The Ministry of Marriage - Ceremony
No matter how much church ministry changes, some elements remain the same. For many centuries, pastors have performed weddings and officiated at funerals, baptisms, dedications, confirmations, and community events. Today, that role remains constant, but today’s context forces ministers to continually reexamine their approach.
This book focuses on these public occasions where the “priestly” functions are required. How can pastors minister most effectively in these situations?
In keeping with the practical nature of The Leadership Library, each chapter comes from a pastor who writes out of personal acquaintance with the struggles and successes of these ministries. These writers are candid about the possibilities and limitations of the pastor’s role, and they base their reflections on specific instances.
Chapter 1 looks at the overriding question: What is the pastor’s essential role in any of these public occasions? The thoughtful response is offered by Eugene H. Peterson, pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland.
Chapters 2 through 5 focus on weddings. Since the pastor is almost always involved with the couple before (and after) the wedding day, more is at stake than simply officiating at a ceremony.
How do we create a climate within the church that encourages lasting marriages? One congregation that has wrestled earnestly with this question is Emmaus Fellowship in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Pastor Ken Wilson explains their direct approach in chapter 2.
One of the often-strained situations every pastor faces is when a couple unrelated to the church wants to be wed in the church. Chapter 3 asks, “Should we marry the unchurched?” and Douglas G. Scott, rector of St. Martin’s Church in Radnor, Pennsylvania, tells how he handles this delicate but potentially redemptive situation.
Techniques of effective premarital counseling are shared in chapter 4 by Bruce Rowlison, pastor of Gilroy (California) Presbyterian Church, who coauthored Let’s Talk about Your Wedding & Marriage (Green Leaf Press, 1985).
And finally, what does a minister need to keep in mind for the rehearsal and actual wedding ceremony? In chapter 5, the important elements are reviewed by Kent Hughes, pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and coauthor of The Christian Wedding Planner (Tyndale, 1984).
Chapters 6 to 10 deal with the pastor’s role in funerals and the accompanying ministry to the grieving.
The first step is preparing a congregation to face that inevitable enemy, death. Rick McKinniss is pastor of Kensington Baptist Church in Kensington, Connecticut, but at the time he wrote this chapter, he was just finishing a pastorate at Emmaus Baptist Church in Northfield, Minnesota, where he saw firsthand the need to help a congregation get ready for death.
When death actually comes, what are the immediate steps a church should take? Paul Walker describes how he and the Mount Paran Church of God in Atlanta, Georgia, minister to the grieving.
Ministry during the actual funeral and graveside services is considered by Calvin Ratz, veteran pastor of Abbotsford (British Columbia) Pentecostal Assembly.
Then, two specific problem situations are addressed: “Funerals of Those You Barely Know” by Mark Coppenger, pastor of First Baptist Church in El Dorado, Arkansas, and “Handling the Hard Cases” — such tragedies as suicide, infant death, and victims of violence — written by Roger Miller, minister at the Central Christian Church in Jefferson, Iowa.
The last section of this volume describes some of the other special events over which pastors preside.
Infant baptisms and dedications provide a unique opportunity to minister to the family and the congregation, as Garth Bolinder explains from his perspective as pastor of Modesto (California) Covenant Church.
Calvin Miller, pastor of Westside Baptist Church in Omaha, Nebraska, writes about the obstacles he has to overcome in the baptism of adults.
Not all readers of this book will be involved in churches that practice confirmation, but Paul Anderson, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in San Pedro, California, points out the transferable principles that will help any church instill and confirm the faith for another generation.
Finally, Cal LeMon, pastor of Evangel Temple Christian Center in Springfield, Missouri, discusses the pastor’s role as community spokesperson, whether the occasion is a banquet invocation, a baccalaureate address, or a newspaper column.
These public occasions become milestones in people’s lives — and in our ministries. Each time of joy or grief opens people, if only for a moment, to pastors and to the divine realities they represent. And so these events deserve our continuing attention.
At a wedding, Jesus rejoiced. At a friend’s graveside, Jesus wept. At both, he worked miracles. Jesus sensed these moments as dramas that held people’s rapt attention. Through his ministry at these occasions, God became the leading actor.
That remains our present call.
— Marshall Shelley
One of the ironies of pastoral work is that on these occasions in our ministry when we are most visible — out in front giving invocations and benedictions, directing ceremonies, and delivering addresses — we are scarcely noticed.
Eugene H. Peterson
Pastors enter and embrace the totality of human life, convinced there is no detail, however unpromising, in people’s lives in which Christ may not work his will. Pastors agree to stay with the people in their communities week in and week out, year in and year out, to proclaim and guide, encourage and instruct as God works his purposes (gloriously, it will eventually turn out) in the meandering and disturbingly inconstant lives that compose our congregations.
This necessarily means taking seriously, and in faith, the dull routines, the empty boredom, and the unattractive responsibilities that make up much of most people’s lives. It means witnessing to the transcendent in the fog and rain. It means living hopefully among people who from time to time get flickering glimpses of the Glory but then live through stretches, sometimes long ones, of unaccountable grayness. Most pastoral work takes place in obscurity: deciphering grace in the shadows, searching out meaning in a difficult text, blowing on the embers of a hard-used life. This is hard work and not conspicuously glamorous.
But there are interruptions in this work, not infrequent, in which the significance blazes all of itself. The bush burns and is not quenched. Our work is done for us, or so it seems, by the event. We do nothing to get these occasions together: no prayer meeting, no strategic planning, no committee work, no altar call. They are given. They are redolent with meaning and almost always, even among unbelievers, evoke a sense of reverence. These interruptions of the ordinary become occasions of ceremony and celebration: weddings, funerals, baptisms and dedications, anniversaries and graduations, events at which human achievements are honored. Instead of deficiency of meaning, which characterizes so many lives and for which people compensate in frenzy or fantasy, there is an excess: the ecstasy of love, the dignity of death, the wonder of life, the nobility of achievement. These occasions burst the containers of the everyday and demand amplitude and leisure in which to savor the fullness. No love was ever celebrated enough, no death ever mourned enough, no life adored enough, no achievement honored enough. We set aside time, clear space, call friends, gather families, assemble the community. Almost always, the pastor is invited to preside and to pray.
But when we arrive we are, it seems, hardly needed, and in fact, barely noticed. One of the ironies of pastoral work is that on these occasions when we are placed at the very center of the action, we are perceived by virtually everyone there to be on the margins. No one would say that, of course, but the event that defines the occasion — love, death, birth, accomplishment — also holds everyone’s attention. No one inquires of the pastor what meaning there is in this. Meaning is there, overwhelmingly obvious, in the bride and groom, in the casket, in the baby, in the honored guest.
The pastor is, in these settings, what the theater calls “fifth business” — required by the conventions but incidental to the action, yet, in its own way, important on the sidelines. This is odd, and we never quite get used to it; at least I never do. In the everyday obscurities in which we do most of our work, we often have the sense of being genuinely needed. Even when unnoticed, we are usually sure our presence makes a difference, sometimes a critical difference, for we have climbed to the abandoned places, the bereft lives, the “gaps” that Ezekiel wrote of (22:30), and have spoken Christ’s Word and witnessed Christ’s mercy. But in these situations where we are given an honored place at the table, we are peripheral to everyone’s attention.
Where Is the Spotlight?
At weddings, love is celebrated. The atmosphere is luminous with adoration. Here are two people at their best, in love, venturing a life of faithfulness with each other. Everyone senses both how difficult and how wonderful it is. Emotions swell into tears and laughter, spill over into giggles, congeal into pomposity. In the high drama that pulls families and friends together for a few moments on the same stage, the pastor is practically invisible, playing a bit part at best. We are geometrically at the center of the ceremony, but every eye is somewhere else.
At funerals, death is dignified. The not-being-there of the deceased is set in solemn ritual. Absence during this time is more powerful than presence. Grief, whether expressed torrentially or quietly, is directed into channels of acceptance and gratitude that save it from wasteful spillage into regret and bitterness. The tears that blur perception of the living, including the pastor, clarify appreciation of the dead.
At the baptisms and dedications of infants, the sheer wonder of infant life upstages the entire adult world. The glory that radiates from the newborn draws even bystanders into praise. In the very act of holding an infant in the sacrament of baptism or the service of dedication, the pastor, though many times larger, stronger, and wiser, is shadowed by the brightness of the babe.
