A new normal for Presbyterian weddings

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 12.37.51 PMYou don’t know them. But, you answer the phone when they call the church, wanting to get married there (the sanctuary really is lovely) — or asking the minister to show up at a park or a farm or a hotel to perform the wedding. What’s the right answer? Is this an imposition, a ministry opportunity, or something else?

Ask any minister, and chances are they’ll have a wedding exasperation story to share, such as: the couple who want to marry in a church but don’t want God mentioned. In a time when young adults are increasingly spending Sunday mornings anywhere but church and listing no religious preference — a recent Pew Research poll found that only 10 percent of American adults ages 18 to 29 identify as mainline Protestant, while 36 percent claim no religious affiliation — many pastors also realize that a request to perform a wedding for non-members can essentially be a hand held out for conversation.

“It is a way that pastors get invited outside the typical church structure and sometimes the typical church building [and] into people’s lives,” said Rachel Parsons-Wells, a teaching elder and director of religious life and service at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. She recently performed a wedding where the couple intentionally steered away from some traditions — “no one’s walking anyone down the aisle,” Parsons-Wells said — but also wrote their own heartfelt vows and words of thanks to their families.

While this couple doesn’t describe themselves as Christian, they approached a Presbyterian minister when they decided to marry, knowing she would perform a Christian service of marriage. “That’s what I do,” Parsons-Wells said. “I’m not a justice of the peace.”

At the same time, Parsons-Wells is open to innovation. “I’m not really huge on tradition. I’m much more into intentionally thinking about the decisions they’re making and how they want to shape their lives,” she said. “Part of the role of the church is to use ritual to note shifts in people’s lives. And to be present in weddings is one way we do that.”

Parsons-Wells uses that opportunity to teach about the Reformed understanding of marriage. “You don’t marry someone because it’s nice and it makes you feel good. The quality of your relationship helps you do your work in the world. It may feel personal, but it’s not private. It’s a public, significant thing that shapes who you are and shapes your work in the world.”

Big, beautiful church
Since becoming the pastor at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville a year ago, all of the requests that Mike Wilson has received to perform weddings have come from people who are not members of the congregation. Others have asked to use the church but bring in their own minister. Why?

“Some of it is pure location,” Wilson said. “It’s a beautiful sanctuary, makes for great photo ops.” Before coming to Nashville, “I served a church in Pittsburgh that was fantastic for weddings because it had a long center aisle. It was perfect for the parade of bridesmaids,” although for nearly all those weddings he had a prior connection with the couple getting married. “Here at Downtown Church, I know none of these people.”

How does he feel about that? “The cynical side of me says as a pastor, I become just another prop,” Wilson said, in a city where “everything is framed in terms of venue and artist.” In talking to colleagues in ministry, “we’re seeing where couples are nominally religious, they’re looking for that perfect picture of a wedding and are not very concerned with the premarital counseling and the intricacies of planning the ceremony. They want ‘Here Comes the Bride,’ they want traditional vows, be done with it. I’ve been told, ‘We really don’t want a service that runs more than 25 minutes.’ ”

Wilson has performed weddings that were “really special” in other settings — in one case, in a hotel banquet hall where the couple “sought to craft something of beauty and with their faith at the center,” transforming a generic setting into what he called “sacred space.” Another couple married in a park, but intentionally chose “a real pastor from a real church who crafted a real service of Christian worship.” In his wedding homilies, Wilson tends to stress the Christian understanding of covenant that “transcends the civil contract.”

He understands that performing weddings for those not connected to a church can be a form of ministry. “On the one hand, I can see it as a genuine opportunity. Here’s a couple that’s unchurched, minimally churched, hasn’t been to church in forever. My better angel says this is an opportunity to model authentic Christian community,” Wilson said.

But “the other side of me says, ‘When was the last time you actually saw it pan out?’ The statistics just don’t bear out the notion that weddings and baptisms pull people in … I always remain hopeful, but I never get my hopes up.”

Weddings somewhere else
Some young couples who turn to ministers for weddings are still working through what they think about God and faith. Jordan Davis, a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary and now a church relations officer for the seminary, got married in June 2014 — with the wedding held in a garden, not a church sanctuary. “A lot of that is my husband is from a family of multiple religions — including everything from atheist to Islam,” she said. “I very much believe that God is where we are, so taking it out of the walls of a sanctuary didn’t bother them so much.”

