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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Conducting Non-Member Weddings Edition

This isn't the first ATM column to deal with weddings or even non-member weddings, but it is distinctive, I think, in that our question invites us to think about how we conduct them. We know about all the studies that characterize young adults as spiritual, but not necessarily church-going. Weddings bring these persons to our churches, if only for the event. How can we minister with faith, grace, and integrity to couples who come to get married?

My question has to do with ministering faithfully with premarital couples. There are logical arguments both for and against doing "non-member" (or "stranger") weddings -- and I think a church's or pastor's policy has at least as much to do with context than anything. My question isn't to-do-or-not-to-do non-member weddings, but rather, HOW to do them.

I currently have very few "member" weddings, so for now am reluctantly willing to do weddings for strangers. Like most of my colleagues, I make it clear up front that "the wedding" isn't the whole deal, and that working on preparing for the marriage is part of my agenda -- whether thru a questionaire or a workshop or something else -- and I rarely get resistance to that.

But I struggle with a third aspect of pre-marital work -- Christian witness. When I marry somebody with a church connection, I urge them to be involved in the church community (which they rarely take me up on!). For all couples, I make it clear that this wedding in a church presided over by a Christian pastor is a Christian worship service, and they nod their heads agreeably, mostly not having any idea what that means. [In my mind, it means the liturgy and music and preacher preach Christ, that the focus is the love of God within the context of their love...]

For couples unconnected to the church, I have no illusion that this is an evangelism opportunity which will bear fruit for the couple and our congregation in the short term. It IS, however, an evangelism opportunity -- a connection w/ folks whose paths wouldn't normally cross with a church's or a pastor's -- and really, if I talk about the wedding being a Christian worship service, ought we not somehow explore together what "Christian" means? And how does one do a crash course in Christian faith and practices amidst the agenda of preparing for this marriage?

The couples I'm currently working with have between them NO -- absolutely none -- religious background, and no interest in religious stuff. None of them have been baptized. They have come for a wedding in a nice indoor setting (or in a church because that's what you're supposed to do), and are interested in investing in the marriage, but have no interest, curiosity, or perceived need for Jesus or his community in their life. They say their lives are too busy to attend church -- but really, given their background, why in the world would they even consider being part of a church? I feel like it's a copout to not somehow do some faith teaching or invite them to some faith reflecting -- but I don't even know the language or touchpoints to use for folks who are so disinterested.

So, gals and pals, how do you define "ministering faithfully with premarital couples"? Especially with "non-members," or people who are so unconnected to church and life of faith? (Indeed, even most of the grew-up-in-the-church couples are unconnected to church and a life of faith!) What practices or policies do you have that seem to be helpful and/or effective? What do you give to them and/or expect from them that takes you beyond just being used as another hired hand (along with the caterer and DJ) for this production called a wedding?

Jennifer, who blogs at An Orientation of Heart was the first to "chime in"...

I think you’ve framed the issue very nicely. It’s appropriate for you to share out of your own tradition, plant seeds, and water, water, water!

Being a genuine and authentic Christian presence in the lives of those who are preparing for marriage may have an impact long after the time you’ve signed their marriage license. Conversation with the couple is about the most transparent way I can think of to raise the issue of faith and faith development. I do not know of any books that tackle this subject…perhaps some others do.

Ruth, who blogs at Sunday’s Coming adds:

I nearly didn’t respond to this because I feel like I don’t have it sorted out myself, but for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts & experiences. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, it’s just some ideas.

With ‘non-church-folk’ weddings, I try to take some time to talk to the couple about the Bible reading and hymns they have chosen (and as it’s a church wedding I insist on at least one fo each) : sometimes this can reveal some idea of what they think they believe. Sometimes it’s a hymn they dimly remember from school or something their granny has chosen.

I also try to give them an idea of what my address (5 minutes – max!) will be saying and try to engage them in a bit of discussion about that.

Yes, I invite them to come to church and point out that if they come it will help them feel more at home ‘on the day’.

I also try in my dealings with them & with the family at the rehearsal to model my faith – I try to be interested in them and to help them in any way I can, and to be clear that to me marriage is bound up in the love God places at the heart of creation.

On the day itself I try to be friendly & ‘human’ in the way I lead the service, but I make sure that (in my 5 minutes) I preach the gospel to anyone there who is minded to listen.