At anniversaries and graduations, ground breakings and inaugurations — the various community occasions when achievements are recognized and ventures launched — the collective admiration or anticipation produces a groundswell of emotion that absorbs everything else. Every eye is focused on, and every ear is tuned to, the person honored, the project announced, the task accomplished, the victory won. The pastor, even praying in the spotlight and with the amplification system working well, is not really in the spotlight.
And so it happens that on the occasions in our ministry when we are most visible — out in front giving invocations and benedictions, directing ceremonies, and delivering addresses — we are scarcely noticed.
The One Thing Needful
If no one perceives our presence the way we ourselves perceive it — directing operations, running the show — what is going on? We are at the margins during these occasions. No one came to see us. No one came to hear us. We are not at all needed in the way we are accustomed to being needed.
No one needs us to tell the assembled people that this moment of time partakes of eternity and that things of great moment are taking place. No one needs us to proclaim that this is a unique event, never to be repeated, in which we are all privileged participants. All this is unmistakably obvious and not to be missed by even the stiff-necked and uncircumcised of heart.
So why are we there? We are there to say God. We are there for one reason and one reason only: to pray. We are there to focus the overflowing, cascading energies of joy, sorrow, delight, or appreciation, if only for a moment but for as long as we are able, on God. We are there to say God personally, to say his name clearly, distinctly, unapologetically, in prayer. We are there to say it without hemming and hawing, without throat clearing and without shuffling, without propagandizing, proselytizing, or manipulating. We have no other task on these occasions. We are not needed to add to what is there; there is already more than anyone can take in. We are required only to say the Name: Father, Son, Holy Ghost.
All men and women hunger for God. The hunger is masked and misinterpreted in many ways, but it is always there. Everyone is on the verge of crying out “My Lord and my God!” if only circumstances push them past their doubts or defiance, push them out of the dull ache of their routines or their cozy accommodations with mediocrity.
On the occasions of ceremony and celebration, there are often many people present who never enter our churches, who do their best to keep God at a distance and never intend to confess Christ as Lord and Savior. These people are not accustomed to being around pastors, and not a few of them politely despise us. So it is just as well that we are perceived to be marginal to the occasion.
The occasions themselves provide the push toward an awareness of an incredible Grace, a dazzling Design, a defiant Hope, a courageous Faithfulness. But awareness, while necessary, is not enough. Consciousness raising is only prolegomena. Awareness, as such, quickly trickles into religious sentimentalism or romantic blubbering, or hardens into patriotic hubris or pharasaic snobbery. Our task is to nudge the awareness past these subjectivities into the open and say God.
The less we say at these times the better, as long as we say God. We cultivate unobtrusiveness so that we do not detract from the sermon being preached by the event. We must do only what we are there to do: pronounce the Name, name the hunger. But it is so easy to get distracted. There is so much going on, so much to see and hear and say. So much emotion. So much, we think, “opportunity.” But our assignment is to the “one thing needful,” the invisible and quiet center, God.
We do best on these occasions to follow the sermonic advice of the Rebbe Naphtali of Ropshitz: Make the introduction concise and the conclusion abrupt — with nothing in between.
Such restraint is not easy. Without being aware of it, we are apt to resent our unaccustomed marginality and push ourselves to the fore, insisting we be noticed and acknowledged. We usually do this through mannerism or tone: stridency, sentimentality, cuteness. We do it, of course, in the name of God, supposing we are upholding the primacy of the one we represent. This is done with distressing regularity by pastors. But such posturing does not give glory to God; it only advertises clerical vanity. We are only hogging the show, and not very successfully, either. For no matter how resplendent we are in robes and “Reverends,” we are no match for the persons or events that gave rise to the occasion to which we were asked to come and pray.
In Golden-Calf Country
But there is another reason for keeping to our position on the margins of ceremony and celebration. This is golden-calf country. Religious feeling runs high but in ways far removed from what was said on Sinai and done on Calvary. While everyone has a hunger for God, deep and insatiable, none of us has any great desire for him. What we really want is to be our own gods and to have whatever other gods that are around to help us in this work. This is as true for Christians as for non-Christians.
Our land lies east of Eden, and in this land, Self is sovereign. The catechetical instruction we grow up with has most of the questions couched in the first person: How can I make it? How can I maximize my potential? How can I develop my gifts? How can I overcome my handicaps? How can I cut my losses? How can I increase my longevity and live happily ever after, preferably all the way into eternity? Most of the answers to these questions include the suggestion that a little religion along the way wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Every event that pulls us out of the ordinariness of our lives puts a little extra spin on these questions. Pastors, since we are usually present at the events and have a reputation of being knowledgeable in matters of religion, are expected to legitimize and encourage the religious dimensions in the aspirations. In our eagerness to please, and forgetful of the penchant for idolatry in the human heart, we too readily leave the unpretentious place of prayer and, with the freely offered emotional and religious jewelry the people bring, fashion a golden calf-god — Romantic Love, Beloved Memory, Innocent Life, Admirable Achievement — and proclaim a “feast to the Lord” (Ex. 32:5). Hardly knowing what we do, we meld the religious aspirations of the people and the religious dynamics of the occasion to try to satisfy one and all.
Calvin saw the human heart as a relentlessly efficient factory for producing idols. People commonly see the pastor as the quality-control engineer in the factory. The moment we accept the position, we defect from our vocation. People want things to work better; they want a life that is more interesting; they want help through a difficult time; they want meaning and significance in their ventures. They want God, in a way, but certainly not a “jealous God,” not the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Mostly they want to be their own god and stay in control, but have ancillary divine assistance for the hard parts.
There are a thousand ways of being religious without submitting to Christ’s lordship, and people are practiced in most of them. They are trained from an early age to be discriminating consumers on their way to higher standards of living. It should be no great surprise when they expect pastors to help them do it. But it is a great apostasy when we go along. “And Moses said to Aaron, What did this people do to you that you have brought a great sin upon them?” (Ex. 32:21). Aaron’s excuse is embarrassingly lame but more than matched by the justifications we make for abandoning prayer in our enthusiasm to make the most of the occasion.
Our Real Work
Our churches and communities assign us ceremonial duties on these occasions, which we must be careful to do well. There are right and wrong ways to act and speak, better and worse ways to prepare for and conduct these ceremonies and celebrations. No detail is insignificant: gesture conveys grace, tone of voice inculcates awe, demeanor defines atmosphere, preparation deepens wonder. We must be diligently skillful in all of this, and my colleagues in this book guide to competence in these matters.
But if there is no will to prayer in the pastor — a quietly stubborn and faithful centering in the action and presence of God — we will more than likely end up assisting, however inadvertently, in fashioning one more golden calf, of which the world has more than enough. What is absolutely critical is that we attend to God in these occasions: his Word, his Presence. We are there to say the Name, and by saying it guide lament into the depths where Christ descended into hell, not letting it digress into self-pity. We are there to say the Name, and by saying it direct celebration into praise of God, not letting it wallow in gossipy chatter.
Our real work in every occasion that requires a priestly presence is prayer. Whether anyone there knows or expects it, we arrive as persons of prayer. The margins are the best location for maintaining that intention. Our vocation is to be responsive to what God is saying at these great moments, and simply be there in that way as salt, as leaven.
Most of our prayer will be inaudible to those assembled. We are not praying to inspire them but to intercede for them. The action of God is intensified in these prayers and continued in the lives of the participants long after the occasion. The ceremonies are over in an hour or so; the prayers continue.
This is our real work: holding marriages and deaths, growing lives and lasting achievements before God in a continuing community of prayer.
The preparation I was giving couples once they had decided to be married seemed helpful as far as it went, but for an increasing number, it was simply too little, too late.
Laura was telling me about one of the best things God had ever brought into her life. His name was Jim: she loved to be with him; he was always on her mind; she felt more alive than she had ever felt before. Laura knew beyond a shadow of a doubt this was true love.
When I discovered Jim wasn’t a Christian and I shared my concern about the handicap this would be to their unity, Laura wasn’t fazed. It was as if I were criticizing his hair style. She was swept up in a wonderful feeling. I just didn’t understand.
Laura married Jim, and sadly, now finds herself divorced.
John and Amy sat with nervous excitement in the chairs in my office. They had just announced their engagement and had come to me for “premarriage counseling.” Their expectations, though unstated, were clear: I should warmly congratulate them, confer on a date for the wedding, give them a booklet on wedding plans, and offer pastoral perspective on what makes a marriage work.
