Every pastor has a first time. In my case, it happened over 30 years ago, and she was only fifteen years old. I have thought of her often in these past decades. Her name is written in my book, but I doubt that she would remember my name. She was so young that her parents had to approve of the arrangement. I was concerned about pregnancy, but she assured me that wasn’t the case. I was nervous since I had never done it before. I didn’t want to make any mistakes. Afterwards, I felt a little depressed and asked myself if I had done the right thing. It wasn’t to be the last time that I would ask myself that type of question. In the decades since that first time, I have done it again and again. Not as often as some pastors to be sure, but enough for me. Like most pastors, I have exchanged tips with others. Even in my late 50’s, I am still learning some new techniques. I am confident of my ability these days and have no performance anxiety. But I still get a little nervous from time to time.
Cindy was the name of the bride in the first wedding I performed. I have no idea of what happened to that 15 year old bride and her 19 year old husband. Did they remain married? Did they have children? Did they live happily ever after? For all I know, they divorced within a few years. For all I know, they have led a wonderful life together and are now grandparents. I suppose that clergy who remain at the same small town church for most of their careers have a lot better handle on these kinds of things than I do. They might even be able to give you a rough idea of how many of the couples they have married are actually still married. I used to say that “as far as I knew” that no couple I married ever got divorced, but that was due as much to my ignorance as anything else. I don’t make those kinds of statements anymore.
I have been serving my current church for over 10 ½ years, and some of the couples I have married in our sanctuary are now divorced. A few of the marriages lasted less than a few years. As I think about the church’s role (and my personal role) in weddings and marriage, I am not always clear just what the church’s role really is. For example, I have yet to encounter a couple who has come to me and said, “We are not sure whether or not we should get married. Would you lead us through a process during which we can determine if marriage is the right step for us?” I have had some couples call off their weddings during the counseling process, but that is a rare event and not directly linked to any great insight that I have provided. Usually my initial conversation with a couple (or our secretary’s talk with them) goes something like this: “We already have the hall booked, and the DJ, and the photographer, and the honeymoon plans have been made. We are planning on being married on this date. Would you do the ceremony?” An unstated question is this: “What hoops do we have to go through along the way?”
I try to accommodate most couples if I can, though I turn down some weddings. But I don’t feel like I have the freedom to turn down couples connected to the congregation. I understand that marrying folks and providing other pastoral care and services to the flock is part of my job description. Do I have the freedom to say to a church related couple: “I really don’t feel like you are suitable partners for each other so I will not perform your wedding.” Or can I say: “Work on these issues. Once you solve them, then come back and we can talk.” I do help couples identify some of their challenges, and we will work together on solving them if we can. But I don’t think that I have ever refused to marry a couple who are associated with the church.
I often ask myself if the process that I lead a couple through plays any role in whether or not they remain married. Other than the trappings of a church wedding (a center aisle, an attractive space, some scripture, prayers, and the implied divine consent on the relationship), what is the true value of a Christian wedding vs. a secular wedding? I don’t speculate about this in any cynical manner, and I know that for certain couples who are deeply faithful the taking of vows before God is an expression of their faith and of their love. Some of the couples that I marry are strongly connected to our church and continue to be so after their wedding. But that is not true for a number of the couples that I marry.
I value the time that I spend with all of the prospective brides and grooms – whether they are members of our church or not. I enjoy establishing relationships with couples in our neighborhood who I would otherwise not know. I tell myself that what I offer these men and women is a positive connection to a faith community, and I encourage them to contact me if they are having issues after their wedding. But even more that forging a relationship with me, I encourage them to develop a relationship with a church – whether it is our church or another church. I knew one pastor who required every couple that he married to become members of his church before he performed their wedding. It looked great on the new member category of the annual report, yet most of the couples left the church soon after their wedding. Joining the church was a hoop they jumped through but not any deep or long lasting commitment.
Though that pastor’s process was flawed, one thing I am convinced of is that every couple needs the guidance and support of other healthy couples to make it easier for them to succeed. And one thing our church (and many others) has is a number of couples with long term marriages of 30, 40, 50, and even 60+ years. Couples who have outlasted and lived through any number of challenging circumstances. I don’t want any marriage that I perform to end in divorce. And it pains our local body of Christ when any marriage in our congregation or even our neighborhood comes to an end. I have always believed that my personal marriage is strengthened by the healthy marriages of others. Over the years, many couples have come to me with their troubles, but I have never presented myself as a “super marriage counselor” coming to the rescue. I think my role is more of an entry point to a community of faith (and a collection of families) that can offer the support that a couple needs.
The church does have a stake in marriage beyond being merely a provider of church weddings. The church has an investment and interest in any relationship involving commitment and love. Though no marriage in our church is a perfect one, the best ones provide clues for newly married couples who really seek to be married for a lifetime. And the singles in our church (whether through choice or circumstance) have also been wonderful examples of living out their commitments in a different manner. The church has an investment in marriage, but that investment really pays off for couples who are likewise invested in the church.
Why do YOU think the church should care about marriage?