How to Reach the Premarital
We’re presented with an unparalleled opportunity to touch couples seeking marriage with Christ’s love.
The pattern is familiar: a couple calls the church office to say they are planning to be married and want to arrange a wedding in the church. They are not members of this church (or perhaps they were members years ago but haven’t been to a service since confirmation). They may not even be members of the denomination, but they “knew someone who was married at St. Swithin’s two years ago.”
How should we respond? What are the pastoral possibilities inherent in these situations?
Many clergy dismiss such calls immediately, explaining that they perform services only for members of their own congregation. Others may see some of the couples and make a decision to perform the ceremony on the basis of the couple’s rudimentary understanding of the Christian faith. Still others act as ecclesiastical marriage brokers, performing the ceremony for any and all who ask, usually beefing up their discretionary fund in the process.
After struggling with these questions for some time, I have devised an approach, based on a number of theological suppositions, that seems to work well.
The primary assumption
My primary assumption about all the individuals who call is that they have been prompted to call by the Holy Spirit. To be sure, they are probably unaware of this prompting, but in each of these situations, I assume God is giving me an opportunity to do some serious examination with the couple about the nature and quality of Christian marriage.
The couple may have their own reasons for calling the church, and each of them is woefully familiar to every minister:
“Your church is so pretty.”
“Your church is close to our reception hall.”
“My second cousin was married there by the minister who was there before you.”
Their initial reason for calling is unimportant. The Holy Spirit has prompted them to call your church, even if yours is the fourth or fifth on the list of possible places. You have been presented with an unparalleled opportunity to reach out with Christ’s love to two people who may have never before experienced it in all its fullness. I don’t dismiss such opportunities quickly.
My second assumption when the unchurched call is that this may be the first time they have ever turned to the church for help. If they are a young couple, both sets of parents are probably still living, and there is a good chance, given increasing rates of longevity, that the grandparents are living as well. Consequently, this couple may never have had an opportunity or the need to turn to the church in time of crisis. While they may have attended Sunday school in childhood, their most recent experience of church was probably a Christmas Eve service a number of years ago. For the first time in their lives, they really want something from the church.
Our initial response to their call will determine whether they see the church as cold and unresponsive, or open and responsive to those outside as well as inside its fellowship.
My third assumption is that there are some shreds of spiritual awareness that prompt them to seek marriage in the church. To be sure, a certain percentage of the couples who call want a church wedding only because “it’s tradition,” or because their parents insist. However, we must also recognize that for others, there are certain events in their lives which they see as “religious moments.” While they may want to confine their experience of God to controlled and predictable encounters, there are moments when they feel God should be included.
My fourth assumption (especially if they have no prior connection with the parish I serve) is that there may have been a problem with a previous church affiliation. Perhaps one of them is divorced and is not permitted to remarry in his or her own denomination. Perhaps one was treated harshly by a former pastor. Perhaps they were difficult and alienated themselves from the life of their initial church home and have not since been affiliated with a community of faith. In any event, they may well be spiritually homeless, and they have turned to your church. They may not be looking for a church home, but they are asking to use the house.
On the basis of these assumptions, I have determined to consent at least to meet with each couple who call inquiring about marriage.
The initial telephone call
I attempt to do some initial screening on the telephone, and I include a clear explanation of what can be expected from me. I determine where both parties live, their ages, and previous religious affiliation, if any. I ask if there were previous marriages, and if so, how long the divorce decree has been final, and where it was granted. Is at least one of the parties baptized? Have they sought to be married by another member of the clergy and been refused?
I explain to the caller that I will be glad to see the couple but that my consent does not mean I will guarantee to marry them. I insist that the interview be with both bride and groom, and that no other family members be present or accompany them. I explain that the purpose of the interview will be to determine whether we can speak seriously about being married in the church, and that at the conclusion of the interview I may consent to marry them, but in all probability no decision will be reached for some weeks. I then set a mutually convenient time when the couple can meet with me in the office, explaining that they should expect to be with me for at least an hour.
I do not make the appointment on the basis of a mother’s telephone request. When a mother calls, I simply explain that I will be glad to discuss the possibility when her daughter or son calls.
The initial interview
The attitude of most couples with no parish affiliation who come for an initial premarital interview falls usually into one of two categories—apprehensive or arrogant. They are either nervous, not knowing what to expect, or they are openly disdainful of this situation, which they consider a necessary evil. In any event, they are rarely comfortable. While many clergy might not try to dispel this feeling, thus retaining an edge or advantage, I try to make the couple as comfortable as possible, remembering that they will probably judge this “church business” by their impressions of who I am and how I respond to their presence.
