Weddings have changed a lot over the past thirty years. Sometimes they disappear altogether. So what is a pastor to do?
I love weddings as much as the next person, but especially when the people getting married are close friends, their children, or relatives. On the other hand, I can’t say that weddings are the favourite part of my work as a pastor.
When I began in the ministry, most of the difficulties were practical. They took a lot of time and money, two things that always seemed in short supply. The toughest issue was time. A wedding meant offering three or four premarital counselling sessions, another to discuss the wedding liturgy, then a rehearsal (usually on Friday nights), followed by a rehearsal dinner. Then there was the wedding itself, usually on Saturday afternoon, followed by a reception, usually in the evening, effectively eating up the whole day. My wife and I would have to sort out how much babysitter we could afford, how many invites to rehearsal dinners or receptions we could turn down, and then decide how much we could afford on wedding gifts. Preparing wedding sermons took a lot of time too. I tried to make every wedding sermon very personal and unique, so that the audience would know I was speaking to this couple in particular. As a young pastor, I sometimes had to do this five or six times during the summer. It was a big, sometimes costly load. The fifty or seventy-five dollars honorarium barely covered costs.
Eventually, Irene and I figured most of this out. We decided that as a matter of course we would turn down rehearsal dinners. We decided that we couldn’t afford the purchase of wedding gifts—and I would explain this to the couple well before hand. If the couple were participating members of the church, Irene tried to attend the reception with me. Sometimes I would decline the invitation to the reception if it came during a busy stretch of the year. We bathed all of these guidelines in lots of communication with the couple getting married. We never had any problems—at least that I heard of.
Over time, however, I became more and more frustrated by the expectation that I should provide premarital counselling. At first, naively, I thought, “no problem.” I treated it as a class on marriage in the Bible and agape as the Christian approach to love. We studied the formulary and its claims. I explained over and over again how Paul’s demand that women submit to husbands meant that they should love their husbands as their husbands loved them. And so on.
Over time, however, as my wife trained to be a therapist, and then specialized in couple’s counselling, I began to realize that all I had for my couples were platitudes. My wife had real training—years of it. She had many annual seminars, and regular professional supervision as well. My two seminary classes in pastoral theology couldn’t hold a candle to any of that.
Sure, there were a bunch of marriage training courses out there that included mail in tests that would tell me a bit about the couple. But the couple could take such tests on their own, if they wanted. And, in any case, counselling--that I'm not qualified to do--only begins once you have a (hit and miss) profile of the couple. Mail in tests are no substitute for a real therapist.
So, as time passed, I became more and more convinced that my premarital counselling was little more than a charade. It was more for the benefit of parents who demanded free counselling for their kids than the young couple themselves. Eventually, I made a stand. I wouldn’t do it anymore. Instead, I insisted that all couples receive premarital counselling from a licensed therapist. I provided a list of names of Christian therapists if my couple insisted on it. But it was far more important to me that the couple find a great counsellor than a Christian one. "Great" and "Christian" are not synonymous. In fact, in a province like Ontario, just about anyone, trained or not, can put out a shingle (though this should change soon).
The other big change, of course, is that now many couples choose to live together without being wed. This was already happening occasionally during my college days, among friends—even though the couple usually spread their cohabitation between two apartments to keep it quiet. But by the time I was in my last Christian Reformed congregation, it was pretty clear to me that many couples were (still often very surreptitiously, but not always) living together. I’ve written about this in another blog post. Check it out at: http://tinyurl.com/kon8dnt
Does this mean there is nothing a pastor can and should do, anymore, before a couple marries—or even chooses to move in together—something that is quite common in my new church setting in the United Church? Not exactly.
First, I still urge all couples who are committed to a long-term relationship to get some professional insight into their project. Lots of fine therapists offer couples counselling and/or couples retreats. My wife, Irene, has being doing retreats for years, usually sells them out, and gets consistently good reports on them, even years later. Check out her upcoming retreats at: http://tinyurl.com/lyfp536
Two. Saying that I’m not a therapist doesn’t mean I’m ignorant about marriage. The Bible has things to say about committed love, and I preach that. More importantly, I have a great deal of lay fascination about couple relationships—in the same way I am fascinated by global warming, or end-times prophetic groups, or evolution. I know what models are most commonly used for marital therapy and who the key scholars are. This enriches my preaching and grounds my pleas that couples get pre-moving-in counselling in something other than ignorance.
Third. I strongly encourage couples to educate themselves about couples relationships. In that respect, I cannot recommend highly enough Sue Johnson’s new Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. The book is highly recommended by well-known scholars such as John Gottman and James Coan, as well as practitioners like my wife! Johnson’s approach, usually called Emotionally Focused Therapy, builds on the recognition that humans have a deep need for attachment. It is too complex an idea to explain in a few words—though I make a stab at it in the same post I mention two paragraphs above. One new feature of this book, compared to Johnson’s previous ones, is how it dips into neuroscience to help explain her approach. It makes frequent reference to clinical studies—a relatively new development in this field.
Sue Johnson’s work is all the more appealing due to the breadth of her approach’s explanatory power. Thus Johnson’s book also offers great insight into contemporary issues like pornography, social media, and how to raise children.
I wish that I had something like this thirty years ago! It would have given the lie to the reality that I was prepared to offer premarital counselling. And it would have been a great boost for the young lovers at whose weddings I officiated.