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Preparing a Couple for Lifelong Marriage
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It’s Complicated
By Shawn Brace

 
Of all the parts of ministry that a pastor gets to participate in, officiating at a wedding has to be one of the more special occasions. This is especially true if the pastor has a relationship with the couple that extends beyond a mere familiarity. But even if the pastor doesn’t, there will always be a unique connection with the couple that makes this sacred event a joy to be a part of.
 
Of course, a lot goes into a wedding—though the event itself is merely the culmination of a lot of planning. The most important aspect of planning from a pastoral perspective, however, does not revolve around the wedding itself, but the marriage the pastor is solemnizing.
 
But there is an interesting—and largely discouraging—trend that I have noticed in the near-decade that I have been counseling couples who are preparing for marriage. This trend complicates the preparation and presents challenges that may not have been as prevalent for Seventh-day Adventist ministers a few decades ago.
 
Simply put, I have noticed that there are more and more couples who approach a potential marriage with complicating factors. In fact, in my nearly-decade long ministry, I have yet to marry a couple who might be considered a “traditional” fit—that is, the joining together of two individuals that are both believers, or who have never been married before or lived together. Instead, it seems that every couple that has approached me about marrying them has either been living together prior to marriage, is the potential union of a believer with a non-believer, or pursuing their second or third marriage. I don’t mention this for the purpose of trying to shame the couple; it’s just recognition of the dynamics that a pastor might face with greater frequency. A recent wedding I performed serves as a good illustration of this reality, and might provide insight in how to navigate the sometimes-muddy waters of wedding dynamics.
 
Not long ago, this young couple approached me about performing their wedding. The young man had grown up in the church I had been pastoring for a couple years, and I had known the young lady since she was a girl. Over the course of my time at the church, my wife and I had developed a very good relationship with them and had them over our house on many occasions. But there were two factors at play that mutually complicated the scenario: on the one hand, the young man was a baptized member of the church, while the young lady—who had attended Adventist churches her whole life—had never been baptized. On the other hand, what complicated the situation even more is that they had been living together for some time.
 
So I felt that I was between a rock and a hard place, to some extent. I had the choice of either marrying a young man who was baptized to a young lady who wasn’t, or baptizing a young woman who was—as it used to be called—“living in sin.”
Granted, there are many who, no doubt, feel that such an attitude is narrow-minded and rigidly legalistic. And I concur to some extent. We want to exude grace and love. Yet as ministers, we also want to set people up for success. In this case, studies show that a cohabiting couple has a lower chance of staying married,[1] and the more a couple has in common as it relates to their faith, the better off they will also be.
 
In this situation, I decided to consult with various ministers to see what their experience has been, as well as any general advice they might have. Without exception, the three or four that I talked with thought that I should invite the young lady to get baptized, while asking the young man to get re-baptized—since he had betrayed his original baptismal vows—and then ask them to live apart between the baptism and the wedding. Again, this may seem legalistic to some, yet I thought it was appropriate to try to establish some semblance of protocol—and when I approached the couple about it, they willingly agreed to the arrangement.
 
At that point, I started meeting with them—both for baptism and for pre-marriage counseling. Utilizing a series of Bible study guides that were heavy on the gospel, I felt that encountering Christ would be a great foundation for their marriage anyway, and could lay the groundwork effectively for more direct pre-marriage counseling. This is because unless the persons going into a marriage have a heart-experience with Christ, no amount of marriage counseling can join two hearts together.
 
The process moved along fine until another complicating factor popped up. When I approached the church about the arrangement, inviting the Board to recommend the young lady’s name for membership to the church family contingent upon her baptism, a number of the Board members—who generally tend to be loving, non-judgmental people—balked at the arrangement. They questioned the girl’s sincerity and thought it was somewhat arbitrary that the two would not live apart until after their baptism. They felt that if the two were sincerely converted, they would immediately separate.
 
I did my best to assure them that the couple seemed to have a genuine interest in going about things the right way, and that I was trying to make the best out of a complicated situation. I also emphasized the fact that every one of the three or four other pastors I counseled with—all of whom are fairly “conservative” on the theological spectrum—gave it almost no thought that this was the obvious approach to take. In fact, one pastor said that he had both baptized and married a cohabiting couple on the same day.
 
Finally, after a week or two of in-depth discussion—continued via e-mail—all the Board members relented and voted to recommend the young lady for church membership. A month or two later, I had the privilege of baptizing the young couple in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean in September, off the coast of Maine, and a few weeks later I had the honor of marrying them. Though they have since moved, I still keep in contact with them as much as I can and maintain the special connection that performing a wedding brings.
 
