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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - When the Pastor Becomes the Bride

I'm seeking some wisdom on where my personal sense of integrity as a pastor and person of faith meets my future mother-in-law's expectation of what a wedding and reception entails in order to "do it right."

I'm 30, the oldest of two girls in my family and the first to be married. My husband-to-be is 30, the middle of 3 boys, and the last to be married. He has Cerebral Palsy so his mother has learned to over-function for him as a result of his disability.

My hopes and dreams for the ideal wedding and reception: Spend no more than $2,000 on a big church wedding inviting people from my home church and church I serve now (they're about an hour apart and the ceremony will be at my home church) in addition to family and friends. That means possibly 400 people in worship followed by cake and punch for an hour in the fellowship hall. Then, take the family and out of town guests out to dinner, spending $4,290 for 100 people to eat. That is a lot of money, but $42.90 per person (excluding alcohol, but including tax and tip) for a nice meal doesn't seem outrageous to me.

Future Mother-in-law's ideal wedding reception: Spend $14,000 at the local hotel for dinner, dancing, bar and DJ for 100 guests ($140 per person).

Future Husband's ideal: Good food, a beer with his brothers, and dance the night away - plus a happy wife and a happy mother.

You can imagine the great joy that comes from being a student of family systems and trying to be an observer in all of the ensuing drama from our conflicting ideals :) Our pre-marital counseling continues to be money well invested (we started before even telling our respective parents the news...) and we're becoming more comfortable in our changing roles in our families and what that means.

My questions for you ladies of wisdom:

1. How far do I let this shin-dig go from my ideals which I consider to be based upon my economic discipleship? Part of the compromises suggested include me just shutting my eyes to some of the expenses (e.g. the open bar) - I'm having such a hard time letting that go without losing my sense of integrity! (The open bar is also a sore subject for me since I'm a Methodist Minister and would really prefer to have a dry wedding...but it is important to my future husband to have a drink with his brothers so I'm fine with serving beer and wine, but why does it need to be an open bar?). I keep telling couples they don't need to wait 5 years to get married because they can't "afford to" get married because I insist that you don't have to spend buckets of money to get married. And then I go and spend buckets of money to get married? I feel like a hypocrite!

2. I once got stuck out of town because I went to a Saturday morning wedding and my flight back that evening got canceled so I couldn't preach the next day as planned! I insist on not putting my other clergy friends in the same situation and want a Friday wedding. We looked for a Friday holiday (so non-clergy wouldn't have to take off work) and landed on Veteran's Day. A holiday widely observed where I live (the D.C. metro area) but not universally so it isn't the perfect Friday holiday...and it also happens to be 11.11.11. That special date means prices have been jacked up at the hotel my FMIL likes - but not at the places I like because they were simple restaurants to begin with, so I'm getting some resentment from her part on the date we selected together. She suggested a Saturday morning wedding and doesn't understand my insistence on Friday (the concept of a "preacher's wedding" doesn't make sense to this family). I'm tempted to give-in and have the wedding on Saturday morning - as long as all of the out of town clergy can come to dinner on Friday in lieu of staying for a reception that might make them miss a flight. What do my fellow clergywomen think? Stick to my Friday preference out of principle? Or, poll my out of town clergy friends to see if it even matters to them?

Thanks so much for any words of wisdom you may have to offer!!

P.S. A final point of contention that my FMIL hates: I insist on an open invitation to the church I serve followed by cake, punch and coffee in the fellowship hall for at least an hour. I worship with these people week in and week out so I want them there for the WORSHIP service when I get married...but she doesn't understand this and keeps suggesting we not invite them and just have a reception at the church following our honeymoon. I don't care about the reception part of it, I care about the worship part of it! sigh.

Mompriest, who blogs at Seeking Authentic Voice writes:

A viable compromise might be: I wonder if your mother in law would be content if she could host a rehearsal dinner, traditionally the gift of the groom’s family? She could plan that dinner anyway she likes and invite whomever she wants. Then you can have the wedding on the day you like with a simple reception afterward. Then if you still want to take family and close friends out for lunch or a simple dinner you could.

