “Who does Mary think she is?”

When she finally complains to Jesus, his response feels unfair and maybe even a little ungrateful. I mean, how the heck are people going to eat once he’s done with his lesson? She’s barely done with the meal and the table hasn’t cleared of its clutter, the dishes haven’t been set out, the wine uncorked, the water not poured … she’s not a servant but everyone seems to be acting like she is.

At the top of the passage, Luke shares that Martha invited Jesus to her home as a guest. She wanted him there, but she could not host him properly. Sure, she could cook a meal and set the table and pour the wine, and that’s all well and good but the state of her heart had her so filled with resentment that she couldn’t enjoy his company and he couldn’t enjoy hers.

There is more that I could say about patriarchy and the ways in which women not only labor under it but perpetuate it among one another, but that’s another reflection for another day. The point here is that Martha is burned out. She could not do her duties without anger or resentment and, while I certainly feel sympathetic to her plight, I also recognize that when we are at the end of our internal resources, we have a difficult time finding creative solutions to our problems.

There is another world where Martha has invited Jesus to her home, is preparing the meal while he teaches, and is filled with joy at the opportunity to host him. There is even another where she invites the guests to pitch in. In all scenarios, she might feel overwhelmed or pressured by the task list, but the difference is in her mindset. Because she is burned out in her hosting role, because she has been shaped by a cultural system that is gendered in its distribution of responsibility, and because she conforms to it, Martha is exhausted and can find no longer find joy in her work. The guests deserved better than that and so did Martha.

Being a pastor is exhausting but not all exhaustion is the same. Following in the footsteps of a founder of 25 years came with many expected challenges and there have been plenty of moments when I (a founder myself) have said, “I’ve been through some version of this before,” with the weariness of a jaded lounge singer taking a long drag on a cigarette.

Even so, it feels good to be building something new and see that I’m making a measurable difference. It is a pleasure to see my children thrive in a new environment and to support my partner as he moves into his next chapter. This new call is challenging. It’s been quite a year and I’m exhausted, but not all exhaustion is the same.

Now that you’ve caught your breath after Easter I invite you, dear colleague, to pause, reflect, and take a moment to listen to yourself, to your spirit. Is there joy in you? In your work? In what ways are you feeling alive? In what ways are you resentful? Invite the Spirit to do the work that only She can do: offer insight, healing, and courage to help you live and grow and serve from vocational joy. Your people deserve it, and so do you.

The Rev. Emily McGinley is the Senior Pastor of City Church San Francisco, where she enjoys discussing tech and theology, commuter biking, and aerial arts.