There was only one problem: I wasn’t sure this marriage would work. Amy, I knew, was strong-willed, had a good deal of Christian training, and held high standards for Christian living. John, a fairly new Christian, tended toward moodiness. He was still working through some strong doubts.
I felt a responsibility to share my concerns and ask them to defer setting a date until these concerns were addressed. But I wondered whether this option was workable. They were, after all, deeply in love by this time. They had followed a typical American dating pattern that included a good deal of sexual contact short of actual intercourse. The emotional bond was set. Reason wasn’t likely to break in at this point, and too much time might push the couple’s remaining sexual restraint beyond the breaking point.
A Fresh Look
The discomfort of these and similar situations stirred me to take a fresh look at what we call marriage preparation. The preparation I was giving a couple once they had decided to be married seemed helpful as far as it went, but it was woefully inadequate for the increasing number of Lauras and Johns and Amys walking through the office door. It was simply too little, too late.
The other leaders of our fellowship and I began to consider: Rather than wring our hands over Laura and John and Amy, why not turn our attention to their younger brothers and sisters? Why not present an alternative to the young men and women who were just beginning to think of marriage, to help them choose a partner “in a way that is holy and honorable” (1 Thess. 4:3–5)?
Eventually we began to encourage an alternative approach to marriage preparation. And for all of the usual miscues in attempting a change this great, we have had unusual success in helping young people move into marriage and remain married. Since we began this approach, there have been many weddings — 160 in the last six years alone — and yet, among couples where both people were members of the fellowship and they remained in town (a high percentage of the marriages), I am not aware of a single divorce. There are some troubled marriages, but so far, these couples are staying together.
I am not suggesting we will never experience the pain of divorce; for one thing, these marriages have not yet gone the full distance. Nor am I suggesting our alternative approach to marriage preparation is solely, or even primarily, responsible. There are other factors: the comparatively high level of Christian commitment of our members and the fact that none of our leaders has been divorced, not to mention the grace of God underlying these. But the initial fruit encourages us that we have stumbled onto some important principles for creating a climate for lasting marriages.
Youth in our congregations face tough issues: How should I handle dating? What are the limits on sexual expression before marriage? How do I know when I’m ready to get married? How do I know if the person I’m attracted to is a good match?
They are getting radically different and opposing answers. It is hard to exaggerate the vast gulf between what our young people are being told by their peers and the media (which often seem to consider these questions obsolete), and what they are being told in our churches. All too often the church’s advice gets left behind.
Lasting change begins when we understand the cultural tide we — and our young people — must swim against. Here, then, are our perceptions of the current cultural line on dating, sex, and courtship, and how we have responded to them.
I heard about a high school student who was asked by some of his buddies why he wasn’t going to the prom.
“I don’t know any girls who are worth the money,” he replied, somewhat on the defensive.
They laughed and said, “But what about the sex? The sex is worth it.”
Steeling his courage, he replied, “I’m not planning on having sex until I’m married.”
His friends recommended a psychiatric evaluation.
While the bravado of young men often overstates reality, it is not uncommon for an invitation to the prom to connote an invitation to sex.
Statistics on the sexual activity of teenagers suggest this type of thinking is widespread. In a national Gallup survey in May 1981, 52 percent of the regular churchgoers ages 13–18 did not think premarital sex was wrong. In a survey of church-active Protestants in central Illinois, Steve Clapp found that 59 percent of the males 16–18 admitted having had intercourse, while 42 percent of the females admitted the same.
The role of dating in our society has changed over the past thirty years. Dating has become detached from the process of looking for a marriage partner; it is no longer primarily a courtship activity but a recreational activity. Anyone who thinks recreational dating doesn’t encourage sexual activity has lost his appreciation for the obvious. But there are other problems.
We noticed one in our early work with university students. The preoccupation with romantic relationships was threatening to turn the group into something of a soap opera. As young people paired up and split up, relationships were strained and jealousies created. The less-attractive and less-popular students often felt isolated, left out, and resentful. The whole process made young people more self-conscious: “Am I attractive?” “Why isn’t anyone asking me out?”
A third and related problem: Dating was not helping train them for married life. The strong focus on one-on-one relationships with someone of the opposite sex short-circuited kids from building a wider base of strong relationships. Relying on one person for most of one’s social and emotional needs began a pattern that often burdened the marriage relationship later.
I’ve found young people are not as resistant to acknowledging these pitfalls as one might expect. They admit the many pressures, frustrations, and temptations of the typical dating scene. Consequently, many of them have taken seriously our counsel: Until you are ready to begin seeking a spouse, don’t date. Look for opportunities to be with members of the opposite sex in group situations.
Of course, this means we have to work to do two things: teach young people about Christian relationships, beginning early, and provide them with positive group social opportunities.
Our fellowship operates a Christian school for fourth through ninth grades, and we begin there. We talk openly about an alternative approach to dating. We discourage the flirtation and pairing off so common in junior high schools.
With high school students, we work to build an environment that supports the students who have decided to forgo romantic relationships until they are ready for marriage. This isn’t easy, but through a variety of means — retreats, some small groups, even large-group activities — young people can share their struggles and get support for taking a Christian stand.
Our fellowship has long had an extensive outreach to university students, and we’ve found them the most receptive of all. High school young people, while they are the least equipped to handle dating, are the most pressured into it. By college, some of the intense peer pressure can lessen. We sponsor many group events for university students. Better still, we’ve discovered, are group service projects. When young men and women work together in Bible studies for new believers, they get to know each other without the self-consciousness of dating.
Sex in Courtship
Jim was involved in a courtship process — dating a young woman and trying to decide whether they ought to get married. As we talked about it, Jim wondered about my view on the role of sex in courtship. I told him. His face told me he considered me reactionary and prudish. He asked, “But how are we going to know whether we are sexually compatible?”
The question is not moot: What is the place of sexual activity in the courtship process?
Our youth may not agree that sexual intercourse before marriage is wrong. (According to the Clapp study, 48 percent of the Protestant church-active boys and girls between 13 and 15 years of age said sexual intercourse was OK as long as the couple were in love, even if unmarried.) But even among those who hold strongly that sex before marriage is wrong, many would draw a sharp distinction between sexual intercourse and the range of sexual interaction that stops short of intercourse.
Here I must disagree. My experience with young people convinces me the wisest, most biblically sound, and healthiest answer is simply: sexual activity of any kind is best reserved for marriage. The sexual encounter is by nature progressive: one thing is designed to lead to another. We are psychologically and biologically designed to experience a compelling sense of momentum that begins with sexually significant touch and light kissing, moves to heavy kissing and petting, and ends with intercourse.
Young people, by the way, understand this. If I’m counseling a young man in this area and sense resistance, I may ask him to consider his own experience. Has he ever been involved in prolonged kissing and noticed the onset of an erection? From a creation perspective, what purpose would God have in mind for linking an erection with such activity? I know that’s direct, even blunt, but I’ve found it helps young people accept my case for stricter standards, and often they thank me for being straightforward.
But for some reason we have a reluctance to reach the obvious conclusion. We shy away from confidently urging couples to avoid the whole range of sexual activity that precedes intercourse. But what good is gained by tacitly approving preliminary sexual contact when it so powerfully and easily leads further?
This reasoning runs contrary to the cultural currents of our society. Teaching helps, but I’ve found personal discussions with the people currently facing the issues to be most effective. Often I’ll share the experience of others.
When Jim came to me, for example, I told him about a married couple I know that had fooled around more than they had intended to before they got married. They both felt disappointed in themselves and began their sexual relationship in marriage feeling vaguely guilty. The wife had lost a measure of trust in her husband’s ability to control his sexual desire, and it made it more difficult for her to respond to him sexually. Now they wish they had drawn a clearer line and observed it.
I told him of a woman I’d talked with who had spent a few months dating a young man. As time went on, the two of them expressed more and more physical affection, up to and including a little petting. All this had a profound effect on the woman; she developed a strong emotional bond with the man. The physical affection didn’t seem to have nearly the same effect on him. When he decided they were probably not a good match, it was difficult for him to end the relationship, but it devastated her. Something had begun to form in her that was now being torn.
And since the best illustrations are positive, I tell counselees about several young couples I know who were married with no more than hand holding, walking arm in arm, and an occasional good-night kiss — and that only after they were engaged. Their sexual adjustment in marriage is better than that of many couples I know who were sexually active before marriage.
