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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Another Wedding Question

This week's question comes from "Noobie"...we've all been a noobie at least once in our lives. And we've all faced those pastoral firsts...

I'm about to embark on another of those pastoral "firsts" -- solo counseling/officiating a wedding! In the past I have participated in creating the ceremony, doing a homily, yadda yadda... this is a whole new game.

The couple are non-traditional in that they want to have a church ceremony, but for reasons of apartment leases, where there is a semester/spring break, when family can come, etc, want to do a "civic" wedding and then the "church" wedding in about 6 months. While my friends in Germany do this all the time, it's a little on the unconventional side.

The couple are in the 30s, it's a first marriage for both, are newly returning to spiritual growth and renewal, have steady jobs, are not pregnant, have dated for about a year -- in other words, there's LOTS to see as positive signs for them. On the other hand... I am sure there are questions I should be asking them...

I'm not a big one for laying down the law - i.e. "I won't marry you if you don't co-habit until after the wedding" but I do want to make sure that I counsel them well. How many of us have been in that predicament where the lust is gone and the cold grey morning of "geez you got old and fat" has come.... or face the financial worries of children, illness, car payments, student loans and... well, you know.

So any wisdom, encouragement, warnings, exhortations... I'm all ears.

Thanks from The Noobie

Muthah+, who blogs at Stone of Witness was the only matriarch who responded this week...

Dear Noobie: Thank you for asking this question because weddings have been a pet peeve of mine throughout my ministry. So take what I have to say with a grain of salt--and hopefully some of the sisters can put in their 2 cents worth too.

First of all, a couple who comes to be married in the Church today has made a decision to either side with tradition or has come to some place in their lives in which faith in God means something to them. I ask questions about how they want to ritualize their faith and their lives together. Most couples I married were already living together and some even had already had children. Marriage was the way that they wanted to symbolize to themselves and to the community around them that they were taking their place in society as adult contributors to that society. It was also the way that they were going to symbolize their relationship with God--as a couple. This was not a matter of personal faith--it was a matter of their 'coupled' faith. It was how they were going to face the world as a family and be supported together.

I also talked to them about being their own person in their coupled relationship--that there was no "better half." I talked to them about the importance of having friends outside of their marriage: Guys need to have their hunting buddies, sports buddies, their car talking buddies, and women need their girl friends to make a healthy couple. They also needed to have coupled friends who would support their lives together. And when children came, they would need parent friends as well as family to help them raise their children.

But most of all they needed to find some kind of spiritual life to practice throughout their lives together. I often asked them to discuss with each other (not necessarily with me) what would feel like betrayal if the other did it. It helps them deepen their understanding of what they fear the most and draws those fears out into the open. I always asked how they ritualized such things as Christmas, Easter, birthdays, special occasions in their families and got them to discuss what kinds of rituals would they want to cling to and what would they jettison in their lives together. What would they need to cling to for their families' sakes and how they could support one another in the face of family difficulties. These are often issues that new couples have not yet had to face.

I have only once refused to marry someone and it was a young member of my parish who was jumping into a relationship after her father had died suddenly. She married a few years later to a different person and was very happy that I had refused to do that initial marriage. While it is up to me to agree or refuse to marry someone, I think that we do more damage to couples who come to the Church --even ones who have little experience of the Church, by denying because they have not fulfilled certain criteria. I do require, if possible, that the couple be in attendance in the months before the wedding. It gives them a chance to at least to know what the Church is about.

Okay, sisters and brothers...use the Post a Comment function to add your 2 cents...And now's a great time to submit a question for the matriarchs' consideration - there are only 2 questions in the queue.

May you live in God's amazing grace+



  1. I think Muthuh+'s response is excellent. Here are some things I like to do as well.

    I like to talk about fighting. How did their parents fight? Was there yelling? Stony silence? Slammed doors? The modeling we have for dealing with conflict usually makes an impression on us, whether we're living it out or rejecting it or in some other way reacting. I talk about the issue of whether one person is the "pursuer" and one is the "flee-er"? These can be clues as to whether one or the other has learned emotional "cut-off" or "fusion"-- both potentially destructive emotional responses.

    I also ask the couple to go online to take the Myers-Briggs personality inventory. I stress that I have not been trained to do this, but that I can help them explore their results and point them to a counselor who is experienced with it. It can often be a fun way to get some issues out in the open.

    Finally, a colleague recently shared with me that he always pulls out the wedding worship service, and goes over the "Statement on the Gift of Marriage" that can be found there (PCUSA). It's a wonderful entree into the theology of marriage, what it means, and why someone would want to formalize it in the context of a worship service.