Of course, because of the multiple complicating factors, this scenario may be somewhat unique. And yet every minister will encounter issues when it comes to performing weddings that may not be anticipated ahead of time. That’s why it’s critical to be prepared and proactive, as far as possible. Thus, in light of this experience, as well as others I’ve encountered, these are some of the practical bits of advice that I would offer.
 
1. Get to know the couple as well as you can.
 
Ideally, this can happen before they even ask you to perform their wedding so that issues that may come up that might be uncomfortable can be addressed with greater sensitivity. It isn’t always possible, of course, because we are sometimes asked to perform weddings for couples we don’t really know at all; but even if this is the case, we should still make every effort to get to know them as much as we can, as quickly as we can.
 
This is because when we, as ministers, are asked to perform a wedding, we are not merely performing a legal, civic ceremony that’s a momentary event, but declaring God’s blessing upon the union for the entirety of the couple’s lives. This is a serious and solemn thought! If the couple wants the former, they can simply go to a Justice of the Peace.
 
2. Set out clear parameters and boundaries—especially ahead of time.
 
This is not a time to go on a power-trip, but when a couple approaches you about performing their wedding, sharing with them your expectations and practices at the very beginning is always helpful. This is not a time to totally undermine the plans the bride has likely been thinking about since her childhood, but if there are clear guidelines that your conscience dictates you follow—whether that is about the wedding itself, or the relational dynamics of the couple—then clarify those as quickly as possible.
 
As an example: it may not seem like a big deal to many, but I learned the hard way that I cannot, in good conscience, perform a wedding on Sabbath. I did it once and decided to never do it again. To be clear: I think that, theoretically, Sabbath could be a wonderful time to celebrate the union of husband and wife—and I don’t see any scriptural evidence to indicate it shouldn’t be done—but there is a lot more that goes into a wedding than just the “I dos.” There is a lot of last-minute planning and running around that makes it easy to forget it’s Sabbath—not to mention the environment that especially seems to be present at receptions (music, etc.). Again, it may not seem like a huge issue, but I’ve decided that I am going to tell couples, right from the get-go, that I simply won’t perform a wedding on Sabbath.
 
3. Be very deliberate about pre-marriage counseling.
 
This is a non-negotiable. It may be tempting to let counseling slide, especially if you have been asked to perform a wedding last-minute, or the couple lives far away, but to reiterate: you are being asked to provide spiritual guidance and blessing on the union. You need to thus do all that you can to provide the couple with as solid a spiritual foundation as you can.
 
Find a good counseling approach. One suggestion would be to utilize the Prepare/Enrich Assessment (www.prepare-enrich.com), which provides couples with an objective picture of how healthy their relationship is. If distance is an issue, try to find a trusted pastor in their area to do the counseling—or, better yet, meet with them via Skype.
 
4. Don’t be afraid to deal with touchy issues that come up.
 
One of the lessons I learned in my dealing with the cohabiting couple was that I should have dealt with their cohabiting long before they decided to get engaged. This would have made everything that followed a lot less complicated—and ultimately would have been for their good. Unfortunately, cohabiting is becoming a lot more prevalent in the church, and more and more churches and pastors are winking at it—at best—or condoning it altogether.[2] Admittedly, like a lot of other pastors, I don’t like to step on people’s toes, and I haven’t quite perfected the art of counseling couples out of cohabitation; but we still owe it to them—despite what they might think—to do all we can to graciously walk them through the process of realigning with God’s model for relationships.
 
When the journey between engagement and the wedding day ends, take time to enjoy the day. Most couples either have a wedding planner, or the bride has everything planned out herself. Very few couples will solicit your help when it comes to the service itself. In many ways, after you have gone through the pre-wedding journey with the couple, your job is to simply show up, smile, and rejoice with the couple and their family.
 
But one more practical piece of advice: don’t drag out a long homily. Anything the couple really needs to know should have been brought to their attention long before the wedding day. And besides, no one is really there to hear us anyway (nor will they likely remember what we’ve said).
 
Shawn Brace pastors a multi-church district in Northern New England Conference.
 
[1] See, for example, “Study Finds Cohabiting Doesn’t Make a Union Last,” in New York Times, March 2, 2010, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/03/us/03marry.html.
[2] For a Biblical discussion of the topic, see Richard M. Davidson, “Slipping the Knot,” in Adventist Review, Feb. 11, 2010: 20-22. Available also at http://archives.adventistreview.org/issue.php?id=3117