Selecting a Mate
Many young people have a romantic expectation of meeting someone who is erotically attractive and elicits a mysterious sense of compatibility. “Falling in love” hits like a powerful religious experience and is taken to be the voice of God: “This is the one for you.” Christian young people are sitting ducks for this deception.
They need compelling instruction that identifies Christian love as service love, founded on a decision, drawing from the emotions but not grounded in them. They also need wise criteria for selecting a spouse. We suggest they consider questions like the following:
— What kind of life is God calling you to live? What kind of spouse would support that?
— What kind of person would likely make a good father or mother for your children?
— What personality traits would put additional stress on your personal weaknesses?
— What are the important qualities in a spouse “for the long haul”? How do attractive appearance and an urbane sense of humor rate over time with a trait like faithfulness?
We realize we’re asking people to consider selecting a mate (and the dating process that precedes it) from a perspective entirely different from what they may be used to. So we try to provide instruction not only to young people but also to parents and the body at large so they can support them.
When people join our community, they take an extensive course in the basics of the Christian faith. During part of the course, we pay special attention to relationships and a Christian approach to sexuality, dating, marriage, and commitment. This helps our members have a common perspective on these matters.
Some parents are less sure about our counsel on dating than their kids. They remember their own dating from thirty years ago, which may have been relatively tame, and aren’t aware of the increased pressure toward sexual activity today. Or they want their kids to be accepted and fear if they don’t date extensively, they won’t be. So we address these issues in regular courses on family life and monthly forums for parents and teachers. Naturally these sessions cover a variety of topics — right now, the special demands of raising preschoolers — but encouraging teenagers to have a healthy approach to sexuality is a key concern.
The challenge to build a climate for lasting marriages can seem overwhelming, but there are small beginnings that are well within reach. Preaching in this area helps. So does an occasional class for junior high and senior high students.
But the best strategy in many situations may be to begin with a few committed people. This became clear to me one day when Rick came to see me. Rick had made a weak commitment to Christ when he was a child. Now as a university student he had come to a deeper conversion and was serious about his faith. He had recently broken up with his girlfriend because he knew their relationship wasn’t pleasing to God.
Rick told me, “I want to approach every area of my life as a disciple. I want my future relationships with women to be in the Lord.” He wanted to know how a Christian should approach dating and preparation for marriage.
Every young person in our congregations is not going to have the commitment of Rick. We soon saw, however, that special pastoral attention to the most highly motivated young men and women is time well spent. Those who have successfully adopted the approach of “taking a wife in honor” become advocates and tutors of an alternative approach to younger members.
As Zechariah prophesied, “Do not despise the day of small beginnings” (Zech. 4:10). Even if we begin to work with only a few adventurous volunteers — perhaps even one — we can be confident that small seeds bearing the character of the kingdom will flourish.
For the first time in their lives, they want something from the church, really want something.
Douglas G. Scott
The pattern is familiar: A couple calls the church office to say they are planning to be married and want to arrange a wedding in the church. They are not members of this church (or perhaps they were members years ago but haven’t been to church since confirmation). They may not even be members of the denomination, but they “knew someone who was married at St. Swithin’s two years ago.”
How should we respond? What are the pastoral possibilities inherent in these situations?
Many clergy dismiss such calls immediately, explaining that they perform services only for members of their own congregation. Others may see some of the couples and make a decision to perform the ceremony on the basis of the couple’s rudimentary understanding of the Christian faith. Still others act as ecclesiastical marriage brokers, performing the ceremony for any and all who ask, usually beefing up their discretionary fund in the process.
After struggling with these questions for some time, I have devised an approach, based on a number of theological suppositions, that seems to work well.
Why Are They Here?
My primary assumption about all the individuals who call is that they have been prompted to call by the Holy Spirit. To be sure, they are probably unaware of this prompting, but in each of these situations, I assume that God is giving me an opportunity to do some serious examination with the couple about the nature and quality of Christian marriage.
The couple may have their own reasons for calling the church, and each of them is woefully familiar to every minister:
“Your church is so pretty.”
“Your church is close to our reception hall.”
“My second cousin was married here by the minister who was here before you.”
Their initial reason for calling is unimportant. The Holy Spirit has prompted them to call your church, even if yours is the fourth or fifth on a list of possible places. You have been presented with an unparalleled opportunity to reach out with Christ’s love to two people who may have never before experienced it in all its fullness. I don’t dismiss such opportunities quickly.
My second assumption when the unchurched call is that this may be the first time they have ever turned to the church for help. If they are a young couple, both sets of parents are probably still living, and there is a good chance, given increasing rates of longevity, that the grandparents are living as well. Consequently, this couple may never have had an opportunity or the need to turn to the church in time of crisis. While they may have attended Sunday school in childhood, their most recent experience of church was probably a Christmas Eve service a number of years ago. For the first time in their lives, they want something from the church, really want something.
Our initial response to their call will determine whether they see the church as cold and unresponsive, or open and responsive to those outside as well as inside its fellowship.
My third assumption is that there are some shreds of spiritual awareness which prompt them to seek marriage in the church. To be sure, a certain percentage of the couples who call want a church wedding only because “it’s traditional,” or because their parents insist. However, we must also recognize that for others, there are certain events in their lives that they see as “religious moments.” While they may want to confine their experience of God to controlled and predictable encounters, there are moments when they feel God should be included.
My fourth assumption (especially if they have no prior connection with the parish I serve) is that there may have been a problem with a previous church affiliation. Perhaps one of them is divorced and is not permitted to remarry in his or her own denomination, or perhaps one was treated harshly by a former pastor. Perhaps they themselves were difficult and alienated themselves from the life of their initial church home and have not since been affiliated with a community of faith. In any event, they may well be spiritually homeless, and they have turned to your church. They may not be looking for a church home, but they are asking to use the house.
On the basis of these assumptions, I have determined to consent to at least meet with each couple that calls inquiring about marriage.
The Initial Telephone Call
I attempt to do some initial screening on the telephone, and I include a very clear explanation of what can be expected from me. I determine where both parties live, their ages, and previous religious affiliation, if any. I ask if there were previous marriages, and if so, how long the divorce decree has been final, and where it was granted. Is at least one of the parties baptized? Have they sought to be married by another member of the clergy and been refused?
I explain to the caller that I will be glad to see the couple but that my consenting to see them does not mean I will guarantee to marry them. I insist that the interview be with both bride and groom, and that no other family members be present or accompany them. I explain that the purpose of the interview will be to determine whether we can speak seriously about being married in the church, and that at the conclusion of the interview, I may consent to marry them, but in all probability, no decision will be reached for some weeks. I then set a mutually convenient time when the couple can meet with me in the office, explaining that they should expect to be with me for at least an hour.
One postscript: I do not make appointments on the basis of a mother’s telephone request. When a mother calls, I simply explain that I will be glad to discuss the possibility when her daughter or son calls, but that the couple must take the responsibility themselves for arranging the interview.
The Initial Interview
The attitude of most couples with no parish affiliation who come for an initial premarital interview falls usually into one of two categories—apprehensive or arrogant. They are either nervous, not knowing what to expect, or they are openly disdainful of this situation, which they consider a necessary evil. In any event, they are rarely comfortable. While some clergy might not try to dispel this feeling, thus retaining an edge or advantage, I try to make the couple as comfortable as possible, remembering that they will probably judge this “church business” by their impressions of who I am and how I respond to their presence.
After exchanging pleasantries, I turn immediately to the form that catalogs all necessary information required by the state and my denomination. I do this simply in question-and-answer form, and include questions of the date they had in mind, the names of their intended witnesses, and their permanent address after marriage. The last piece of information allows me to contact the church of my denomination closest to them for the purpose of referral, should they be moving some distance from this parish.
I do not ask why they want to be married. After interviewing hundreds of couples, I have never found one that gives me an answer other than “Because we love each other.” Obviously, the age of the couple may make it necessary to determine whether this, in fact, is intended as a marriage or as an escape from a difficult family or personal situation. However, if they are both of reasonable age, and there are no legal or ecclesiastical impediments, I turn immediately to the meat of the interview.
My initial presentation usually runs like this:
“Let me say at the outset that I am not here to sit in judgment on you. You have decided that you want to marry each other, and since there are no legal impediments that I can determine, you have every right to do so. You have decided to marry, and I am not going to try to change your mind. Our purpose today is simply to determine whether or not this marriage should begin in the church.
