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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Ask the Matriarch: I do, I don't

Junior Pastor asks for help on questions of weddings and blessings and her role and ability to choose whether or not to do the ceremony.

You may have answered this before... but I am in a dilemma.

I work at a very young church (as in young in age group, median age of 33). We have a spate of weddings coming up this summer. I am supposed to take a turn at them, which is fine. BUT... I am uncomfortable with one of the couples I have been talking to. (They were "assigned" to me.)

He has mental health issues (as in unstable bipolar disease)
She has a family who is prejudiced against him because of his race. (Note - he is Caucasian!)

In talking with them, they are at odds on many things, not the least of which is how they will live in this area... he has not been able to keep a job. She has steady employment... This is his first marriage. This is her second. He is a "you will submit" kinda guy and she is a "puh-leease!" woman. I ask them why they want to get married. She says "he has a good heart." He says "she is so beautiful." She has a child who is 8.

They decided to go do a courthouse wedding on Valentine's Day because they are in LoooooVE, and want a "real" wedding next summer. I am not comfortable with officiating it. My boss - the senior pastor - says I am being a stick-in-the-mud.

SO... here's my question...
How do you do premarital counseling?
Do you ever decide after completing premarital counseling not to marry a couple?
If you are a "junior" pastor, do you have a say? Or do I just say "yes boss" and collect my check?
The ethics of this bother me...

thanks for any help

Befuddled "Junior" Pastor

From Matriarch Jan:
I do the Prepare Inventory which pretty much spells out "strengths" and "growth areas." And while they would not be able to keep the results (meaning the paper report), you could show it to them - assuming those results show the same concerns you've picked up - and then simply ask questions. Lots of questions. One of the categories that Prepare breaks down is "Realistic Expectations." Sounds like this couple doesn't have many of these.

Nobody can make you officiate at this wedding. Possible comments you could make to them:
- I don't feel comfortable officiating at your wedding until you resolve some of your conflicts.

- You deserve a strong marriage and that doesn't happen without steadfast commitment. What are you willing to do to make this marriage work? Give up the "obedience" piece? Get help for your bipolar disorder? Confront your family about their concerns?

- And my favorite: It's better to be alone than to wish you were.

Stick to your guns, Pastor.

Another matriarch, Jacque writes:
I really do feel for our sister in the wedding dilemma. Many years ago I was in the position of an Associate in a very large congregation. There were many weddings -- some church members and some non-member requests. The Associate Pastors 'got' the weddings for folks who were not members or those the Sr. Pastor could not do for some other reason. In that setting, we were expected to do the weddings unless there was a fairly significant reason not to. Some of that had to do with the fact that this particular huge beautiful gothic edifice was in high demand for those who church shopped for wedding space. ("I've always wanted to get married in that church!" (even though I don't worship at that church or any church and don't intend to)) The leaders of the congregation wanted the church to have that reputation and role in the community, and the Sr. Pastor seemed to feel it was important to maintain. The financial benefits to the church also played a part.

If our sister is in that kind of situation, her objection to doing the wedding may fall with a thud. If, on the other hand, the Sr. Pastor is concerned with the integrity of the weddings performed there and/or the right of the Associate to follow her own conscience, then there may be more understanding.

Over the last 23 years of solo pastorates, I have required a minimum of 4 sessions of premarital counseling. I am always clear with couples that I will not make a commitment to officiate their wedding until I have met with them in counseling and we mutually conclude that I feel it's appropriate for me to do their wedding AND they feel comfortable with me.

I have only twice told a couple I could not do their wedding. I talked with them very honestly about my concerns for their relationship. I expresssed my care for them and my desire that they both be in a healthy relationship.

There are those who say, "Well, they're going to get married, so I might as well perform the wedding. Maybe I can do some good in relationship with them." If I truly believed that I could make a difference -- that our time together WAS making a difference -- I would do the wedding. However, I take my ministerial role in the covenant of marriage seriously enough to say "No" when I am not the appropriate person to officiate someone's wedding.

I think this is most difficult when the couple is in the church. Whereas church members, or other ministry staff, may understand when we draw a line with non-church folk; it is not so easy with beloved church members. I had a couple this past summer, who completely blew off their premarital counseling -- canceled sessions, came to sessions unprepared, "lost" the forms they were to complete together and individually for our discussion, etc. They had no intention of discussing anything significant with me. I was disgusted and wished I could have stopped it or gotten out of it. On the other hand, the brides mother was Chair of the Elders, and a 'rock of the church' member. The bride was 'loved by everybody'. I did the wedding.

Well, I've rambled on ... maybe I'm still seeking answers to this one too!

earthchick offers this wisdom:
I can certainly understand your discomfort with the situation, especially since you don't seem to have much choice in how the "assignments" of weddings are doled out. You may need to clarify with your senior pastor whether or not you have any right of refusal for any grounds.