The rest I leave to the mercy of God and hope that at the very least (as someone said to me once after a service) ‘that wasn’t nearly as boring as I thought it was going to be’. You’ve got to laugh! And pray. And cope with the ache inside when you feel that as the couple walk down the aisle at the end of the service it’s as if you never really spoke at all.

Time for you to enter into the conversation, by using the Post a Comment feature. Do you have some experience in this realm of ministry? Some strong feelings, or hopes, or disappointments? Share them with us.

May you live in God's amazing grace+

rev honey


  1. One of my friends has a charge for officiating at weddings, but waives it if the couple will come to church three times before the service. She also will not marry couples who have not gone through some kind of premarital counseling (doesn't have to be with her, but it needs to be at least 8 hours). If they balk at the counseling, she tells them that they will spend more time picking out a car than getting to know their partner, and there's something wrong with that. I like her logic...

  2. I don't do weddings for people who have no interest in the church and just want a pretty place to get married. They don't have to be members but they do have to have some understanding of why they are having a Christian minister marry them in a Christian church. I got too much else to do than to play dress up with people that are not interested.

    And I make non-members pay me well. The church and me. Some people treat the church as a cheap venue. You start charging as much as anyone else and non-member non christian couples lose interest pretty quickly.

  3. My feelings about non-member weddings changed throughout my first call. When I first arrived, I was getting 3 or 4 calls a week requesting weddings, because my predecessor earned a big chunk of his income as a free-lance "marrying parson" and he offered the very pretty little church building free to everybody, without really getting an okay from the leadership of the congregation. So word was out that the pastor of So-and-So church would do it for very cheap.

    So...when I came in with a very different theology of church and marriage, the leadership and I had to iron out some differences and write a policy.

    I refused to do "secular" weddings in the church, referring couples instead to the J.P I knew.

    But--a few of the non-member but Christian weddings I did were probably among my happiest and most fulfilling acts of ministry in a very challenging setting, while the "child or grandchild of the church" weddings were really involving some of the most entitled people I ever met!

    I think I will approach my next ministry setting with eyes much wider open.

  4. Joelle
    I do appreciate what you are saying. I would never leave out the "God part" of a ceremony. The couple that cracked up my friend was a couple who told her she couldn't say Jesus "because we're Jewish"... and she said - "then go find a rabbi..." I need to get her blogging - she would be a great addition to the RevGals!

  5. I love this question framed this way. I'm tired of the "do it or not" wedding debate. So maybe this will help you? My father-in-law had been retired from ministry for almost 15 years when he ended up helping out at a congregation for a while. He felt a little "out of shape" with pre-marital counseling, so he set up a mentoring group for a couple getting married. He met with the young couple, a middle-aged couple, and an older couple (the second two were from the church) to talk about faith and marriage. It did two great things: first, the young couple got to know two other families in teh congregation, just in case they did want to come to church there. Second, it let lay people do some of the witnessing about why faith mattered in their lives and specifcally their marriage.

  6. I have a beautiful little mountain church, the only one in town, so I get a lot of requests. I used to be much more strict, but I've slowly come to believe that the couple are going to get married regardless, and my contribution can be to bring God (or, more accurately, an awareness of God) to the party. So far, none of those couples have become regular churchgoers, but I do see most of them more often than I did before we welcomed them into the sanctuary for their wedding.

    P.S. We're having a blizzard. Does anyone from a warmer climate want to do a brief job swap? I love snow in late September; in late April, I begin to understand how cabin fever prompts people to pick up axes and do really bad things.

  7. One of the things that my pastor did at our wedding was stress that she was there for us not just for the wedding but also for the marriage. She said she would follow up with us in a year (just something simple like a card checking in/celebrating the anniversary) and also that she (and/or the church) was there for us throughout the marriage. She was doing this as my pastor who I had a close relationship with already - but I got the impression that was a standard part of what she did for all couples that she married.

  8. One of the features of the Ch of England being the "established church" means that I have the obligation to marry anyone who lives in the parish, whether or not they attend worship at other times...This means that, with a mostly older congregation, ALL the weddings I perform are for non church couples...BUT there is also no discssion about what form the service will take. If they opt for a wedding with an Anglican priest in an Anglican church, they get an Anglican liturgy...That can be very helpful, as it includes some good things, but there are definitely things I would change if I could.
    Because it's all there in the prayers, I tend to sit light to preaching the gospel in the address, tho of course it's there. My hope is that by being welcoming & positive I will convey something of God's constant welcome to them, and at least suggest to them that His love is the resource to draw on when things get tough along the way.


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