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Thursday, June 07, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Wedding Expectations

We are deep into wedding season now, and our question this weeks asks us to consider how our sacred spaces get used for such occasions. Martha writes:

Dear Matriarchs,

It's that festive season of the year, when brides and/or their mothers call or email to ask about having a wedding. And it's not unusual to hear some version of the following question:

"May I bring my own minister?"

Or, "Do you make us use *your* minister?"

Last week, a bride showed up unannounced, asked to see the sanctuary, told me she wanted her non-ordained uncle to do the ceremony, heard our policy and replied, "Well, that would be a deal-breaker." 

That sort of encounter challenges the kindness of even the most gently-raised, not to mention my theology of hospitality. 

We all know this is annoying, and I understand that unchurched folks may not understand the finer points of my desire not to have people with incompatible theologies lead worship services in my congregation's sanctuary. For instance, before I was called, and while there was no interim in place, a wedding was scheduled, using a pastor from a denomination that does not allow women to be ordained. That was not a question the lay leaders thought to ask. They simply rented out the church, and I let them handle meeting the wedding party, etc. But had I been the one needing to show the guest pastor how to work the wireless mic, well, let's just say that might have been awkward.

So here are my questions. What is wrong with our colleagues? Why do they willingly offer to do weddings in churches they do not serve? And do the matriarchs have advice about how to handle these situations? 

Or am I rigid and out-of-line on this? 

Lastly, as women clergy reach retirement age, will we be more sensitive to this professional boundary?

Really, I wish weddings were simply civil and that people who actually belong to churches would come in on Sunday morning for a generous blessing and the kind wishes of the congregation. But until the day when I rule the world, we will continue to face these situations, and I would love to hear your thoughts.


Muthah+ responds:

I am got pretty tired of "it is such a pretty church" theology too.  I am tired of the Church being 'used' for marriages that would be better celebrated at the country club or a wedding chapel.

First of all, I worked out a set of wedding expectations that were what would take seriously the implications of a 'church wedding.'  And made a handout that outlined them.  My denomination has significant guidelines and I live within those but I made them clear in the booklet and my boards signed off on those guidelines.

I only allowed visiting clergy IF I was also part of the service.  We made it a policy not to 'rent out' the church because we thought that said the wrong thing about what a church wedding was about.  I don't get bent out of shape if their theologies are different from mine--but they have to live within MY directions.  That is usually the 'deal-breaker'.

I am glad that your 'drop-in' said "well that may be a deal breaker".  Most folks have no idea what they are doing getting married.  If that is going to be a 'deal breaker' then it should up front from the beginning.  So my booklet also outlined a bit of a theology of marriage and what it meant within our denomination.  As part of the counseling portion of the preparation, I told them that I expected them to be in attendance at a church--not necessarily ours, but some worshiping community as part of their preparation.

At the same time, I know that more and more people are coming to us from outside of the Church and this wedding may be the first contact that they have ever had to know what Church is about.  So I tried to be as flexible as I could.  But when I talked to the first contact, I tried to let them know what my expectations are.  

I will be interested to hear of what other younger women are doing in the face of this changing era and how they practice hospitality yet still maintain some semblance of the Christian message.


And Mompriest offers: 

In terms of why a clergy colleague would chose to use a different space – it usually comes down to size – the wedding will be bigger than the church space they have so the couple wants a bigger space but their own pastor.  OR  the wedding is being held in town other than where the couple will live, such as where the bride’s parents live, and so a local church is needed. Sometimes the parents belong to a denomination that will not marry couples who are not members, or the church the parents belong to is deemed “unattractive” by the bride. (Yes, I have encountered these and other reasons).

Whenever I encounter a situation such as this, and it happens often, I cite the policy of the church: All weddings in the church are officiated by the clergy of the church and at the Rector’s discretion. Other ministers familiar with the couple may participate in the service as the preacher and offer the sermon. All couples intending to be married in this church must undergo premarital counseling with the priest of this church, or one she approves of. The staff of this church will be present at the rehearsal and the wedding and function as the wedding coordinator.  This tends to be the policy of every Episcopal Church I have worked at, and is not one I have had to set, it’s been the precedent.