“Now the state and the church view marriage very differently. In the eyes of the state, marriage is little more than a contractual agreement — the two of you agree, by contract, to do certain things for each other, and make promises about how you will conduct your life together. The contract is witnessed by two individuals of legal age. At any point in the contract, you may seek to have that contract dissolved through the process we call divorce. That is how the state views marriage, and this can be performed by a judge or a mayor.
“The church’s view of marriage, however, is very different. So let me begin by asking: What do you really want? Do you simply want to be married, or do you want to commit yourselves to the unique responsibilities of Christian marriage?”
This presentation is usually followed by a silence of considerable length as the couple look at me with a blank stare. I have on occasion had a couple respond that they simply want to be married. At that point I reply, “I’m sorry, I don’t perform weddings — I preside at the services of the church. If I had known that was all you wanted, I could have saved you the trip here. Thank you for coming.” On those occasions, the couple, flustered by the swiftness of the dismissal, invariably back down and begin to explain what they meant by their prompt response. The door remains open.
More often than not, however, the couple, after sitting in silence for some time, ask what I mean. The opportunity for a teaching dialogue between clergy and couple has been presented. I usually proceed in a question-and-answer format designed to get the couple talking about the nature and depth of their personal spiritual development and the impact of that development on their common life. Some of the questions might take the following forms:
How would you describe your relationship with God? What role does God play in your daily life?
What does God expect of a couple who begin their married life in the church? Have you discussed your mutual responsibilities as a Christian couple?
How would you say Christian marriage differs from other marriages?
Do you worship together? Do you feel comfortable with the idea of praying together? Why or why not?
To be sure, most unchurched couples take the attitude “I try to live a good life and be nice to people,” but this avoidance of the issue must be pointed out. I make a clear distinction between being a Christian and being “nice” (or altruistic or philanthropic or compassionate). What I seek is a clear definition of their concept of the action of God in their lives, and their response to that action. There are some couples who don’t seem to get the point, and a potential device for clarifying the issue might be: “Your relationship as a couple has a number of different dimensions — a social dimension (you date, share common activities and friends), an emotional dimension (you have feelings toward and about each other that satisfy each other’s emotional needs), a financial dimension (you have made decisions about your common property, how your money will be handled, who will work, and at what job), a physical dimension (the sexual expression of your emotions), and a spiritual dimension. How do you see yourselves as spiritual persons, and how do you relate on a spiritual level with each other, and with God?”
Following this exploration, the couple has usually come up with one of two answers — either they realize there is a neglected aspect of their relationship and are anxious to develop that aspect, or they state that their commitment to the Christian faith is marginal at best and that they have no intention of associating with a church following the marriage ceremony. If the former situation arises, I have an opportunity to provide direction about the development of the Christian faith in this embryonic stage. If the latter presents itself, I usually use the following approach:
“I am not a baseball fan. Understand, I believe in baseball — that is, I believe baseball exists and that there are many people whose happiness depends, in part, on the fortunes of a particular team. They go to each of the home games, wear team jackets, and put team decals on their cars. I can believe all of those things, but I am not a fan. I don’t enjoy going to baseball games, and whether the Mets win or lose is of no importance to me at all. It would be strange, therefore, if I wanted to have my wedding in Shea Stadium! You see, when you are married in the church, you ask for the blessing, approval, and support of God’s family as you begin your married life, because God’s family is important to you. During a church wedding, you make promises to each other, and to God, about your life together and your life as members of God’s family.”
At that point, I discuss the specific expectations of Christian marriage and the commitments made by the couple toward the church in that ceremony. Then, “Since you have made it clear that you have no commitment to the church, do you feel comfortable making solemn promises about your future involvement with the church?”
The device is obvious. Rather than making the decision for them, you present them with the teaching of the church and ask them to make the decision. Most couples have a sense of integrity and say they weren’t aware that this was what happened in the context of the ceremony. Frequently, they say they would rather be married in a civil ceremony than to make promises they don’t intend to keep. Occasionally, they say they still want to be married in the church, and at that point, you can justifiably state some expectations:
“You say you want to go ahead and make these promises to each other and to God. Each of you is willing to make these commitments to each other because you have seen some evidence that those promises are already being fulfilled. If you are serious about making these promises to God, why don’t you start fulfilling them now, and see how you feel about making a long-term commitment later. That is, let’s say that you begin attending church and working at your Christian relationship, and forgo making a decision about marriage in the church until you have had an opportunity to see how it ‘feels.’ In two months, after you have attended church together for a while, let’s get together again and talk about the next step — making a long-term commitment to establishing a Christian relationship.”
At that point, some couples say they have no intention of adhering to those expectations. In that event, they have made the decision: they do not wish to be married in the church if it entails attendance and support. I then thank them for their time and wish them well in their life together. They may, on the other hand, agree to those conditions, at which point I have provided the couple with an opportunity for involvement with the community of faith.
Every attempt should be made to integrate the couple into the life of the congregation as soon as possible. Usually, their involvement leads to commitment.
The Second Interview
The content of the second interview is determined by the couple’s response to the conditions established at the first one. If they have expressed a desire to explore the spiritual aspect of their relationship and have agreed to a “trial period” of church involvement, we then discuss how they feel about their involvement thus far.
On occasion, couples have determined that church life is not for them, and they decide to forgo a church wedding in favor of a civil ceremony. More often than not, however, they have, through the movement of the Holy Spirit, found the richness inherent in Christian living and want to pursue their faith even further. A small percentage of couples agree to a period of church involvement but fail to fulfill that agreement. If that is the case, I express my confusion, saying, “You are ready to make lifelong promises to your partner because he or she is already, in a partial way, fulfilling those promises. If you didn’t see those promises being fulfilled, you would be skeptical about them being kept after the marriage ceremony. You have not demonstrated to me that you are ready to fulfill the promises you would be asked to make in a church wedding. Let me ask you again. Are you ready to commit yourselves to a Christian marriage?”
I have rarely had to refuse a couple. Usually they decide on their own either to commit themselves to the church or to seek a civil ceremony. From their response to the situations presented them, I tell the couple, in effect, that they have already made the decision about whether or not they really want to be married in the church, and that I agree (or disagree) with their decision. We then can plan the wedding itself, including a time for in-depth marital counseling.
The Counseling Phase
A significant portion of the premarital counseling process involves directing the couple toward full involvement in the life of the congregation. Pastors of other denominations might use a different approach, but I invariably urge the couple to attend adult inquirer classes that lead to confirmation. If they are lapsed members of my denomination, I suggest that they request to be transferred from their home parish.
But more important, I emphasize not only technical membership in the church but active involvement as well. Themes centering on stewardship of their time, talent, and treasure fit naturally into the premarital program, and I see that they are directed toward programs or service groups within the congregation that would further heighten their interest and participation. In planning any fellowship or social function, I make sure the couple receives a personal invitation, either a handwritten note or a telephone call, from another member of the congregation, thus making them feel more a part of the parish family. The congregation I serve responds warmly to the presence of newcomers. The couple quickly feels at home.
By using an approach that places the onus of the decision on the couple rather than the minister, I feel I fulfill a number of desirable goals. This approach provides an attitude of openness and caring; offers an opportunity for growth, teaching, and commitment; and most of all, allows the couple to have equity in the nature of their commitment to each other and to God. They make the decisions and, having made them, are far more likely to fulfill the obligations inherent in Christian marriage.
I find couples open to building the best marriage they possibly can; my aim is to coach them toward that goal.
A psychologist once said to me bluntly, “Don’t send me any more premarriage counseling. The couples aren’t in crisis. They don’t want to work on their relationship. They just want to get married. They are less in love than they are in heat. You keep them, Pastor.”
I don’t agree with his conclusion, but that conversation forced me to question my premarital ministry to couples.
Gradually I began to see myself as more of a coach than a counselor. A coach discovers and points out skills already there, then tries to motivate people to increase those skills and gain new ones. In premarital counseling, I find couples open to building the best marriage they possibly can; my aim is to coach them toward that goal.
Still, the couple’s affection for each other is so intense it does periodically block the rational. They seem to float above my office couch, rather than sit comfortably on it. But in spite of all their anxiety and impatience, meaningful things happen in our times together.