Davis, who was ordained as a teaching elder in April, also has signed up on the Clergy for Hire website to perform weddings — partly as a result of her own experience. “To see an accessible young adult who is open to talking to these people who may not have a strong relationship with the church — whether they are hurt or didn’t grow up in the church, I could be that first step for them.”

Davis, 27, said she believes that many young adults who identify as among the “nones” are not necessarily saying they don’t believe in God. They may have experienced church not as welcoming, nurturing and supportive, but as “a very cliquish community … People are not feeling close to God in the church building on Sunday morning,” in part because “there’s so much focus now on how to get people in the door,” rather than on how to integrate them into an authentic faith community once they’re there.

Lyndsey McCall, 30, is a teaching elder, director of the Monroe Camp and Retreat Center in North Carolina, and a part-time director of Christian education at Laurinburg Presbyterian Church. She’s married several couples at the camp and says “I use it as an opportunity to really talk to the couple. I love it because, for whatever reason, coming in that nontraditional setting they can be honest,” feeling less constrained by the formal church or chafing at its rules.

Ministers today know that many of the couples who come to them to be married are living together or involved in a sexual relationship — but for the young adults, “I think there’s still a lot of fear of judgment,” Davis said. “That if we go to the church and we’re talking to the minster and a question comes up about our sexual relationship, what are we going to say?”

When a young couple asks a minister to marry them, “my hope would be that there is something inside them that says their faith is important enough that going into marriage, they want it to be part of their lives even though they don’t make it part of their weekly routine,” McCall said. Many Presbyterian churches skew older, and many young adults are “having a hard time fitting in and finding a place that feels right. They’re struggling to figure out their own beliefs, so that structure sometimes turns them off.”

When a minister performs the wedding in an outdoor space, it can create a sense of the sacred outside the sanctuary — providing a “neutral place” for those of other faiths or beliefs, while “being outside connects them to the creator,” McCall said. “There’s some kind of awe and mystery about nature which connects them with things much bigger than themselves.”

New approaches
Of course, not everyone who marries feels there’s a need for institutional religion to be part of it at all. Some couples choose a friend or family member who gets ordained online in order to perform the wedding; some Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ministers contend that the church ought to get out of the business of signing civil marriage licenses altogether.

Brian Ellison, a teaching elder from Missouri, worked for 13 years as a parish pastor before becoming executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. Culture has romanticized marriage, he contends, but in John Calvin’s teachings “it isn’t more sacred than a whole lot of other things, places where we can encounter the risen Christ.”

While the PC(USA) has made the controversial decision to allow its ministers to perform same-gender weddings, Ellison thinks there’s plenty for the church to continue talking about regarding marriage — including the meaning of covenant relationships. Even though he’s no longer in parish ministry, he still occasionally performs weddings — and Ellison said that while “none of them have been in churches, I would only do them if they’re religious weddings. I’m not going to do a service that’s not a Christian service of marriage.”

With those services — in a hotel ballroom, in a park — “they’re not rejecting religion, but they’re rejecting the need for an institutional venue at the very least,” he said. “They’re happy to have me read Scripture and preach a sermon. They don’t need the organ; they don’t need people to sing a hymn. They don’t need the trappings of religion the way they once did.”

One of the couples he married were two gay Methodists, whose own pastor was not allowed to officiate at a same-gender marriage. Rather than have a non-religious wedding, the men searched for a minister who would marry them. “In every way, they could have decided just to do away with the religious part altogether,” Ellison said. “But they wanted it enough that they had to call a second church and be referred to a third pastor who said ‘I’ll do your wedding and I’ll do your premarital counseling.’ ”

Do pastors hate weddings? “I’ve been known to say that I’d rather do a hundred funerals than a single wedding,” Ellison said. “But I’ll tell you: The things we hate about weddings are the reasons we ought to be doing them. We hate them because they’re not about worship. That’s precisely why we need to keep being involved in them: to turn the focus of this major life moment to committing one’s self to live faithfully.”