OR she could plan a big post wedding brunch for those who are still in town the morning after the wedding. All of her friends and your out of town guests could come.

An open wedding ceremony that includes the congregation is totally appropriate, whether or not your MIL understand this. Your congregation is part of the community that will support you in your marriage. I once attended a wedding that took place on a Sunday morning in the midst of the regular Sunday worship, just like we add a baptism to the service, this couple added wedding vows. It was awesome! And was a powerful acknowledgment to the congregation that they were significant in the lives of these parishioners. (It was a second marriage for each and they met at church). I also attended a wedding on a Sat. of congregation members/friends for which I was not invited to the formal reception but for which we had cake and beverages at the church afterward. It too was lovely and a good reminder that weddings are public events that celebrate the covenant being made between the couple.

Ultimately it is your wedding and should reflect your integrity and desires, even as you try to respect some of the wishes of your future mother in law. I think it’s great that you want to honor your MIL’s desires – I hope she is able to (mostly) fulfill her expectations in a way that doesn’t compromise yours – perhaps by taking over the plans for the rehearsal dinner or a morning after brunch.

From Muthah+, who blogs at Stone of Witness:
I read your letter a couple of times. I have never married so I have no experience of in-laws, but having celebrated many weddings, I offer a few comments: I believe it is traditional for the bride and her family with the clergy to design the wedding. I applaud and support your desire to have a simple celebration.

I also support your desire to involve your congregation because they do become your family and it helps them invest in your relationship with your husband. Perhaps his family can see the community of faith that will support your marriage and their son. And even though I am a ‘whiskey-palian’, I support your wine and beer limitation at the reception.

I am wondering if your fiancĂ© can speak to his mother. It is something he needs to do for the future of your relationship anyway. I know it is hard for a boy to buck his mother, especially when the relationship is as it is. But if he can take his mother in hand it might confirm your relationship together rather than set ‘enmity between mother and daughter-in-law.’

But it might help if you ask your mother-in-law what her wedding was like and what she might have wanted at her wedding that she didn’t get. It sounds like your mother-in-law might be trying to work out some of her own needs in your wedding. If that is the case, see if there is something in her loss you might be able to offer her in yours. I have found parents are often working out their own needs in the ceremonies of their children. Offering her something she can treasure in your wedding may help her bond with you.

My prayers will be with you.

And from Ruth (not a Moabite) blogging at Sunday’s Coming:

You know the bit of the Bible I find it hardest to understand ?– the bit where the daughter-in-law, Ruth, speaks such incredibly tender words of love to her mother-in-law!

‘Wherever you go I shall go. Your people shall be my people, your God my God’ etc...
I find it hard to believe a daughter-in-law can feel like that about her mother-in-law. The relationship between these two women can be the hardest to negotiate in any family.
They can clash over how the husband/son looks & dresses; how to cook; how to bring up children; and – starting it all off: how to get married.

So I have some questions:

  1. Who is paying the bills? The person paying gets a big vote on how their money is spent, in my book.
  2. Who is getting married, here (I know the answer to this one, but many grooms can tend to opt out & I sometimes (gently) remind them ‘this is YOUR wedding’)
  3. Does your FMIL understand your job & your relationship to your church (& therefore your hopes for inviting them to the service) - if not, is there some way to help her?
  4. Where will the $8-10,000 dollars go if it is Not spent on the bigger wedding? Is there a way of involving FMIL in this?
  5. Could it be that she thinks you’re trying to ‘deny’ yourself & doesn’t understand you genuinely want the money put to better use & that you really want the simpler day?Is there some way of telling her about it in a way which makes it clear this is positively what you want?
But in the end, would the big bash be so bad ? – or can you find it in your heart to throw yourself into this wonderful day for you & your husband-to-be, if you have to? At the end of that day, you will be married to the man you love: the rest is just ‘fluff’.

Wishing you happiness, the love of Ruth the Moabite, and the negotiation skills of Jacob, son of Isaac & Rebekah & all the grace God can give.

