As pastors, our call isn’t to put on a great prelude to a party (i.e., a wedding). It’s to prepare engaged couples for marriage, a lifelong relationship. Too often, time constraints lead many of us to focus the bulk of our “preparation” on planning a ceremony.
Here’s how we can change that:
Take on Fewer Couples
Because I spend ten to twelve hours with every premarital couple, I limit the number of couples I’ll see and the number of weddings I perform. Joining two people for life is a very serious thing, with lifelong implications. For me, I don’t believe it’s responsible to promise my blessing without truly knowing the couple and testing their relationship. I’d rather do a great job with a few couples than a cursory job with many.
Explain Your Agenda
The couple’s agenda is to get married. My agenda is to test the relationship and prepare them for life after the wedding. I explain this to couples at our very first meeting and invite them to go somewhere else if they want the common “two meetings and a ceremony” approach. The ten to twelve hours we spend are taken up going through 9 Must Have Conversations for a Doubt Free Wedding Day and one session going through the results of the “Prepare and Enrich” test. By the fourth or fifth session, I’m usually not testing the relationship anymore as much as I’m helping them to prepare to join their lives together.
Step Away When You Must
One of the most difficult tasks of pastoring for me is telling an engaged couple I’ve been working with that I’m not confident enough with their relationship to perform the service. They have two options: delay the wedding until the issues are addressed or find another pastor. Part of the job of pastoring is protecting the flock. I’m not going to knowingly marry a believer and a non-believer, for instance. Nor will I perform the service if I see likely signs of future abuse or unaddressed addictions that will devastate any marriage. I mention this possibility at the start so they know going in that my stepping back is always a possibility.
Stress the Need for Honesty
I don’t insist that the couple share all their secrets with me (I’m not a licensed therapeutic counselor), but I do strongly encourage the couple to share their secrets (appropriately and with proper counsel and discretion) with each other. For instance, I have them share their credit reports with each other. If there aren’t any problems, there won’t be any hesitation. If there is any hesitation, that in itself is a problem and the future spouse needs to know about it. Lying to get someone to marry you is about the worst form of fraud a person could commit. It is generous to take on someone’s debts, bad habits, limitations, ill health, etc.—but the person taking on these things deserves to know before the commitment is made just what it is they are committing to.
Ten to twelve hours with a couple might seem like too much, but the more I do it, the more I realize it’s actually not enough. That’s why I also assign homework. I wrote a devotional for exactly this purpose: Preparing Your Heart For Marriage: Devotions for Engaged Couples. The first fifteen devotions deal with common issues that come up in counseling: money, sex, communication, etc. The second portion of the devotional goes through the traditional statement of intent. The third portion goes through the traditional wedding vows, phrase by phrase. I know that on the couple’s wedding day the ceremony will go so fast that the vows they repeat will hardly even be heard, much less contemplated. But I want them to read the vows in advance, talk about them together, answer questions about what they mean, and pray about them together so that when they say them in the ceremony the words will be familiar friends rather than one-time acquaintances. Even if they choose not to use traditional vows, the language of the vows is powerful and a useful tool to prepare them for such a solemn commitment.
A good start never guarantees a strong finish, but it always helps. My goal is that when I say those wonderful words, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” I can rest in the assurance that they’ve been warned, comforted, encouraged, instructed and prepared to make these vows with integrity and confidence.
How to Use This Book
The wedding is planned, but are the couples you marry spiritually prepared for their wedding day? Trusted relationship author Gary Thomas coaches engaged couples on how to grow closer to the Lord in the days leading up to the wedding as a means of preparing them for all the days after the wedding. For some, planning a wedding, with all the decisions involved, can feel less like the onset of marriage and more like a long to-do list. Amidst the busyness, this devotional is designed to help couples think through the spiritual priorities and challenges that lie ahead in order to grow an outstanding marriage filled with love, grace, and God’s blessing.
With a special section on the marriage vows and meditations for the bride and groom, Preparing Your Heart For Marriage makes a great gift for engaged couples that includes encouraging entries that will help them deal with common issues such as:
- What real intimacy means
- How to celebrate your differences
- Remembering to laugh together