A wedding or a funeral? Most seasoned pastors will say, “Hands down, I’d rather do a funeral.” When you ask “Why?” you will most likely hear things like:
- Everybody wants a “Princess Di Wedding.” Not only couples (usually the bride) but families, too, can be more concerned about how it looks than what it means.
- Many just don’t take premarital counseling seriously. It’s just another “hoop” to jump through, like getting a marriage license from the town hall.
- I feel like a rent-a-preacher, especially if I have no real relationship with either intended or with their families.
- So many couples make arrangements and set the date for the “party afterwards” before even approaching the church or a pastor about the wedding.
However, if you’re a pastor, weddings come with the territory. Besides, weddings and everything that leads up to them (as well as follows afterward) can be a time we’re invited to shine the light of Christ’s grace, mercy and love on people whom God has allowed us to serve in His name at this moment.
With that in mind, here are some practical suggestions that can make weddings less pain-filled and more grace-filled. Do with them as you please—take them, leave them, or change them.
- If the church doesn’t have a wedding policy, help formulate one … and the sooner the better. Policies protect both the church and the pastor. They should include such details as: Who can be married in the church? Who can perform weddings in the church? What are the premarital counseling expectations? Is it a requirement (or not) to use a church wedding coordinator? What are expectations of wedding photographers and videographers? (I prefer there be no photography during the service to maintain a spirit of worship vs. “showtime”. I even make an announcement about that as the service starts.)
- What about calendar considerations—especially if there are “conflicts” with a desired date? A listing of costs, including A/V and custodial requirements, is helpful as well. Some policies even spell out the kind of music that can be played to maintain a spirit of sacred worship. The policy may even include a theological statement about how the church views marriage and the wedding service. It’s key that a policy be detailed enough to provide clear direction on the things that matter most to a church but general enough to provide a little wiggle room at the pastor’s discretion.
- It’s wise to resolve one’s own personal positions on issues like: interfaith weddings or where one of the couple isn’t a Christian; how you will respond to a couple that’s already living together before marriage; “off-site” or “destination” weddings, which are becoming more popular; how you think about things like doing the Lord’s Supper for the couple only during the ceremony; what you will do if after getting acquainted with the couple, you’re convinced the marriage is a bad idea. And discuss this with the church leadership / board so they are aware of your convictions.
- Determine what you and/or the church expect of a couple with regard to premarital counseling. If you do the counseling, how many sessions and what is your plan? Will you use some kind of standardized testing? Will you require any outside reading or homework assignments between sessions? One good resource for pre-marital counseling is a workbook Before You Say “I Do”: A Marriage Preparation Manual for Couples by Wes Roberts and Norman Wright. Even more comprehensive are the assessment and counseling tools available from Prepare/Enrich found at prepare-enrich.com. I have used portions of both of these woven together in my working with engaged couples.
- Know your role in the wedding rehearsal. While many churches provide coordinators or the couple hires one, I firmly believe that the pastor is to “quarterback” or run the rehearsal, especially if the wedding is in the church. While more weddings are now in non-church venues, even there I suggest that a pastor tell the coordinator that while she/he is in charge of the overall rehearsal, the pastor will take charge once the wedding party in their places to go through the service. I always inform all present that input from anyone other than the bride or groom is not welcome or permitted. All others are there to just follow and enjoy. (I learned that the hard way in what became for me “the wedding rehearsal from hell” when a sister of the bride sought to get her way, much to the distress of the bride. After that, I no longer took anyone else’s opinion in consideration at a wedding rehearsal–mother of the bride included– but only that of the bride and groom themselves.) As to the rehearsal dinner, sometimes I went, sometimes I didn’t.
- Establish your own wedding day ritual. I suggest getting there no less than 30 minutes before the wedding, to check in with the coordinator, to check on the wedding party, and do a quick look-over of the sanctuary (or venue). Surprises that I could have foreseen with a little quick attention are unwelcome. I might refresh my thoughts for the message/reflection, though most of the time that’s already well in hand. Just prior to the service, I pray with both the bride and her attendants as well as the groom and his groomsmen. After, the service, I ask the photographer if he/she can take my picture with the couple first so I can go take off my clerical garb, leaving the rest to the photographer and the wedding coordinator. I may or may not go to a reception, depending on how close I am to the couple or either of the families.
- Some other considerations
- In my tradition, the pastor is usually attired in a clerical robe for the service, while in less liturgical settings something more like business attire would be in good. However, some couples prefer more casual attire – especially if the service is not held at a church. In that case, check with the couple.
- Then, there’s the question of an honorarium for officiating a wedding. Some churches include this as part of the wedding policy—especially for “non-member” weddings, which makes it easy. I’ve never had a set fee but usually left it up to the family if they want to give an honorarium.
- I would suggest having a “Wedding Application Form” that enables the pastor and/or church to have essential information for records as well as planning. This could include not only the “basic facts” about the couple (including the address following the wedding) and their families but also names of attendants, photographer, coordinator, other church staff such as custodial and AV; fees; the marriage license issuer and number … and anything else you might find helpful or important.
- Be sure to pay attention to any official paperwork you must file with the issuing local authorities related to the marriage license. I liked to send that off after the wedding, often dropping it in the mail on my way home, so to ensure it gets done in a timely fashion.
I’m sure that there are things I’ve overlooked or forgotten—and some things that one can only learn by experience (aka, “the wedding rehearsal from hell’). In any event, all I can say is to treat every wedding with grace, don’t take yourself too seriously and (as best you can) embrace with joy the opportunity Christ gives to be His representative in love.
(With my thanks to the Rev. John McCallum for the suggested topics to cover).
Grace and Peace, my friends.
Richard Herman is a retired Presbyterian pastor with over 40 years of experience in pastoral ministry, who continues to serve God’s people as a teacher and spiritual director. A graduate of Bucknell University (BA) and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M. Div.), he is certified as a Spiritual Director by Oasis Ministries. He has also earned a Certificate in Spiritual Formation from Columbia Theological Seminary subsequent to completing his D. Min at Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a trained Stephen Leader.
Dick is married to Lissa and they have a married daughter and two granddaughters, who live nearby. He also enjoys taking walks and bird-watching with Lissa, travel in the Celtic lands of the UK, photography (nature and contemplative) and playing with both his granddaughters and a golden retriever named Winnie.
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