Now it's your turn...use the Post a Comment function to join in the conversation.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. Such an interesting letter! Good comments by the matriarch. Definitely encourage you to have the groom step up, voice what he wants, deal with his mother. If he wants to dance, can he do that at the "simple restaurant"? Also clarify who pays for what, and what happens with money that is saved. Are you spending it on a great honeymoon? That makes sense to me. I like the suggestion of letting the FMIL really go to town on the rehearsal dinner. Maybe that needs to be factored into the timing also. A Friday wedding means a Thurs rehearsal which is kind of awkward. I would also add another comment regarding timing. I think you are perhaps boxing yourself in a little too hard with the Friday idea. How many of your friends are clergy who would have to fly? Seriously, count them. Then ask them their opinion about scheduling. Speaking as clergy, I assume that I will have to use a Sunday off to attend a wedding and would be willing to do so for a friend. This may be less of an issue than you think.
    Whatever you do, I totally agree with an open invitation to the wedding ceremony, followed by cake and punch at the church. And a fabulous honeymoon. Have fun!

  2. another young clergy womanFebruary 17, 2011 at 10:15 AM

    I recently had a wedding across the country, for which I had to miss a Sunday--it worked out fine, my congregation was excited I would get to participate in a celebration of such a dear friend, and they worked it all out.
    As a young clergy woman of your same age, pondering being in this situation in the next year or so, I don't think you can NOT invite your congregation. It's one of the hazards of the job--these people are your family. I would encourage talking about that with your fiance and having him talk to his mother about the realities of your life together and in the church. (this is one of the reasons I'm planning a destination wedding...then the church doesn't feel slighted when we just have a party afterward!)
    A couple who had been married for 31 years in my congregation recently divorced, and one of the things the woman said to me is "he wouldn't even take my side for little things in the wedding, he let his mother roll over everything I (and we) wanted...and that's how our life went." I doubt that will happen in your relationship, since you're such the family systems student and have been through what sounds like excellent counseling. But you don't want to begin with resentment...
    I like some of the compromises offered by the matriarchs. Perhaps one of them, or another you and your fiance brainstorm together, could be a good middle road?
    Good luck!

  3. we were a little different. For starters the wedding was at a different church (my partner's home church) in a different community. But neither of us were in it for the big party.

    We had that UCW provide a sandwiches and dainties reception in the church hall immediately following the service (we did pictures before the service--which my somewhat traditional MIL was not overly fond of) with a toast or two and cake cutting. Then we had family and close friends to a brunch on Sunday at a local hotel. We ahd issued an open invitation to the congregation I was serving and a few of them came in for the wedding.

    The next weekend we had a pot-luck supper at the congregation which was now home to both of us so that those people could celebrate with us as well.

  4. Congratulations! My husband & I, both clergy, were married a little over four years ago. Our wedding was in my home state (travel for my elderly parents would have been difficult). We still invited both congregations (and a few people actually came), but if we'd had it in our home town both congregations would have been invited. It was even suggested to me that if we had it here, then we needed to let the congregations help with the wedding itself because it would have been an important way for them to show their support and celebrate with us.

    We didn't face what you're facing here, but we did face some issues with the church's wedding coordinator (a friend of mine) who wasn't used to a couple wanting an uber-liturgical marriage service (including communion) straight from our Book of Common Worship. As pastors we simply did what we have to do so often - we spoke the truth in love, saw it as a teaching moment and talked about worship, discipleship, & stewardship, & community - in short, Christian practice. And (and since you're a student of family systems you're probably quite good at this) we modeled a non-anxious presence.

    We didn't want the big party, it wasn't "us", we kept it pretty simple, and still we were exhausted when it was over. So if having a huge shin-dig sounds exhausting to you, or just isn't "you", I would encourage you to listen to yourself so that you will be able to celebrate the day.

    I have to say that I disagree with the suggestion that whoever is footing the bill has a say in how the money is spent. I see that as a gift to the couple, and gifts shouldn't come with strings attached, if that makes any sense. I know both my parents (who paid for the wedding) and in-laws (who paid for the rehearsal) saw their contributions that way, and didn't in any way try to influence what we did with the gift.

    The suggestion about the rehearsal dinner or post-wedding brunch was genius, though.