Establishing a Relationship
I begin by building a friendship. I’m convinced learning increases as trust and respect are established. Plus, my God is personal. He knows me by name. So, I spend time getting acquainted.
Right at the beginning I tell them, “In order to personalize your wedding, I need to get acquainted with you both. Hopefully, the information we share will build our friendship, and I expect our relationship to continue beyond the wedding.”
I begin with positive, easy questions: How did you meet? What have been some of the most enjoyable times you’ve had together? How did you come to the conclusion that this is the one you want to marry?
I’m beginning to collect information on their relationship skills, attitude toward marriage, and openness to my input. The quality of this time often determines the effectiveness of our sessions. I acknowledge and honor their right to pass over a subject they are uncomfortable discussing with me at this stage. (Who wants to be lied to anyway?) I tell them I consider it a privilege to share in this pivotal point in their journey, the beginning of their married life.
After establishing rapport, I begin to ask the more difficult questions, such as, “Which of you felt the most discomfort in coming to see me, and why?” I ask them to describe their visits with each other’s families, because those are often the most stressful times in courtship.
Seeing Eye to Eye
I’m now ready to move toward some agreement for the rest of our time together. My transition question is, “Before we go any further, I need to check if you have some expectations of our time together. What are your special interests or needs, so I’m sure to budget time for them?” I listen as much for what they don’t expect as for their expectations.
Then I often give a sixty-second synopsis of who I am, what I have been through in life, what skills I have that might be helpful to them, and where I’m weak: “I’m not a psychologist. I’m a pastor. A lot of my work has to do with marriage. I have skills in listening and clarifying. I don’t try to change people’s personalities. So relax. I’m not good in money management, but we have a banker and two realtors in the church who will help you free of charge. Here are some options for us to work on in our times together. You pick three or four, and I’ll pick three or four, and we’ll have a good time together.”
Among my list of options:
— misconceptions of love and marriage
— games that can increase friendship
— practical issues in marriage (money, sex and affection, role expectations, values, religious faith, power and freedom, communication, and nurture)
— romantic love
— Christian marriage.
I believe in offering choices because it shifts responsibility to them. In my early years, I left the office exhausted while the couple departed bored. They had watched me do marvelous things for ninety minutes: lecture on sexuality, supply money management insights taken from a speech by a well-known economist, administer probing quizzes and diagnose the quality of their relationship. But I’ve changed my style to become the coach who helps them do the work.
I don’t even administer psychological tests and inventories any more. I am not against testing. I simply find that such instruments tend to raise the couple’s anxiety level, and one of my goals is to reduce any sense of threat so they can deal with their actual needs and worries.
One “test” I do give is called “Misconceptions of Love and Marriage.” I make a game out of it; I laugh and overdramatize it. I tell them I won’t give them the answers unless they tie me to the chair and threaten my life, because the purpose is to stimulate conversation, not right or wrong answers. In this test they are supposed to mark various statements as true or false:
— Loneliness will be cured by marriage.
— Crying is something to be avoided in marriage.
— Getting angry is better than being critical.
The list contains twenty-five such statements.1
Amazing things happen in these moments. They laugh. They disagree openly. They get nervous. They show frustration. They reveal expectations. Sometimes they begin to ask for information. But my goal is for them to do the talking. I stimulate their conversation. As a pastor trained to correct wrong thinking, I have to bite my tongue here. Later I will teach them, but now, through their conversation, I get an immediate feel for how naive or informed they are.
If I’m working with a couple struggling to articulate feelings, or with a couple where one person dominates the conversation and the other grunts or nods, I shift our direction and suggest we play another game. I have some toys that represent real-life things, such as Monopoly money, a plastic telephone, a baby doll. They reach into the bag, pull something out, and state what the item means to them or how they feel about it. One man took out the telephone, threw it across the room, and exclaimed, “I hate the thing. It’s always interrupting my time with people.” The nonverbal communication becomes more animated as well — the way they handle each object, facial responses, glances, and gestures. I’ve been amazed at how these simple toys help couples relax and begin to talk more openly.
I spend the bulk of my time on “practical issues in love and marriage” to prepare couples for the early adjustment stages of marriage. I want them aware of some of the complexities, conflicts, and struggles. I ask each person to pick a section of this topic, and I begin with the one the least-verbal partner selected.
I try to fill these moments with humor and anecdotes, employing hypothetical situations to watch for their responses. I might say, “The basic approach to money in my family, growing up, was to save. We never had much, but out of our meager resources we were disciplined to save something. The problem was, we never knew what we were saving for. The terms ‘rainy day’ and ‘emergency’ were used frequently but never defined. We were glad we weren’t like neighbors across the street who ‘always fought about how they would invest.’ Does this ring any bells with you?”
Another goal of mine is to model openness on topics that have been taboo previously, such as sex, money, or anger.
If they respond strongly to any one point, I concentrate on that area. I draw them out, ask if they would like more information, listen actively, give feedback, point out resources in the church family to help them.
• Affection and sexuality. I spend a lot of time on affection and sexuality. I start by sharing a statement by David Hub-bard that I have found to be true: “Remember, men and women, because of Genesis 3 and the sin in the Garden of Eden, everyone you meet will be confused sexually and have a problem with idolatry.” I point out I fall into that category, as do family members, doctors, parents, and friends. We all struggle to find accurate sexual information. So, where do you find information on sexuality? What is sexual love? What will you do if one of you is more highly sexed than the other? I ask lots of questions and hold back information until I perceive eagerness or receptivity on their part.
I find the affection and caring/intimacy side of sexuality is often neglected and misunderstood. An area of tension even among Christians (perhaps especially among Christians) is the issue of what is one person’s right to know about the other’s sexual past. I don’t try to press my ideas on them. My greatest concern is that they agree about how much candor they can expect from each other.
Another factor increasingly affecting sexuality today is traumatic sexual experiences such as rape or incest. Gently raising that issue and reassuring them that professional help is available may be my greatest contribution to their sexual compatibility. I hope to lead them into a deeper level of communication than they have previously experienced.
A Lutheran friend acts as a priest at this point in his coaching. He receives confession, pronounces absolution, and sets them free for a new direction in life. Sometimes he anoints with oil. Often he cries with them. He is continually amazed at the visible change this effects in couples.
If the couple is new to the church, I ask them to articulate their formative church’s views on marital roles. Role expectations — the meaning of headship and submissiveness, the need for increased emotional support, the level of financial support expected — are being debated fiercely in the Christian community today. I find this a major area where modern marriages are exploding. Who determines the roles? How well are they articulated? What happens if roles change with the coming of children or sickness? I try to be pointedly practical.
• Values. To break the question-answer pattern, I treat the values area more creatively. “Draw your family crest,” I tell them, “selecting symbols that represent what was important to you growing up.” In another exercise, I give them colored cards and ask them to write their values on them, red for nonnegotiable values, yellow for important but modifiable ones, and green for flexible ones. The values deal with such issues as types of occupation, whether and when to have children, and family life.
“I must have passion in marriage,” one woman said, leaning forward with her jaw firm.
“What constitutes passion for you, and what are some things that arouse it and things that kill it?” I responded. “Do you know where that need comes from and why it is so intense?”
When she answered, I asked her fiancé what he heard her say. I then asked, “Are you both willing to commit money, time, and energy to that value?” These understandings or misunderstandings prove crucial to a marriage.
• Religious faith. If they don’t select the religious faith section, I do. I spin life stories of how different religious journeys develop or clash. I encourage them to share their faith adventure with me. This is an area where couples are often vague and mystical. They tend to romanticize. So I press for concreteness: “How often do you expect to go to church?” “Tell me about the last time your fiancée said, ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?’”
• Power and freedom. This is the area in which I have made the most misjudgments. I send couples to a Christian counselor, saying, “The man is a tyrant.” Then I’ll sit in on a session with the couple and the therapist, and he’ll say, “She is in total control. Did you see the way he jumped when she coughed? Did you see him stop talking when she frowned at him?”
I’m not hesitant to admit inadequacy in any section where I’m weak. I’ll give them names of Christian counselors as resources. I can’t do all things for them, and it is wise to tell them that.
• Communication. This is one area in which I try to secure a promise from them. I say, “You promise God in the wedding service that you will love each other. To preserve communication, will you promise each other you will have a weekly business meeting to check out your calendar and emotional well-being? And will you commit to two mini-honeymoons yearly, even if they are only overnight?”
