My first wedding didn’t turn out too well. My sister and the fellow she chose for her life-mate asked me to marry them. I was ordained and trying to pastor a tiny church outside Birmingham, but other than that, was as green as it’s possible to get. I bought a Pastor’s Manual (yep, they make those things) and in someone’s living room, as I recall, read every word of the ceremony.
I sometimes wondered if the fact that the marriage didn’t last had anything to do with the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing.
Sometime–when we both have the time–I’ll tell you some of my wedding stories. I have quite a few, some embarrassing to me (like calling the groom by the best man’s name) and some embarrassing to the participants (like the time the bride fainted), and some just funny.
I have done hundreds of weddings in almost every conceivable situation–sanctuaries, college chapels, parks, living rooms, and back yard patios–and so have learned a few lessons on how to do this right. (And twice that many on how to get it wrong!)
Here are my pointers. Use any that work for you, and ignore the rest.
1) A wedding ceremony should be a worship service. If the bride and groom do not want that, they should find a justice of the peace.
2) If you do as many as a dozen weddings a year, pastor, your church needs a wedding director.
When my wife had the time, she was an excellent director.
In most cases, the wedding director is a woman and will be chosen by you the pastor. You train her to do weddings your way. She meets with the bride and her mother weeks or months before the date and goes over everything. The wedding director is paid by the couple in the same way (and at the same time) they pay for the use of the church (which covers lights, janitorial, etc). At the rehearsal, she directs the wedding. She calls on you for the opening prayer, then puts everyone through their paces a couple of times. At the wedding, she arrives early and walks around with a clipboard making sure everyone is where they should be and that all goes off as planned.
(I once fired a director who challenged the way I was directing the bride and groom in the ceremony. She did this in front of the entire party–“No, pastor! That’s not right. That’s not the way to do that!”–then later came apologizing once she realized that she was mistaken. That was only her latest mistake, but it was the final straw.)
3) If your church has a policy as to who can be married in its facilities and who cannot, become familiar with it, and decide if it’s something you can live with. (If not, see if they will change it.) A good policy in print will spare you a lot of grief.
Our church in metro New Orleans gets calls from out-of-towners. “We want to get married in New Orleans and we were wondering if we could use your church.” We are able to answer, “Sorry. Our church policy does not allow that.” (Most churches limit weddings in their facilities to members of the flock and their extended family members. Note we’re not saying they have to be members of the church, but just part of the larger flock.)
4) Work out a few pre-marital counseling sessions, with appropriate reading material, and decide how much to require of couples whom you will marry. (Should you “require” they attend these sessions, otherwise turn the wedding down? It’s up to you.)
Young ministers just beginning to work out these matters will benefit from talking with older pastors. Some will have written materials they use which they will share with you. You’ll write your own eventually, but these will be of great help at first.
5) If most of your weddings take place at church and with the same musicians, directors, etc., then have a meeting to talk things out. Make sure you’re all on the same page. Appreciate the musicians in particular, because in most cases they are underpaid and underappreciated.
6) Decide in advance your policy concerning photographers during the wedding. Personally, I put it in print. We spell out in a single sheet of paper–and we give it to the bride at our first conference, suggesting she share it with the person she hires–that the photographers can be anywhere and take any shots BEFORE I start talking. But once the minister begins speaking, they should be unseen, they should be stationary (in one place and not moving around) and use only available light to take all the photos they wish. Then, once the couple has been presented at the end, the photographers can go anywhere they please.
I’ve run into photographers who chafe at this policy. That’s why the bride should hand the form to the photographers as soon as she engages them. (Once I arrived at the church to discover both the bride and the camera-guy angry. I asked, “What’s going on?” He said, “I’m not being allowed to do what I do.” I said, “And what is that?” He said, “To roam the church taking candid shots during the wedding.” I said, “My friend, we gave the bride this policy at our first session, and she was to tell you. If you took the job under false pretenses, you are in the wrong. If she did not tell you, she is in the wrong. But this is a worship service, and not a photo-op. Period.” Whether he was happy or not was absolutely of no concern to me.
7) I love wearing a robe for weddings. It keeps me from worrying about tuxedos and getting my dark suit to the cleaners.
In one church, when I purchased a robe and presented the invoice to the bookkeeper, the treasurer balked. “You get paid for weddings,” he said, “so you should buy your own robe.” I answered, “Most of the time I get paid, but often I get nothing. But let me ask you one question: Is marrying people part of my responsibility as pastor? If it’s not, I’ll buy my own robe and turn down most of the requests.” He paid the bill.
Most members have no idea that performing weddings demands a lot from pastors. He will meet with the couple to begin planning, then will do premarital counseling over several sessions, attend the rehearsal and the dinner, and finally perform the wedding. For all of this, they hand him a hundred-dollar bill. The point being, no one should look upon weddings as a major source of income for their minister. If he didn’t do weddings, he would have more Friday nights home with his family!
A side note: Pastors of large churches usually encourage members to invite staffers to do their weddings. Otherwise, they would not have time for anything else. And since their wedding director is frequently one of the associate ministers, the pastor is able to skip the rehearsal and simply show up for the wedding, knowing it will be done a certain way.
We’ve not touched on thorny issues every pastor has to deal with, such as the oft-divorced member who wants you to marry her to her latest beau, the man who abandoned his wife and children and now wants you to marry him to his secretary, or the members who get angry if you marry that couple who has lived together without marriage. There is no rulebook for this sort of thing. Sometimes any decision the preacher makes is going to offend someone.
Pray for your pastor. Ask God to protect him from people who will support him through every kind of controversy but who get angry and attack him for refusing to marry their daughter to the local playboy.
No one not called into the Christian ministry will last for long. Only the people of faith endure.