    And my curiousity wants to know what you decide! :)

  5. I got married about five years into parish ministry. My husband is not a pastor.

    I debated a long time about whether to have the service in my own church; honestly, I wanted it elsewhere simply because I wanted to be able to be the bride, and not feel all the overtones of 'pastor' in my own building. So we chose to get married in his congregation, but we did open the invitation to anyone in my congregation. I don't think you can avoid the open invitation to your church unless you do something like a destination wedding, which doesn't sound like your interest anyway. I think you will simply have to help your future mother-in-law understand that one.

    I agree that the rehearsal dinner/brunch suggestion is great. Or perhaps she could contribute in other ways on the day: buy the flowers, or food; because we had so many people at our wedding (500+) we couldn't afford a dinner (nor was there anyplace large enough for it), but we did have a big dessert-fest and that was tons of fun. We put "dessert and champagne to follow" on the invitations. Perhaps that would be enough alcohol to suit her, and not too much for you.

    I do think you might want to give up the Friday wedding. That compromise might help her feel that she had some input, and might be beneficial for you, as an earlier post suggests. My clergy friends came to our (Saturday) wedding from all over the country and said they were excited to have a reason to get away for a Sunday. Worth asking your clergy friends, anyway.

    But, at the end of the day, it is still your wedding and the decisions should be made by the two of you. It's kind to include your FMIL as much as possible, but don't compromise your integrity.

    Many blessings to you! Our wedding was so much fun and I have so many delightful memories of celebrating with parishioners. I would never want to have missed that.

  6. 19 years ago (Feb. 29th!) my husband and I got married; we were both 30, and our wedding & reception were almost exactly what you described. So I certainly understand your desire for this plan :-)

    We issued open invitations to the wedding and cake/punch reception to the congregation I was in at the time, plus my two previous congregations, the one in which I'd grown up, and my husband's parish (he is not clergy), as well as a select group of family and friends. We ended up with about 450 people; it was a little crazy but no one felt left out and it was a celebration of great joy. Folks in the congregation really wanted to put this reception together for us and we let them do so; it was the liturgy we cared about planning (and did). Later in the day we had dinner for about 60; it was at a restaurant we liked and could afford. We took a little grief from our parents about that plan, but since we were paying...

    I agree with the others who say it might be worth checking with your clergy friends about scheduling; that might be less of a problem than you think, and it would be a good place to compromise if that's the case.

    As you know, something will be an issue no matter what. I hope you can find ways to hold to what you and your fiance care about the most, while still letting your FMIL feel like you value her and her ideas.

  7. Let me add a non-clergy perspective. I was engaged in a discussion with several of my friends some weeks ago about wedding timing. We are a generation up so for us the issue is usually the weddings of children and nieces and nephews, and the conversation got started when one woman expressed her frustration at not being able to go to a beloved nephew's Sunday evening wedding -- too far to travel when she had to be back for work the next morning and, while she could have skipped that,her own kids had to be back for statewide exams. That led to a lot of venting about wedding schedules requiring time off work and acknowledgment that when we were brides ourselves we were pretty thoughtless. How wonderful of you to think the timing through so carefully. But for a lot of nonclergy with inflexible schedules, a Friday wedding involving Thursday travel would be a hardship, if not an impossibility.

  8. I also support the idea of giving your mother-in-law an event she can really take over. I know when I got married we had a relatively informal wedding and I think his parents were nervous about it. I would have been happy having pizza in the church basement for the rehearsal dinner but I wisely chose to step back and let them have final say on the restaurant and allow them to pay for a much more fancy gathering than I wanted. While it meant a lot of compromise on that event it meant we got basically free reign for our reception. I was lucky because my husband was fully on board with me about what our priorities and vision of the wedding was - so even if sometimes he didn't care about color choices he was very helpful in staying firm with family or friends who were demanding.
    I also agree with the various people who are suggesting that you actually poll your clergy friends regarding the Friday vs. Saturday thing. Especially since as Robin pointed out Friday weddings can be very problematic for most non-clergy workers. Also listen to your mother in laws concerns about that, perhaps your mother-in-law feels you are overly favoring a few of your friends while making travel difficult for large numbers of family and friends who aren't clergy on the grooms side of things?