• Nurture. Mutual nurture is my special emphasis. I am amazed at how few people have articulated how they want to be nurtured (even those married ten and twenty years). We tend to nurture a spouse in the way we want to be nurtured. But our approach to nurturing can aggravate the spouse we intend to lovingly support. The wife, who might be nurtured by exercise, may be always buying jogging suits, stationary bicycles, tennis shoes, and racketball equipment for her spouse, who hates athletics and loves his night at home by the fire with a good book. My aim is for couples to respect each other’s nurture needs, even if they don’t understand them.
I know I can’t resolve all these practical issues for a couple, but I can raise their awareness of them. I can open the issues and tell them help is available. Later, if conflicts increase, I hope they won’t be paralyzed and do nothing until the problem reaches a catastrophic level.
I give homework assignments to check a couple’s motivational level. Outside assignments also help information move from their heads to the gut. I assign couples the task of looking up some Bible passages that teach about marriage and writing one sentence about each passage. I intend this launching into the Scriptures in a general way to impress them with the reality that God designed marriage for specific reasons and has exciting things to say about how marriage works best. We’ll talk later about the passages. One of my goals is for them to experience God’s love and presence in their relationship.
The Meaning of Christian Marriage
I shift next to the area of contract and covenant in marriage. I explain how psychologists today argue that every marriage has a contract, perhaps implied if not written out or discussed, and usually both parties perceive the contract differently. I take them through an actual contract of a couple who are friends of mine. Again, I make a game of it, asking them where they think the marriage almost blew apart.
In my experience, this is the most potentially explosive portion of our time together. “I have the right of access to your schedule,” one woman fumed as she and her fiancé formed their contract in front of me.
“No way!” he shouted back. “I go where I want to go and do what I want to do just like during our engagement.”
“Unacceptable,” she replied. “That is not a marriage.” They argued a few more minutes and then jumped up and left my office never to return — and never to marry. I often reflect on how important it was for them to discover that polarization before they made their big step.
I don’t want to leave any couple at the contract stage. The sacred bond of covenant transcends the legal ties of marriage. So we discuss at length God’s commitment to their union and how it symbolizes to a non-Christian world the commitment of God to his people.
Agreeing on the Service
I end my time with a couple by going through the wedding service line by line. I have gathered copies of five different vows, from high church to contemporary. I ask them to select the ones that best express their theology, taste, and feelings. Rarely has a couple said, “No, you choose one, Pastor.”
From the central aspect of the vows, I move backward in the wedding service to explain the questions of intent, the meaning of the Scripture readings and prayers. Then I sit back and watch them do all the work of deciding what they want included in their service, and in what form. Through their interactions I can see how they make decisions.
When they are finished, they have designed their wedding service — within the limits I have set. Couples find it exhilarating. I ask my secretary to type the service, and we deliver several copies to them.
Like any pastor, I have room to improve my premarital ministry to couples. One area I am currently studying is how to better relate couples to the church’s ongoing program of marriage enrichment. But my ministry is working. By the time we reach the wedding event:
— We have built a warm and trusting relationship.
— I have involved them in the process by giving them choices.
— They have articulated their expectations.
— We have studied practical issues, and I have conveyed critical information in important areas.
— They have practiced and strengthened their communication skills.
— I have modeled and they have experienced openness on subjects that might have been taboo previously.
— We have shared the presence of Christ together.
— Study of Scripture and the meaning of covenant has helped them understand the difference between getting married and holy matrimony.
— They have begun to articulate the rules of their relationship.
— Perhaps there has been confession, with forgiveness pronounced and experienced.
— They are aware of where to turn for help in the years ahead.
— The wedding service will express their unique relationship.
Building the best possible marriages remains a lofty goal, but for the health of the home and the church, it is a worthwhile pursuit. And I would find premarital conversations worthwhile if only the first goal were achieved — a warm and trusting relationship established between me and the couple. Just as marriage gives couples a secure environment in which to grow and reach out, the relationship I’ve begun with a couple offers a secure step to a deeper relationship with the church and her Bridegroom.
As pastors we have the best seat in the house; we witness pointblank the tender exchange of a loving couple’s commitment before God, their family, and friends.
R. Kent Hughes
Almost everyone has a “wedding story” to tell, and it’s usually slapstick. From the twenty years I have performed weddings, I have my share.
I’ve seen grooms so wobbly-kneed they had to be propped in a chair to finish the ceremony.
On other occasions, despite my traditional caveat to the wedding party not to lock their legs lest circulation be cut off and someone pass out, that warning seems only to function as a “sure word of prophecy.” At one of those times, a garden wedding, the groom’s brother crashed into the ivy during the prayer and did not wake up until after the kiss. The next week I dramatically warned another wedding party, using my fresh illustration. The result? The bride’s brother passed out, also during the prayer, and actually bounced on the slate floor, again missing the nuptial salute! The best-laid plans …
Another time the groomsmen and ushers were shorted a couple of bow ties by their tuxedo service, which created a comical Laurel-and-Hardy foyer as they frantically exchanged ties as their duties came up.
Weddings, because they are idealized and romanticized, provide ample occasion for such “disasters,” which invariably become fond memories as the years pass. “Remember when Uncle Joe hit the ivy?” “Yeah, it was great!”
Yet for the most part, weddings are wonderfully uneventful, and the pastor’s participation a pleasant remembrance. As pastors we have the best seat in the house; we witness pointblank the tender exchange of a loving couple’s commitment before God, their family, and friends. We see the flushed cheeks, moist eyes, trembling hands, and the nuanced gestures of this most sacred time. It is an immense privilege.
What are the important principles in planning and carrying out this privilege? How do we minimize the follies and maximize the sacredness? The key is to remember — throughout the planning, rehearsal, and the ceremony itself — that the Christian wedding is a worship celebration. As we will see, this has several practical implications.
The Planning Session
Early in the preparation stage, usually about four months before the wedding, I invite the couple to my office to plan the ceremony, urging that both attend, if possible. I normally schedule thirty and no more than forty-five minutes for this time.
With coffee in hand and after we have visited a few minutes and prayed, I briefly outline the theology of Christian marriage. I emphasize that a wedding ceremony is a time of worship, of reverence, because in Christian marriage the man and woman commit themselves to God as well as to each other (Rom. 12:1). I point out that while their human relationship will be showcased in the ceremony, it is not to be a show, for worship cannot be so.
Personally, I’m glad we seem to have passed the period when each wedding had to be a self-conscious production, with colored tuxes, bride and groom singing to each other, and lots of pressure on everyone to perform for the crowd. Lance Morrow, in a 1983 Time essay titled “The Hazards of Homemade Vows,” warns against making the ceremony a display case for unbridled creativity:
“Some couples remain tempted by the opportunity a wedding offers for self-expression. It is a temptation that should be resisted. … If the bride and groom have intimacies to whisper, there are private places for that. A wedding is public business. That is the point of it. The couple are not merely marrying one another. They are, at least in part, submitting themselves to the larger logics of life, to the survival of the community, to life itself.…At the moment of their binding, they should subsume their egos into that larger business within which their small lyricisms become tinny and exhibitionistic.”
Also, while it is nice to have the vows memorized, generally I discourage couples who want to recite them from memory during the ceremony. The stress of the wedding day is enough without this added pressure. I want the couple to relax, to enjoy the event, to worship as effectively as possible.
So I make sure the couple understands these implications of planning the ceremony as a worship service.
But at the same time, I emphasize that worship does not mean the ceremony has to be somber. We’re celebrating a wedding, not a funeral. I remind them that Christ saw weddings as occasions of great joy. In fact he performed his first miracle at a tiny wedding in Cana, changing the water to wine, a symbol of joy. Thus the wedding is worshipful and joyful celebration — and that is what I hope to help them achieve. Here, I always stress how honored I am to participate in such an event.
Next I give them a Wedding Ceremony Planning Sheet (see end of chapter), which outlines a typical ceremony. I explain this is simply a suggested outline — the order is negotiable, as are the contents. If there are other elements they prefer, they will probably be okay, if appropriate for worship.
The planning sheet, I’ve found, has a calming effect on the couple. The typical bride and groom are intimidated by the ceremony. It seems so arcane, so mysterious. The planning sheet immediately puts them at ease and acquaints them with their options as to special music, hymns, and personal innovations. Most couples become visibly relaxed and enthused.