I have done weddings that I haven't felt all that comfortable about and will likely continue to do so. I have never refused to marry a couple, and would probably only refuse to if I suspected abuse. Otherwise, my feeling is that I am not really in a position to decide who is capable of creating and sustaining a healthy marriage. I see my role as simply doing what little I can to help them find the tools for nurturing health in their relationship. In premarital counseling, I focus on communication issues and on helping them identify sources of potential difficulties/conflicts in their relationship. We talk about how they currently handle such conflicts and what they each need in order to move forward in healthy ways. I only do 3 sessions with couples, and a good bit of that is focused on planning the ceremony, so I don't really see myself as a couples counselor. If I feel they need more help than I can give, I refer them out to a professional counselor or to a local premarital counseling group.

In your position, I would be asking myself what I would be accomplishing by refusing to officiate, especially since they will already have had a legal ceremony. They are not likely to reconsider their commitment simply because a minister doesn't think they're fit. They may, however, end up with less inclination to attend a church after their wedding. My own conscience might feel better because I refused to officiate - but what good would I really have accomplished?

It seems to me what you are being asked to do is a "blessing" of the relationship not a wedding. In the Episcopal Church, anyway, if the couple is already married at the courthouse, the clergyperson performs the blessing of a civil marriage. They will already be married so your role would be quite different. Maybe your denomination has rituals that meet this need. You might want to discuss this with them and see what it is that they are really asking of you. It seems to me that praying over a couple that is already married and asking God's blessing on their relationship is very different from being the one who declares it to be a marriage. In any event no one should be required to do a ceremony against one's conscience, so as others have said, stick to your principles. You are not for sale in this situation. As for counseling, I used an inventory of about 100 questions that each fills out separately. Questions range from having children, handling finances, drug and alcohol use, feelings about each other parents and their parents relationship or lack thereof, to what the couple does together and how they feel about pursuing activities separately. I then look for disconnects and ask them how they will resolve these areas. Often they come to their own conclusions. In this case, maybe by next summer and being married for 3 months before the blessing ceremony, they will have sorted it out one way or another.

What do you say from your experience with these dilemmas?


  1. I agree with whoever said, "Ugh."

    Most of the Lutheran pastors in our neck of the woods have decided that we'd love to take weddings out of the church altogether! Since it's not a sacrament and most couples' motivation to being married in a church seems to be family approval and/or it's a convenient and pretty place to hold a wedding, it's hard to have enthusiasm!

    Like someone else said, I require at least four sessions of pre-marital counseling. I was counseling with one couple and some things were said that raised significant concerns about the health of their relationship and the viability of a strong marriage. I ended up naming my concerns with the couple, encouraging them to seek professional counseling before marriage, and agreeing to meet with them about planning a wedding after they had done so.

    Of course, they became angry with me. They were, after all, "in love."

    I later learned that they ended up getting married...on their orignally planned another church (different denomionation) in town.

    The couple left my congregation, where the bride (though not active) had relationships and friendships and was always welcomed with warmth and love. They've never gotten involved with the congregation where they chose to hold their wedding.

    What did I learn? A couple's going to get married, no matter what! Since that case, I've decided that, although I would recommend counseling if I thought it necessary, I wouldn't refuse the wedding. Instead, I've become a fan of connecting long-married couples in healthy relationships with engaged couples in hopes of providing a support network outside of their families of origin, whose natural inclination in conflict would be to side with their own member.

    I'm hoping that, by encouraging these kinds of relationships, couples will become involved in the Church....thus giving the Christian community a chance to watch them grow as a couple. It also provides the engaged couple a chance to see Christ-like love modeled in the face of human sin....which, no matter who you are, eventually makes itself known in marriage.

    Does it work? I don't know. But I'm hopeful.

    Gee, this is long...maybe I should have posted it on my own blog! Wife, Mother, Pastor is my spot!

  2. I am intrigued by the problem of the fact that they're already married. I recently got a request like this too--a couple who has already been married in a courthouse civil ceremony, but NEXT FALL wants to have a church wedding...and their families don't know they're already married, so they want a pastor who will pretend that they are getting married for the first time. I had to refuse, on both ethical and legal grounds. I suggested the do a blessing or a renewal of vows...haven't heard yet if they're willing to break the news to their families or not.

    I have refused to do a member's wedding, again on ethical grounds and because of concerns that the couple required more counseling. I referred them to a pastoral counselor/therapist who is a pastor in another church in town. They obviously did not tell him their whole story because he agreed to do their wedding (or have one of the other pastors at the church do it) after only 2 sessions....and I know him well enough to know he would NOT have done that if they'd been honest with him. So I guess all of that to second the whole business about how "they're going to get married anyway!" But my own integrity just would NOT allow me to do either of these ceremonies. I think not breaching your personal and pastoral integrity in these situations is really important. That will stick with you a long time, maybe longer than the marriage will last sometimes.

  3. Ugh indeed.

    I am a new pastor on the block as well and recently someone encouraged me in a difficult decision I had to make. So, I'll pass along their pearl of wisdom in case it can help you as well:

    YOU are the person who is called to minister in this capacity in this congregation. Being YOU includes your intuition, your instinct, your gut, your experience. YOU have been called (by your church but ultimately by your God) to make this decision, whether this couple/church/pastor like the conclusion you've come to or not. Trust the call of God.