Thus, I have strict rules and abide by them. People who are not members of the parish, or who do not wish to abide by these rules are often the ones who abuse the space, leaving a mess behind them. I don’t care if people choose to go elsewhere to be married. There are any number of options out there, choose one that fits your desire, don’t try to force the church to be what it is not. In the Episcopal Church, typically, we do not “rent out” the space. We are not wedding chapels. We are churches and faith communities, and a wedding ceremony is open to every member of the congregation to attend if they desire, invited or not.  So I have a long history and tradition to fall back on. Even years back, when I worked for a church that did a huge number of weddings every year, we still required every couple to attend a premarital counseling weekend retreat (wherein we usually had 7 -10 couples, maybe more), and the wedding had to be officiated by a member of the clergy staff of the church.

On the other hand, couples that are willing to attend premarital counseling sessions with me (four or five sessions) always come away pleased. The work is hard but it is good work. In the process of premarital counseling we plan the service – I have the opportunity to really explain what we are doing and why the church ceremony is different from a civil one. Certainly a civil ceremony is perfectly fine if that is what they prefer. But if they really want the blessings of the church and of God, bestowed upon them, then a church ceremony is important. A wedding ceremony should not be held in a church simply because of how it looks. And so, while I have strict rules I am also very flexible within some of the limitations I have to abide by – in the Episcopal Church the couple has to use the Book of Common Prayer liturgy and vows.  However there are pieces and places in the service that can be adapted.

So. No I do not think you are being rigid, nor out of line, nor inhospitable (of course maybe I am too…LOL). There are plenty of options for couples desiring to be married. Being married in a church comes with some boundaries that define what it means to have a clergy person bless the marriage and to invite God’s blessing upon the marriage. But civil weddings are perfectly valid, may offer more flexibility, and require fewer boundaries for purpose.  Perfectly beautiful wedding ceremonies take place in hotel ballrooms, outside gardens, someone’s backyard or the courthouse.


I guess I (earthchick) am the outlier here. We have couples get married with their own clergy in our sanctuary all the time! 

In the forms they fill out to request the use of our building, there's actually a line that asks something like, "Will you bring your own clergyperson or would you like to request for one of ours to officiate?" (and our policy makes it clear that if they use one of ours, they have to be comfortable with either a woman or a man). Our own church members are expected to use our clergy, but the vast majority of people who get married in our sanctuary come from outside our church.

We are in a university town, and frequently the two people getting married are both from other cities. They choose to get married in our town because it's where they met, it's where their friends are, etc., but they haven't necessarily attached to a church here. That's unfortunate, but I'm happy that they still want a church wedding. Our church is across from the campus and our sanctuary is beautiful, so I understand why they want to get married here, and our congregation blesses this use. We see it as part of our ministry and outreach to the community, even when our clergy have nothing to do with the wedding, just as we see the use of our space by AA groups and a preschool as part of our ministry, even though we are not involved in those either. Frankly, I am very happy not to be asked to do all of the weddings that come into our space! I love doing weddings for people I know; I find it much more draining to do them for people I've never met. The premarital counseling sessions, the learning the family dynamics, the spending of Friday night and a portion of Saturday doing the wedding - it just feels like a lot on top of the rest of my work.

I guess I don't consider it a breach of professional boundaries, unless the ceremony were actually for one of my congregants. That's definitely a problem, but I don't gather that is the question here. (I will say that we have had that happen one time, and I was offended and thought it highly inappropriate, but I didn't put a stop to it, as I didn't want to push myself on a couple who had already made it clear they preferred someone else.)

What about the rest of you? What experience or advice would you offer? Please join us in the comments section to offer your wisdom!

And please send us your questions!! The queue is totally empty now, so if you send a question for the matriarchs, we will get to it right away. Email us at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com. 



  1. Great topic for discussion! I am church lay staff, mother of a summer bride, and also mother of a female clergy-person so I find myself immersed in this discussion a lot right now. My clergy-woman daughter will be participating in the wedding of her sister the bride, in the church the bride and her fiance attend in the town where they live. The priest of that (RC)parish will actually perform the ceremony and sister will give the homily.

    Next summer my clergy-woman daughter will perform the wedding of her best high school friend at the church where I work, and where they both grew up - the pastor they both grew up with having retired since they left home. Under the policies of our denomination the current pastor will also participate and the retired pastor will be an honored guest who will probably bless the couple in some fashion at the reception. Another young woman from the congregation is choosing to have her fall wedding off-site to allow the retired clergy to officiate, a decision that caused some pain for a young woman who had always assumed she would be married in the church where she grew up.

    In each of these situations the desire for a specific clergy-person is in no way a sign of disrespect for the church or the clergy-in-residence, it is a reflection of connections that are part of each bride or groom's faith journey. And in each case the pre-marital counseling is being done by the local clergy, establishing a new and joint connection to a faith mentor.