After pleasantries have been exchanged, I turn immediately to the form that catalogs all necessary information required by the state and my denomination. I do this simply in question-and-answer form, and include questions of the date they had in mind, the names of their witnesses, and their permanent address after marriage. The last piece of information allows me to contact the church of my denomination closest to them for referral, should they be moving some distance from this parish.
Unless the couple is very young, or there is a great difference in their ages, I do not ask why they want to be married. After interviewing hundreds of couples, I have never found one that gives me an answer other than “because we love each other.” Obviously, the age of the couple may make it necessary to determine whether love—not trying to escape from a difficult family or personal situation—is their real intention. However, if they are both of reasonable age, and there are no legal or ecclesiastical impediments, I turn immediately to the meat of the interview.
My initial presentation usually runs as such:
Let me say at the outset that I am not here to sit in judgment of you. You have decided that you want to marry each other, and because there are no legal impediments to marriage that I can determine, you have every right to do so. You have decided to marry, and I am not going to try to change your mind. Our purpose today is simply to determine whether this marriage should begin in the church. Now the state and the church view marriage very differently. In the eyes of the state, marriage is little more than a contractual agreement—the two of you agree, by contract, to do certain things for each other, and make promises about how you will conduct your life together. The contract is witnessed by two individuals of legal age. At any point in the contract, you may choose to seek to have that contract dissolved through the process we call divorce. That is how the state views marriage, and this can be performed by a judge or a mayor.
The church’s view of marriage, however, is very different. So let me begin by asking: What do you really want? Do you simply want to be married, or do you want to commit yourselves to the unique responsibilities of Christian marriage?
This presentation is usually followed by a silence of considerable length as the couple look at me with a blank stare. I have on occasion had a couple respond that they simply want to be married. At that point I reply, “I’m sorry, I don’t perform weddings—I preside at the services of the church. If I had known that was all you wanted, I could have saved you the trip. Thank you for coming.” On those occasions, the couple, flustered by the swiftness of the dismissal, invariably back down and begin to explain what they meant by their prompt response. The door remains open.
More often than not, however, the couple, after sitting in silence for some time, ask what I mean. The opportunity for a teaching dialogue between clergy and couple has been presented. I usually proceed in a question-and-answer format designed to get at their personal spiritual development and the impact of that development on their common life. Some of the questions might take the following form:
How would you define your relationship with God? What role does God play in your daily life? What does God expect of a couple who begin their married life in the church? Have you discussed your mutual responsibilities as a Christian couple? How would you say Christian marriage differs from other marriages? Do you worship together? Do you feel comfortable with the idea of praying together? Why or why not?
To be sure, most unchurched couples I’ve met with take the attitude, “I try to live a good life and be nice to people,” but this avoidance of the issue must be pointed out. I make a clear distinction between being a Christian and being “nice” (or altruistic or philanthropic or compassionate). What I seek from them is a clear definition of how they see God working in their lives, and their response to that action. There are some couples who just don’t seem to get the point. Here is a potential approach for clarifying the issue:
“Your relationship as a couple has a number of different dimensions. There is a social dimension (you date, share common activities and friends), an emotional dimension (you have feelings toward and about each other that satisfy each other’s emotional needs), a financial dimension (you have made decisions about your common property, how your money will be handled, who will work, and at what job), a physical dimension (the sexual expression of your emotions), and a spiritual dimension. How do you see yourselves as spiritual persons, and how do you relate on a spiritual level with each other, and with God?”
Following this exploration, the couple usually come up with one of two answers. Either they realize there is a neglected aspect of their relationship and are anxious to develop that aspect, or they state that their commitment to the Christian faith is marginal at best and that they have no intention of associating with a church following the marriage ceremony. If the former situation arises, I have an opportunity to provide direction about the development of the Christian faith in this embryonic stage. If the latter presents itself, I usually use the following approach:
I am not a baseball fan. Understand, I believe in baseball—that is, I believe baseball exists and that there are many people whose happiness depends, in part, on the fortunes of a particular team. They go to each of the home games, wear team jackets, and put team decals on their cars. I can believe all of those things, but I am not a fan. I don’t enjoy going to baseball games, and whether the Mets win or lose is of no importance to me at all. It would be strange, therefore, if I wanted to have my wedding in Shea Stadium! You see, when you are married in the church, you ask for the blessing, approval, and support of God’s family as you begin your married life because God’s family is important to you. During a church wedding, you make promises to each other, and to God, about your life together and your life as members of God’s family.
