My first call was in a beautiful, southern small town on the coast of Alabama. The doors at the back of the sanctuary opened to a view of the water. While leading worship, it was not uncommon for me to look up and see sailboats or dolphins… it really was that gorgeous!
And because of this great location, the newly renovated sanctuary and our perfect center aisle, people we did not know and who were not connected with the congregation would often ask if they could get married in our church. The session had gone back and forth on whether this was a good thing or not over the years. They did not want to be a wedding chapel. But the other pastor and I were both okay with officiating these as long as we could do pre-marital counseling and the couple agreed to our wedding guidelines.
I will not pretend all of these “destination weddings” went smoothly or according to plan. People unacquainted with the Reformed order of worship do not always stick to the same script I have in my pastoral edition of the Book of Common Worship. But, they did all end with the beginning of a marriage.
So in terms of my relationship with most of these couples, this was it – and I knew that going in. I would sign the marriage license, send them a follow-up card a few months later and never hear from them again. While I was glad for the conversations and time I had with the couple before the wedding, I knew that was probably going to be extent of our interaction.
A lot of them lived out of town and some of them even said they left organized religion a long time ago. And while I knew that I was not going to become a long-term pastor for them, I often wished that I could have been. They allowed me to walk with them through one of those holy moments of life. They let me into a sacred space with them when we would sit down together and talk. They temporarily permitted me to be their pastor, if only for a day.
So while it was a privilege to do this, in many aspects I wondered if I made any sort of impact or if I simply acted as an agent of the great state of Alabama on an official document.
One day, I was sitting in the office when a couple walked up to the office window and knocked loudly. This didn’t happen often. People tended to use the door. I could tell they were a little confused, so I walked out to greet them.
It was an older couple, newly retired. They explained that they were taking a cross-country road trip, stopping at significant places from their past. That last phrase prompted me to ask what brought them to that place on that day.
They told me they were married in the church almost 30 years ago. They didn’t remember the pastor’s name or much about that day – but they did remember feeling welcomed and that it was one of the few times that they had ever set foot in a church. So I walked them into the sanctuary and let them look around. I opened the back doors for them to once again admire the view. I offered a prayer for the remainder of their journey. They thanked me and went on their way.
This chance encounter caused me to pause and reflect. I don’t care if those couples I married remember my name. I don’t care if they remember the passages I read, the meditation I gave or the specifics of the prayers I prayed. But I do hope they always remember they were welcomed by church and received warmly. And I hope the pastor they meet in that place on that day 30 years in the future will also have the time to pause and reflect.
BRIAN CHRISTOPHER COULTER is a husband, father, pastor, author, blogger and pingpong champion who is pretty good at sidewalk chalk and currently resides in Aiken, South Carolina.