    I know that policies not rigidly enforced are useless and that once a congregation reaches a certain size it cannot function without policies, yet I wonder if there could be two sets of rules, one for members that affirms their faith journey while reinforcing their connections to the current situation and one for people who are not members but who need to be welcomed with as few barriers as possible, except perhaps in the requirement that a church wedding ultimately glorify God.

    It's a complicated question; I look forward to the discussion!

  2. Mompriest and Muthah+ pretty much covered the Episcopal perspective; for the most part our churches are not wedding chapels to be rented out [some parishes do choose to do this but ime still have a pretty strong set of rules to be followed]. I am also pretty strict about music, flowers, etc. (no unity candles in the ceremony.) I would say no if someone came in and wanted to just use the space with their own clergy person (as I did to someone who wanted to use our space to do a baptism with their own clergy person.)

    To be honest, I am more often approached about doing weddings in other venues, some of which I find rather inappropriate, and where I have far less control over what happens. I'm not unflexible, but I'm also not a wedding chaplain for hire to do whatever (often trendy and made-up)liturgy the bride wants. So I say no to those things too. Also to "non-religious" weddings; if you don't want God to be part of it, why do you ask a priest to officiate?

  3. Hmm, the notion of "wedding chapel" evokes Vegas-type images and feels a bit dismissive. I view what our church offers to be part of our ministry of hospitality, and I'm pleased that we do it; I see no loss of integrity in what we do. Then again, I'm not Episcopalian, and our polity is quite different from the majority viewpoint expressed so far.

    I have also participated in "non-religious" weddings in other venues. I think the reasons a couple would ask a pastor to officiate in such a case are complex, and I am intrigued and honored when such a couple requests pastoral involvement. I have found that it's an opportunity to offer Christ in a less obvious but surprisingly expansive way.

    Julie, I appreciate the perspective you've offered, and I think your point about potentially offering two sets of policies is a good one.

  4. Earthchick, as a non-parish tentmaker and someone whose first, lifechanging step into ordained ministry was witnessing the vows of the many spiritual but not religious couples who do not have a safe and welcoming church home--but wanted the God of their understanding to be part of their life commitment--I am profoundly grateful for your honor for them and for those of us who are honored to serve them....It is a huge and most welcome contrast to the usual dismissive scorn from those with pulpits and paychecks. How wonderful that your congregation is so open and respectful as well for those who dream of having a minister special to them hold the sacred space for their love.

  5. Our present church does not rent out the sanctuary to anyone who does not utilize one of the clergy (there being 3 of us; I am ordained but work as a chaplain and am not on the payroll.) We also have a retired pastor who is part of our congregation who has performed a wedding or two for relatives. Our church also hosts smaller churches (usually of another ethnicity and language) and their congregants may have their pastor perform the ceremony. We do not allow people who are neither attenders nor counselees of pastoral staff get married here. It's difficult because we are close to several large hotels (for receptions) in a large metro area. "But you're so convenient!" is not a good reason; and neither is "our church is too small."

    The policy was set by the leadership of the church (lay and ordained). It also spells out what can and can't be done (no temporary removal of pews so there is "more room" etc). There is a fee for the use of the building, a fee for the sexton, and if any additional rooms are needed, there is an additional fee. There is also a hefty security deposit which is returned after the wedding party leaves and a walk-through is done with someone of the bride's choice (usually their wedding coordinator or a relative.)

    Theologically, we make an effort to explain that this is not just "a place" and "an event" but it has a deep spiritual significance, one that we take seriously. Premarital counseling is required, if not with us, with someone we know. For people who are spiritual and not religious, there are many beautiful places to get married. I attended one in a public park at a large auditorium, which was made into a holy and sacred space. I think it is possible to be hospitable AND stay within your theological boundaries.

  6. I am lurker around here as I do not have a blog, but did have a great time on one of the revgal cruises! My question is a lil' off topic but I'm wondering about the kinds of premarital counseling materials folks are using? I've been hit and miss and am looking for new ideas. Thanks a bunch!

  7. a different marriage system here. the marriage celebrant has to register the marriage with the Government department, so you have to be 'approved'. you can be either a civil or religious celebrant. as a Minister I am a religious celebrant, which means I can only conduct weddings in the way my denomination approves - because my registration is via the denomination. my denomination says I can celebrate a wedding anywhere, but it must be Christian [which still leaves a fair amount of scope].

    I am careful about allowing other Ministers to celebrate weddings in the church here. my guideline is that the understanding of marriage - such as equality of wife and husband - is within the understanding of this denomination. Another minister of this denomination has married a couple here , who he met through campus ministry, and this church is near where the families live.