    Blessings upon your ministry!

  2. Oh! Forgot this, but I think it's pretty important. We always talk about money. I remind them that it's always high on the list of reasons marriages flounder. I gently probe the ways in which they are already financial partners, and how they envision that unfolding as they go forward. I don't have one way I think is best, but I do think it critical that they do whatever they do with deliberation.

  3. I can only echo what my brilliant sisters have already said.

    I used one of the relationship inventory instruments out there (multiple choice questionnaire) which provided a quick and dirty way to see what some areas were that might need further exploration in our counseling. Some people think they are a drag, but I found them really helpful. Check with your denominational publishing house, if there is one, to find one that works with your tradition and setting.

    I suggested the couple schedule special plans at a nice restaurant (or whatever fits their budget) to talk about what we discover from those instruments, as a way of celebrating having to sit alone in a room and fill in little circles! :)

    And, as an aside, I grew up in a tradition where the preacher would not marry couples that "live in sin", unless the bride was pregnant. I am not kidding. That never, ever made sense to me. If I believed a couple was "living in sin", why would I encourage them to continue by refusing to make the relationship a legal one?

  4. We see weddings as opportunities for gentle evangelism and for developing relationships between pastors and couples and the church. While there are certainly boundaries, marriage isn't a sacrament in our protestant tradition so we feel we have wiggle room.

    Hubby and I have been trained in and use "Prepare-Enrich"...which is an inventory couples can take online which shows us quickly the areas where there is agreement and areas that could use more conversation. It is a wonderful springboard for all kinds of conversations, and includes exercises if you choose to use them.

    While we want to carefully discharge our duties as clergy, ultimately it is the couple who will be taking their vows before God and the assembly.

  5. Following on Magdalene6127's sage advice to talk about fighting, here's an interesting article about one pastor's premarital counseling technique: he has the couple stage a fight in his presence and gives them feedback.

  6. I always have told couples who I do premarital counseling with that I'm not there to give them the answers, I'm there to help them ask the right questions. I start off with an inventory that they do separately, score that, and then bring up areas where they scored differently, and does that surprise them, have they talked about those differences, etc...

  7. I meant to respond but did not get my reply emailed back in time. So, here is what I offer:

    In my denomination, because we are wrestling with partnered gays and lesbians who live together but cannot marry, some of us see the premarital co-habitation issue as a social justice dilemma. What this means, in essence, is that I am not required to impose judgment on those who are living together before marriage since there is an inequality in the right to marriage.

    But that is not what you are asking here.

    As a priest I really enjoy the pre-marital counseling process. I require each couple to join me in 5-7 sessions. We use the book The Marriage Journey as our guide. I ask the couple to purchase one or two copies before our first session. Our first session is a simple introduction to the process we will undertake. We look through the book, tour the church, set the date, talk about the order of our sessions, and the review what is required by the Episcopal Church for a wedding. These include using the marriage vows in the Book of Common Prayer, and may include submitting copies of divorce decrees to the Bishop if there has been a divorce. I also review any requirements of the church such as rehearsal, dressing rooms, reception space. Then I give the couple an assignment for our next session: they are to create a collage that represents their vision of their marriage. The collage can be made using any material they wish – cut out images from magazines or downloaded off the internet, drawings, paintings, writings, photographs. It’s their design and their creation. It can be any size.

    At the second session we review the collage: what images did they choose and why? Who did what parts in creating the collage? Who made decisions for what? What is their overall vision of their marriage? And so on...other questions arise. I tape the collage up on a wall or a door and we talk about it. A lively discussion always ensues. I learn a lot about the couple from this and they learn a lot about each other.

    Our third-sixth sessions involve reading and discussing portions of the book such as “Fair Fighting” and “Finances” and “In-Laws or Blended families” and any other issues that relevant. I also use some tools I acquired on communication styles – it’s helpful if they spend time discussing how each other communicates and how they deal with arguments. The book has good discussion questions and prompts for this as well as norms for healthy guides.

    The seventh session we plan the specifics of the wedding around the guidelines previously set. Then we have a rehearsal the night before. I always ask the couple to bring the marriage license to me at the rehearsal and I keep it in my desk at the church.

    In terms of keeping a marriage fresh I talk about my own marriage journey and, without revealing too much, I share that love changes over time. There is something to be said for the depth of love that grows over a long marriage even if the passion is not what it was in the early stages. I also talk about what constitutes unhealthy behavior in a marriage – that each partner is charged with helping the other partner grow into the fullest person they can be. Marriage is not about controlling the other and abusive behavior is never acceptable in marriage.

    Blessings on you as you prepare this couple for their lives together.


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