Avoiding the Wedding Bell Blues

May 11th, 2011

Every pastor or musician has at least one! I’m talking about “wedding stories,” those you-cannot-make-this-up happenings that are usually amusing—or at least less awful—after several retellings: flower girls running or crying, best men who leave the ring in the dressing room, family members or friends invited to sing songs completely out of their range. And these are the tame ones! Ultimately, these stories become part of the repertoire of “life in the church,” but at the time, there are often tears, disappointments, and misunderstandings. As we near the traditional wedding season, a few thoughts may be helpful for those who lead in the planning for a wedding. None of this information is new, but hopefully it will be a reminder of our pastoral and musical responsibilities for guiding this service of worship.

For, in fact, a wedding ceremony in the church is worship. It is a gathering of friends and family before God to give praise to God and to make a public promise before God. This single understanding can eliminate confusion up front. Because a wedding is a sacred service, the music, the gestures, the words, and the texts are all determined by that fact. Even for couples who are members of a congregation, this knowledge is sometimes lost in the excitement and romance—and fantasy—that take over. Here are some suggestions to guide your work:

1. Have a wedding policy for your church. This can be a brief booklet that outlines the schedule of planning and meetings with the pastor and musicians and information that can be shared with a hired wedding coordinator, photographer, or florist. All of the logistical information and guidelines should be included and clearly stated (arrangement of furnishings, flowers, candles, photography, and all fees) to eliminate confusion or resistance. Remember that positive statements are much more hospitable and inviting than negative (for example, “Votive candles along the altar rail create a lovely glow for an evening wedding,” rather than, “No candle wax on the carpet!”)

2. Offer musical options. Several organists I know have recorded samples of appropriate music for the pre-service music, processionals, seating of the mothers, and congregational hymns and songs. Most couples do not know exactly what music they want; but they may recall a wedding they have been to and have a certain “sound” in mind. Having a CD of the music played on the instruments in the space invites the couple to spend time listening and thinking and imagining the ceremony and its sounds. Often a couple will want their favorite or “special” song played or sung before the ceremony. This may or may not be a song for a worship service. Reminding them that they will not be in the worship space before the service can help move that choice to the reception or party that follows. Offering options up front can eliminate a veto of an inappropriate choice. (A bride once asked me if I would play the theme from The Godfather as the mothers were seated.)

3. The vows. “Writing our own vows” is a way of saying, “we want this day to be our own.” Certainly, the sentiment is valid, but things can get unwieldy or wordy without some guidance. Your own denominational book of worship is the foundational resource when planning with a couple. A clear understanding of the structure and flow of the service—from the statement of intentions to the vows to the giving of the rings is essential and is well defined in such resources. There are options and suggestions for the service, in addition to multiple choices for scripture readings. One particularly helpful book is Christian Weddings: Resources to Make Your Ceremony Unique (Abingdon), which contains the wedding services from more than twenty denominations, arranged in the order of the service with parallel layout of the various prayers, vows, and statements of intention. This book allows couples to particularize their service, adding a phrase or prayer from a particular tradition, without completely rewriting the service.

The most well-organized, inviting, carefully thought-out planning, the most encouraging and pastoral conversation, and the most rehearsed and inspiring music cannot account for wedding guests. I was a guest at a recent beautiful evening wedding with multiple generations of family and friends in attendance. The ushers were dignified, the pre-service music was lovely, the candles glowed, the mothers were seated, and the attendants processed; as the doors opened for the bride and her father to begin the walk down the aisle, about twenty of the bride’s friends pulled out their cell phones and began taking pictures! By the middle of the service any absent friends probably had a text message and an up-to-the-minute report of the happenings!

So, plan well, be prepared, and expect another “wedding story” at any time!

What difficult wedding issues have you faced in ministry?

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