Our spiritual practices must be habitual, too

By Karen Greenwaldt, Special Contributor…

“Ah . . . the elixir of life.” That’s often what I say internally when I drink my first sip of iced unsweetened tea every morning. As I take that first swallow, I find myself relaxing. An internal smile appears, and I’m off to a good day. People around me know that getting a glass of tea is an important morning ritual. I can tend to be a bit grumpy when I miss it.

Habits. We invest time in them. They change and modify our behavior. We realize that every time we try to add a new habit or to break an old one.

In many places across the church, we have established habits of reporting measures and results of ministry—worship attendance, giving levels, professions of faith, small group study attendance and mission outreach. This reporting system is becoming a well-honed habit for many.

Karen Greenwalt

As I’ve been reflecting on these reporting practices (habits) and how they function both individually and corporately, I’ve begun to wonder how well we are doing as a church or as individual local churches in the practice of the daily habits of spiritual disciplines. What are the habits—the behaviors—that we as Christians individually and as communities of faith employ each day? Of course, we list the standard behaviors that Christians over the centuries have employed—prayer, Bible reading, fasting, participation in worship, caring for the poor, participation in the sacraments, visiting the sick, etc.

I wonder how we would report our attention to these disciplines of faith. Yes, we gather as corporate communities of faith to pray, read Scripture, and participate in worship and other common disciplines of faith. Yes, we are invited to participate in small groups for study, mission and service. However, how often are we personally invited to participate in individual acts of spiritual discipline?

I recall only occasional personal individual invitations to participate in prayer, a fast or other more private disciplines of faith. Never have I been asked how attentive I was to doing what I promised personally to do. It has been assumed that I actually would practice these habits of spiritual formation.

The occasional Gallup Poll reports show how often people say that they pray, read the Bible, etc. Certainly, those are indicators but they do not provide real evidence that people actually participate in those disciplines.

Without intentional conversation and real effort to hold people accountable for their practice of the spiritual disciplines, how do we really know the answer to John Wesley’s question “How is it with your soul?” In our churches, we instruct people to employ these disciplines of faith. We offer them in worship and in small group settings, but we rarely ask people how they are actually participating in these practices.

Through John Wesley’s societies and bands, regular and lifelong practice of the disciplines of faith was expected. In effect, early Methodists were saying what author Annie Dillard more recently has said: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

A pastor recently said to me: “I’m exhausted by this weekly reporting of organizational church measures (worship attendance, professions of faith, giving, etc.). I report basically the same numbers week in and week out. . . . This reporting (this habit) depletes me and makes me fearful for my future in ministry.”

Our conversation continued. Eventually we began talking about this pastor’s daily individual and corporate spiritual practices.

Finally he said, “This is what sustains me. I have gathered a group of people around me to read Scripture and to pray every week. These people are eager to do so. It seems they’ve been waiting for their pastor to invite them to a regular time for prayer and study. They’ve changed vacation plans and daily work arrival times in order to meet with me. These people now report how they continue to pray and read Scripture at home, and I’m doing that too. What I’m realizing now is that these practices (habits) are sustaining me (and them) even while my reported weekly attendance, etc. numbers stay the same.”

Then he said, “I believe that this church’s external measures will change . . . if we continue these practices of the disciplines of faith. These practices are changing our lives, and I think that will show up in our reported measures.”

At the close of our conversation, this pastor said to me, “I find these practices to be the elixir of God’s grace.”

Habits. . . . Imagine that!

The Rev. Greenwaldt is the top executive of the UMC’s General Board of Discipleship.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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