  4. This is one of the reasons that I'm not so cool with the "clergy as agents of the state" thing. Couples who clearly should be thinking much harder about the marriage than the wedding give me high blood pressure.

    Although in this case, you are not being asked to be an agent of the state. You cannot legally marry them, only bless their already existing marriage, which hopefully will have had some of the early bumps worked through if they go ahead with the V-Day wedding. (Ugh...)

    Is there a relationship out there that could not use some extra blessing? I think not. If the bride is hell-bent on turning the blessing into a dog and pony show there is nothing you can do about it. Sigh....

  5. is a sacrament. At least it's a "mysterion" I have done some weddings with my fingers crossed, I admit. (We are cursed with a Bee-You-Ti-Ful Old Church, also) But as I do more weddings I lay heavier and heavier stress on the sacramental function of marriage in the world as a making manifest one of the great mysteries of God...and sometimes you can see that the idea "takes hold" of a couple who were about to settle for the "lowest common understanding" of what they are about.
    There have been times when I've said no, and advised one or other partner or both NOT to marry at all until they had done serious work -- mostly when there had been a very recent divorce, and the new marriage was clearly just another blow in an old and ongoing fight.

  6. I would tell Senior Pastor that better to be "stick in m,ud" than to go agansit your ethics and be caught in dilema.
    Also, ask why he isn't willing to do the wedding.
    I would like to pop him one (and i am a passivest!).
    Couple should have some goals or common groudn to work with before they actually are married.
    Their reasons alone are nto good enough.
    They why you want to get married is the best thing to ask.

  7. I just read terri's post and am amazed, my first "wedding" was the same thing. They wanted me to act as if it were a wedding, but we c ompromised, it was very much dog and pony show (Thanks Cheese, preciesly!) and so it played out like a wedding, but I would not pronounce them or say marriage.
    We reaffirmed their vows (which is doen usually after a peiod of long er marriage, but worked jsut the same).
    Amazing for me was fact taht they did not m,ind family knowign they lived together, but did not want them to knwo they were already married.
    dang, people are weird!

  8. I'll agree with the general sense of "Ugh" that I'm seeing here. We are unpaid agents of the province when we perform marriages in our denomination. We need the permission of our Board or Council, but they basically go along with whatever I feel re: yay or nay to the wedding. So really - all of that extra work is for the Province.

    I have not said no to a ceremony on the grounds of anything but holiday time (my own, which I will not compromise just because that was the date they could get the hall - I'm such a b*tch)

    On the other hand, I also haven't had any really "difficult" situations either. One couple asked if I would move the cross and bible off the communion table because they wanted flowers there. I gave them "the look" and said no, and they backed away slowly. Funny, they never referred to it again. :)

    Our church building is not one that draws the "looking for good video" people. Most of our weddings are folks from our own congregation.

  9. I don't enforce any counseling and in almost all cases don't feel qualified to judge a couple's discernment of whether they are called and ready to covenant in marriage.

    The one time I refused to officiate was when a couple scheduled a date, then she cancelled--and the man told me what a relief it was because he had been marrying her largely out of a sense of obligation and concern about her immigration status and finances. When she wanted to reschedule, he still felt obligated to go through with it but I couldn't in good conscience given what he had told me. He understood my position, even insisting I keep their deposit for my time and trouble, and I never heard back whether they found another officiant or cancelled it again.

  10. Nobody tells you in seminary how many times you will sell your soul in ministry.

    Especially at weddings.

    That said, I've done three weddings that I really, really wish I had had the guts not to do. I regret doing them. One of the couples is already divorced. Two of them I felt I simply could not refuse because of their deep connections in the congregation. My hope was that I could maintain relationships with them and be around if and when things fell apart (in the divorce case, this turned out to be true; the bride came to me when her husband left, and I doubt she would have done that if I had refused to do the wedding).

    Sometimes you just have to suck it up and trust that God is working here, even when you can't see it.

    But I do think a conversation with the Senior Pastor is in order. Your ethical dilemma should not be dismissed as "stick in the mud."

  11. Oops! One more thing. As if my first response wasn't long enough...

    There is a child in the equation here, so this is not just about two lovesick adults making a possibly dumb decision. The presence of that child, in my mind, adds another layer of responsibility, and I think makes it even more valid for you to have objections.

    Okay, that's it. I promise.

  12. I have too wondered when ministers became agents of the state. Wouldn't it be sweet to be able to have the people come to be 'married' in the church because it was a blessing and not because it was a legal necessity. (ok you can go to the courthouse but most folks think it has to be church. Then the work of clergy would be to find ways to make the vows and the prayers and all of it not something to be endured but rather something that brings a couple into their new life together.
    just thinking

  13. Ugh, indeed! I think your instincts are spot on. Trust what God is saying to you.

    I hate the term "Senior" pastor. I really do. And there is certainly nothing "junior" about your calling, your education, your ordination and your ministry. *stepping off soapbox*

  14. In the Episcopal Church the couple has to have counseling before marrying and if it is a second marriage for both or either they have to wait a year and write a response to questions on what they learned from the previous ended relationship. Then the bishop signs off on the recommendation of the clergy. So it is possible to get help outside one's own church.


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