  9. All, thank you so much for your ideas and words of encouragement!

    Since writing in I called a hiatus on wedding discussions so my groom and I could pray about it (the way we've made other decisions together as a couple) and one day I felt an idea bubble up in prayer that my groom agreed sounded like our solution (I admit, logically I'm not the biggest fan, but in my soul I know this is where we're supposed to head...):

    Rehearsal Friday afternoon
    Friday night Celebration Dinner for EVERYONE (local invited guests and out of towners) the people I'd invite to a formal recpetion.
    Ceremony on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. followed by punch and cake at church.
    Party for my Groom thrown by this mother on Saturday night with dinner and dancing.

    Even though this means it will be a hassle for the church staff I work with (driving an hour to and from dinner on Friday AND to and from the ceremony/reception Saturday if they want to attend both) but they're understanding and will make the trek if they can and if they can't they're happy with just cake and punch :)

    I did leave some background out for the sake of brevity but I'm happy to fill in previous discussions we've had. Our initial request to the parents was that the groom's family would pay for the rehearsal dinner (when it was on Thursday), we would cover the ceremony and church reception, and my parents would pay for a "private family dinner" at a local restaurant. This idea was instantly refuted because my future parents-in-law insist that "this is a joining of both families" so that each set of parents should share 50/50. That is what happened with their other two boys. (There were also over 100 people at the rehearsal dinner for both these weddings!)

    I am of the mind that when people pay for something it gives them a say. Hence the reason I was not willing to take their money for the private family dinner.

    To answer some of the questions raised:

    "Does your FMIL understand your job & your relationship to your church?" I don't think she does - she has a good family friend who is also clergy and he was greatly burned by the congregation she was part of and she hasn't been back to church since. I know that influences her perspective greatly!

    "Where will the $8-10,000 dollars go if it is not spent on the bigger wedding?" She would keep it or spend it on my groom in some way if she wanted to - I'm not opposed to her giving him a gift!

    "Could it be that she thinks you’re trying to ‘deny’ yourself & doesn’t understand you genuinely want the money put to better use & that you really want the simpler day?" She has told me that I'm denying her the opportunity to treat her family to hospitality in the manner to which they're accustomed (I've been told on three occasions that a family of 4 will be spending $2,000 to attend this wedding so we're obligated to reciprocate that generosity - translating spend a certain amount on them at the reception dinner!) and that makes her angry that I'm denying her that chance. (Obviously with the solution we've come to that problem has been solved).

    I did also poll my clergy friends and because we'll have time to visit Friday they're o.k. with flying out right after the ceremony on Saturday (I guess as an Associate I'm accustomed to having to plan my Sundays off around my Senior Pastor so it isn't always east to get the Sunday off I want...)

    @Shalom, I agree 1000% with the feeling of wanting to be purely bride and not pastor in any way!!

    @Betsy, I guess with a Saturday wedding people would need to take a Friday off of work so I wasn't viewing Thursday any differently from Friday because the Friday we've picked is a holiday.

    Thanks so everyone who chimed in...feel free to include me, my groom, and our families in your prayers!

  10. Dear Bride to Be,

    Not clergy al all here, and so I waited to reply, having no matriarchal wisdom. But definitely have experience with others thinking they should have a say in my wedding.

    My spouse, his 9 year old son, and I eloped. We had a private wedding at the local Renaissance Faire grounds with just us and a minister/JP I'd hired via the internet. He married us with the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, per our request. It was perfect for us at that time.

    This was a HUGE departure from my family's traditions. Typically of my family system, not much was said at the time...but now, almost 12 years later, some serious anger is coming out. Eek. So looking back, I would like to have been much more open (as you are doing) and taken more time for prayer (ditto).

    I wouldn't necessarily have done anything differently, but I wish I'd taken time to communicate my choices to certain people carefully. (Sigh.)

    In the end, it might not have made any difference. I continue to be shocked by how invested others are in what was MY wedding.

    You are in my prayers!

  11. This is a great question and I actually sent it to my Pastoral Theology professor... because in "real" ministry these issues come up ALL the time. Praying for you that it is a joyous day for all concerned!


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