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Wedding season

We are in the thick of it: Friday evenings have been given over to wedding rehearsals and to discreetly bowing out of the dinners afterwards. Saturdays are dedicated to joining couples in holy matrimony. This year marks my first season in a big-steeple church. Thanks to its beautiful stained glass and its air conditioning, there is a demand for our sanctuary—and for my colleagues and I to serve as officiants, even for nonmember weddings.

It's a shift for me. Most weddings I've presided over have been for friends or congregants I know well, folks who were willing to entertain the clerical presumption that I had something to share with them and who trusted me to put together a ceremony that spoke to both the particularities of their relationship and the richness of the Christian (sometimes very broadly defined) tradition. It's a different game now.

An increasing number of American couples aren't bothering with a religious or even civil presence at all, preferring to ask friends or family to "get ordained" on the Internet. I suppose I should be grateful that unchurched couples come through our congregation's doors, however briefly.

But I often feel the need to defend our congregation's premarital counseling requirements for young couples. Many of them are either sure they've got it all figured out, thank you, or question what wisdom about relationships could actually come from clergy.

A good part of this rejection of pastoral insight may simply come with being deeply besotted. As a colleague's pastoral care professor says: "Most couples are too blissed out to listen to anything you've got to say. The best you can do is make a good impression, hand them your card and hope they'll come back if they need you."

I fear, though, that the majority of clergy doing premarital counseling and wedding preparation may be failing even in this basic requirement. Adam Hamilton, writing wisely about how pastors ought to consider weddings opportunities for evangelism, offers instructions that essentially boil down to "don't mail it in."

The real challenge, however, is not attention and care but knowing what to say. Pastors—single and married alike—may be reticent out of a keen awareness of the limitations of their experience. Marriage is a complex thing and will challenge and stretch even those of us who put "Christ at the center of the relationship." Simple platitudes are woefully insufficient, while the Christian scriptures and tradition are ambivalent on the subject. What are we to say?

I've been going over the Prepare/Enrich inventories of some of the couples who will soon be in my charge, and I'm surprised at how optimistic many of them are. They want to have children, and lots of them, and they do not anticipate any arguments about money or hobbies. And yes, they will always have as much romance in their relationship as they do now.

I worry that their unmet expectations and their surprise in encountering the familiarity of a faithful life together will prove too heavy for them. I read of the casual way folks use technology to saunter into infidelity, and I feel responsible for sharing whatever resources I can to help them build a healthy marriage and see the church's commitment to walking with them.

Last month the church lost a great teacher in Don Browning, who did much to explicate the complex nature of the institution of marriage, the impact of modernity on it and its relationship to Christian faith. Browning's work brought theology and social science into conversation about the pressing issues of our daily lives, including the way in which we marry and form families. I pray that his voice will continue to be heard whenever clergy model practical theological reflection with the newlyweds in their care.

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Anonymous said... Many of

Anonymous said...

Many of us say we'd love to have young families in our churches-- but we don't want to take the time and effort to be with them in a time when they might be willing to hear what our religious traditions might have to offer.

What if we took a page from the Roman Catholics-- and offered something like their pre-Canaan programs for couples considering marriage. Offered in group form, we might be able to offer relationship coaching, (maybe employing community professionals) and say a bit about what we hope congregational life can offer a couple and a family. It could be ecumenical, or even interfaith. It could be less "trying out to see if the pastor will marry us" and more "everytbody wants to have a good marriage, let's see what we could offer."

Anonymous said... In the

Anonymous said...

In the fall I participated in both the prepare-enrich survey and also participated in a 5 part DVD/workshop with my then fiance. The DVD workbook course was much more encouraging, practical, realistic, faith based and pro-marriage than the prepare-enrich survey. I would like to heavily suggest it to anyone looking for a good pre-marital start. It is a course offered by Nikki and Sila Lee from the UK.

While I think the prepare-enrich survey is thorough -it does not account for gray areas like distance relationships. In my experience, the survey counselors are well trained, but they are not always

Jimmy Gentry said... I

Jimmy Gentry said...

I have been utilizing the PREPARE and ENRICH materials since 1993. While PREPARE, like any other tool, does have its weaknesses, it still remains an outstanding instrument for pre-marriage preparation. But it is not enough. There must be a commitment to not only "getting them married" but "keeping them married." Those of us in parish ministry and pastoral counseling ministry, I'm convinced, must commit to the "long-haul" and that is no small task - especially in today's culture.
Jimmy Gentry, Pastor
Tabernacle Baptist Church
Carrollton, GA

Beth Hardin said... I

Beth Hardin said...

I married three years ago for the first time, at age 47. I am a university administrator and campus ministry advisor and work with young adults, many of whom are considering marriage. My husband, a Unitarian who likes Jesus but has less positive things to say about "the church," and I were referred by our Episcopal parish priest to a (Methodist) counselor with specific expertise in pre-marital counseling. Our counseling was so rewarding that we more than doubled the "required" commitment to it.

A few comments:
- The church should view marriage as a significant opportunity and challenge to be a witness to Christian faith in a meaningful way. In our community and in many Episcopal parishes, pre-marital counseling is required, and I think it should generally be. The content and process of pre-marital counseling should reflect deep knowledge and competence. In many cases, this may require "expert" counseling. There are many ways to provide expert counseling, from the staff expert of large churches to the referral network of small and medium-sized churches.

- Clergy may want to familiarize themselves with the scholarship on marriage trends and derailers. As on who is on a large college campus every day, there are systemic dysfunctions in the social environment that surrounds marriage. Things often don't get better for young adults after college and often get worse. I could give loads of examples, but it's no wonder that the "starter marriage" trend was measureable a few years back.

- There is a "wedding industrial complex," and it cares little about the sustainability of marriage. Just take a look at one of the many magazines and websites targeted at brides. It's very easy to begin to believe that every wedding does (and "should") cost $25,000 or more and that every bride "deserves" a "perfect day." It's also easy to see why marriage can be a let-down after months if not years of wedding fantasy.

In this environment, there are wonderful opportunities. In my observation, they will be best addressed by rethinking most approaches to weddings. It's possible, and it's worth it.

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