At that point, I discuss the specific expectations of Christian marriage and the commitments made by the couple toward the church in that ceremony. Then, “Because you have made it clear that you have no commitment to the church, do you feel comfortable making solemn promises about your future involvement with the church?”
The device is obvious. Rather than making the decision for the couple, you present the couple with the teaching of the church and ask them to make the decision. Most couples have a sense of integrity and say they weren’t aware this was what happened in the context of the ceremony. Frequently, they say they would rather be married in a civil ceremony than make promises they don’t intend to keep. Occasionally, they say they still want to be married in the church, and at that point, you can justifiably state some expectations.
For instance: “You say you want to go ahead and make these promises to each other and to God. Each of you is willing to make these commitments to each other because you have seen some evidence that those promises are already being fulfilled. If you are serious about making these promises to God, why don’t you start fulfilling them now, and see how you feel about making a long-term commitment later. That is, let’s say that you are faithful in attending church and working at your Christian relationship and forgo making a decision about marriage in the church until you have had an opportunity to see how it ‘feels.’ In two months, after you have attended church together for a while, let’s get together again and talk about the next step—making a long-term commitment to establishing a Christian relationship.”
At that point, some couples say they have no intention of adhering to those expectations. In that event, they have made the decision: they do not wish to be married in the church if it entails attendance and support. I then thank them for their time and wish them well in their life together. They may, on the other hand, agree to those conditions, at which point I have provided the couple with an opportunity for a deep involvement with the community of faith.
Every attempt should be made to integrate the couple into the life of the congregation as soon as possible. Usually, their involvement leads to commitment.
The second interview
The context of the second interview is determined by the response of the couple to the conditions established at the first one. If they have expressed a desire to explore the spiritual aspect of their relationship and have agreed to a trial period of church involvement, we then discuss how they feel about their involvement thus far.
On occasion, couples have determined that church life is not for them, and they decide to forgo a church wedding in favor of a civil ceremony. More often than not, however, they have, through the movement of the Holy Spirit, found the richness inherent in Christian living and want to pursue their faith even further. A small percentage of couples agree to a period of church involvement but fail to fulfill that agreement. If that is the case, I express my confusion, saying,
You are ready to make lifelong promises to your partner because he or she is already, in a partial way, fulfilling those promises. If you didn’t see those promises being fulfilled, you would be skeptical about them being kept after the marriage ceremony. You have not demonstrated to me that you are ready to fulfill the promises you would be asked to make in a church wedding. Let me ask you again, are you ready to commit yourselves to a Christian marriage?
I have rarely had to refuse a couple. Usually they decide on their own either to commit themselves to the church or to seek a civil ceremony. From their response to the situations presented them, I tell the couple, in effect, that they already have made the decision about whether they really want to be married in the church, and that I agree (or disagree) with their decision. We then can plan the wedding itself, including a time for in-depth marital counseling.
The counseling phase
A significant portion of the premarital counseling process involves directing the couple toward full involvement in the life of the congregation. Pastors of other denominations might use a different approach, but I invariably urge the couple to attend adult inquirer classes that lead to confirmation. If they are lapsed members of my denomination, I suggest they request to be transferred from their home parish.
But more important, I emphasize not only technical membership in the church but active involvement as well. Themes centering on stewardship of their time, talent, and treasure fit naturally into the premarital program, and I see that they are directed toward programs or service groups within the congregation that would further heighten their interest and participation. In planning any fellowship or social function, I make sure the couple in question receives an invitation, either a handwritten note or a telephone call, from another member of the congregation, thus making them feel more a part of the parish family.
The congregation I serve is open and responds warmly to the presence of newcomers. The couple quickly feel at home. Should they be moving some distance from my church following their wedding, I contact the nearest church of my denomination and refer them to the pastor.
By using an approach that places the onus of the decision on the couple rather than the minister, I feel I fulfill a number of desirable goals. This approach provides an attitude of openness and caring; offers an opportunity for growth, teaching, and commitment; and most of all, allows the couple to have equity in the nature of all their commitments to each other and to God. They make the decisions and, having made them, are far more likely to fulfill the obligations inherent in Christian marriage.
Growing Your Church Through Evangelism and Outreach. 1st ed. Library of Christian leadership. Nashville. Tenn.: Moorings, 1996.