From the pastor’s perspective, it provides a quick, clear explanation. Normally, it takes no more than ten minutes to walk the couple through the planning sheet. I figure this approach has saved me hundreds of hours over the years.
After we discuss the content, I reconfirm the times for the wedding and the rehearsal, double-checking my own calendar and having my secretary do likewise with the church’s master calendar. I then lay out the schedule of events. My rule of thumb is that the sanctuary should be clear forty-five minutes before the ceremony. For example, if a wedding is scheduled for 1 p.m., the schedule would be:
10:45–11:15 a.m.: Party arrives and dresses.
11:15 a.m.–12:15 p.m.: Photographs.
1 p.m.: Ceremony begins.
The rehearsal is normally best held the night before, for the convenience of out-of-town participants. My recommendation is to set it early, about 6 p.m. Because people are notoriously late to rehearsals, I ask them to be there fifteen minutes before we plan to begin. This means the rehearsal dinner can begin at a reasonable time. It also means a busy pastor can get to bed at a reasonable hour — maybe!
I also advise the couple on who should attend the rehearsal: the wedding party (groomsmen, bridesmaids, flower girl, ring bearer, and ushers), both sets of parents, the organist, other musicians, and the vocalists.
When the schedule is agreed upon, I ask the couple to repeat it back to me.
The next item I arrange is the appointment of a wedding coordinator. A wedding coordinator is by no means a big-church luxury; this person is essential if the pastor is to be a good steward of time. Many smaller churches I know have a volunteer wedding coordinator. But if such a position is not possible, it will still be to your advantage to appoint someone to help coordinate the rehearsal and wedding — traditionally an aunt, relative, or some friend experienced with weddings.
This person performs three important functions. First, she advises the bride as to the church’s policies regarding music, the use of candles, photography, the sound system, dressing rooms, and even the cleanup expected. She can be of help in suggesting florists, caterers, dinner sites, and the myriad other details involved in a wedding. Second, she presides at the wedding rehearsal along with the pastor. Third, she coordinates the wedding plans, and thus takes much of the pressure off the bride and wedding party.
Finally, I suggest to the couple that a nice way to spiritually prepare for their wedding is to read the Psalms in reverse order as a countdown to their wedding day. For example, if there are ninety days until the big day, read Psalm 90, then the next day Psalm 89, and so on. My wife and I did this before our wedding, and we enjoyed these poetic expressions of praise. Couples have told me, “It was great to know we were both reading the same things each day.”
The session is concluded with a time of prayer — and a reminder to bring the wedding license to the rehearsal.
Here’s the typical agenda:
Greeting. I invite everyone to the front rows of the church. I introduce myself and briefly share my perspective that weddings are times of reverential worship and joy and that both are my goals for the ceremony. I also give a quick overview of the rehearsal agenda.
Prayer. I lead the wedding party in asking God’s blessing on the service, reaffirming the purpose of the ceremony.
Introductions. I then introduce the wedding coordinator, expressing appreciation for her work and competence. She presides over the remaining introductions.
Instructions. The coordinator reviews several important items. She restates the time of the wedding and the time everyone must be there, and she asks the group to repeat it back to her. She offers reminders for dressing, telling the men, for instance, that when they pick up their tuxedos, they should try on the suit and the shirt to check the fit and should also make sure the tie, cuff links, suspenders, and shoes are included. Groomsmen and bridesmaids are shown their respective dressing rooms after the rehearsal. She gives advice about posture, including the warning about locking the legs and instructions to the men to keep their hands at their sides and smile.
Lastly, the coordinator displays her “Emergency Kit” (a carry-all bag). It contains “everything experience has shown us people forget,” she says with a smile. “What do you think is in here?”
With some good-natured joking, she describes the contents: thread (selection of colors), needles, pins, shirt buttons, thimble, pin cushion, scissors, nail file and emery board, nail polish, hair spray, bobby and hair pins, comb, mirror, talcum powder, tissues, breath mints, aspirin, antacid, small first-aid kit, capsules of ammonia, static cling spray, lint clothes brush, cleaning fluid, pen, pencil, plain envelopes, name tags (“in case you forget who you are!”), all-purpose glue, cellophane tape, masking tape, matches, and tape measure.
Perhaps the real purpose of the Emergency Kit, however, is to assure the nervous couple they are indeed in good hands, and they can relax and enjoy the occasion.
We then walk through the entire ceremony. Afterwards, the bride and groom, the maid of honor, and best man meet with me to sign most of the wedding certificate, leaving only a couple of signatures for the next day.
As pastor, I have always made it my business to be present during those forty-five minutes before the wedding to soothe frazzled nerves and complete the signing of the marriage documents. My role is to be calm and unflappable, to care for the couple, reassuring them everything will go well, and remind them their role is to enjoy this moment.
But even more, I am there to pray separately with the groomsmen and bridesmaids, inviting God’s blessing on the moments to follow, asking that he will preserve in their hearts and minds the sacred ambience of the candlelit sanctuary, the radiant faces of well-wishing family and friends, and the joy of love exchanged in holy commitment.
During the ceremony, my role is to remind the people, by word and bearing, that this is a worship service. I try to guard against talking too fast or saying the familiar words in a perfunctory manner. Wanting this to be a personal experience, I speak directly yet conversationally to the two people in front of me, not to the crowd behind them.
I also make creative use of silence, which we so rarely enjoy these days. For instance, I prefer no music at all when the bride ascends the platform, so everyone can hear the rustle of the dress.
Then the couple repeats solemn vows very similar to those said by their parents and ancestors, thus affirming their solidarity with the past and their fidelity to the high call of God.
I’m sometimes surprised but always delighted by how my attention to a few details during the preparation, rehearsal, and ceremony can release the couple from nervous tension. When I am able to move a couple’s thinking from anxious performance to tender worship, I feel I’ve accomplished my pastoral role.
WEDDING CEREMONY PLANNING SHEET
Time prelude begins: Time candles lighted:
SOLO/SPECIAL MUSIC (optional)
AISLE RUNNER (optional)
PRESENTATION OF BRIDE
WELCOME/CALL TO WORSHIP
Example: We are gathered here to worship God and to witness the marriage vows of ____ and ____ (full names). Let your light so shine before people that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Let us worship God.
Example: ____ and ____, marriage is an honorable estate whose bond and covenant was instituted by God in creation. Our Lord Jesus Christ adorned and beautified this holy estate by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his church. And the Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people. Therefore, no one should enter this state of life unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.
DECLARATION OF INTENT
Example: “____, will you take ____ to be your wife, and will you be faithful to her, love her, honor her, live with her, and cherish her, according to the commandments of God in holy marriage?”
“____, will you take ____ to be your husband, and will you be faithful to him, love him, honor him, live with him, and cherish him, according to the commandments of God in holy marriage?”
HYMN or SPECIAL MUSIC (may go before ascending platform)
Examples: Gen. 2:18–24; Eccles. 4:19–21; Matt. 5:13–16; John 2:1; Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 3:12–17; I John 4:7–12; Song of Songs 8:6, 7.
HOMIL Y (7–10 minutes)
Example: “I, ____, take you ____, to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, and according to God’s holy plan, I give you my love.”
“I, ____, take you, ____, to my wedded husband …” (as above)
“____/____, what token do you give of your love?”
“____, with this ring I thee wed, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Example: Bless, O Lord, these rings to be a symbol of the solemn vows by which this man and this woman have bound themselves to each other in holy matrimony, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.
Example: Forasmuch as ____ and ____ have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this congregation, and in so doing have given and pledged their vows to each other, and have declared the same by the giving and receiving of a ring, I pronounce them man and wife together, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
LIGHTING OF CHRIST OR UNITY CANDLE (optional)
VOWS OF THE CHRISTIAN HOME (optional):
Depending upon God for strength and wisdom, we pledge ourselves to the establishment of a Christian home. Together we will constantly seek God’s will and honor Christ in our marriage.
SOLO OR SPECIAL MUSIC (optional)
1 The complete list is available in Let’s Talk about Your Wedding & Marriage by Bruce Rowlison and George Hinn, available through Green Leaf Press, P. O. Box 6880, Alhambra, California 91802.
Peterson, E. H., & Miller, C. (1987). Vol. 10: Weddings, funerals, & special events. "A Leadership/Word book.". Leadership library. Carol Stream, Ill.; Waco, Tex.: CTI; Word Books; Distributed by Word Books.