  8. Alison-in-FranceJune 8, 2012 at 4:22 AM

    We in general don't have problems with a minister of our own denomination or another that we have a friendly relationship with using our building - as long as we're asked nicely in advance. We've had this the other way round. We discovered wet rot in the floor of our old sanctuary a month before a wedding. The local Roman Catholic parish (we're baptists!) kindly and graciously not only offered us the use of their building for our Sunday services, but also for the wedding. The priest attended the ceremony and said a little word of welcome, then our pastor officiated.

    I grew up in an architecturally beautiful church that had a strict policy, as a matter of practicality, because otherwise the minister would have been doing 5 weddings a week, mostly of non-church people. The policy was applied strictly to non-church people, and flexibly to regular attenders and their children. (Part of the policy was that our minister - Presbyterian - wasn't available for non-Church ceremonies - mostly just to protect him from overload. But when my sister decided that she didn't want to get married in the church building out of respect for her Chinese fiancé's Shinto relatives, she was surprised and touched when he contacted her to make it clear that he would make an exception for her. They had a lovely Christian but slightly informal service in the conservatory of a local hotel. They did the usual pre-wedding prep with the minister.)

    (Our pastor also apparently regularly gets calls from people who don't fit into the Catholic church's rules for marriage - divorcees presumably - to ask him to officiate. He doesn't usually, unless the couple are willing to do marriage preparation with him and the priest knows about it, if they are active in a parish.)

    In general I think policies are great - but knowing how much discretion you have, and when to be flexible, is also a good thing.

  9. Could someone explain the whole unity candle thing to me? I am celebrating my first wedding next month and I am so ill-informed about weddings in general . . . well, let's just say that the learning curve is a steep one. But unity candles: why do some couples want them, and what is the objection?

  10. Here's my story of a couple who asked to use our church for their wedding, bringing in their own minister. (Their church is in a large space that looks like a conference center.)

    Our form is very specific about capacity, and the fact that our balcony is off-limits for guests. They violated both these with excess capacity and about 30 people in the balcony. Their pastor then proceeded to tell my sexton that our theology stinks-- regarding gays, women pastors, inclusiveness generally. And, of course I am a gay woman pastor.

    The whole experience left me feeling very violated. Our church will not quickly approve such a request in the future.

  11. Just want to add that I don't mean to be dismissive of churches who choose to be open to hosting weddings for people who are not associated with the church, nor of clergy who choose to participate in non-religious services. And my use of the term "wedding chapel" does in fact evoke images of Vegas because (again in my experience) there are those who would like to treat churches justas one more attractive venue among others, and that can be inappropriate. I do realize that there are some non-church-affiliated couples who are seeking a religious/spiritual beginning for their marriage and I respect that.

    My objection to unity candles is simply this: our Prayer Book provides a beautiful liturgy based on the couple making vows to one another before God, and the candles are not part of that. Make that part of the reception if you like--it could lovely symbolism for that part of the celebration.

  12. @Robin, briefly the unity candle is symbolic of two becoming one. Two tapers (lit before the ceremony, often by parents) are used by the bride and groom to light one central candle. And when couples want such candles, *I* insist that they do not blow out the individual candles after lighting the central candle. I don't find them inappropriate to a Christian wedding, and in my context, they are as much a tradition as a white dress on the bride.

  13. Like Earthchick, I served as an interim pastor for a church with a long history of a wedding ministry, which allowed for others to officiate, and even allowed non-Christian services (this is a congregation with a wide view of God's work in the world). They had a lot of variation, and I know some of the services I didn't do I wouldn't have felt comfortable doing, so I was relieved that I was out of the picture.

    Our area also has a large number of young adults who meet and do not have a faith community, and the congregation sees the use of the space as a hospitality (the world coming to their door). IL think the challenges can come when the couple wants things the clergy is not comfortable providing - are we hired hands or spiritual leaders?

    In our area, the vast majority of weddings are conducted outside of churches, and even those that have clergy are often specialized clergy, some of whom tweak and tinker their services to these couples, so that for the most part, we parish clergy are not on the front lines for doing these services.

    I'd like to add my AMEN to the one who posted about wanting civil marriages with church blessings. The only reason we do this is that King Henry VIII gave to his clergy the review of who could get married among the nobles, and this tradition came down to us in common law. The Dutch sensibly marry in civil court, then come on Sunday for blessing during the service. I could get on that train, and then all the controversy about gay marriage in the church would be taken away.

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