Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Matrimonial Boom can be a Ministerial Bust

Mr. L and I managed to accomplish a huge feat this week: Actually discussing and planning one third of our summer vacation plans after only 13 weeks of saying, "we need to plan our vacation" and then not doing it and watching more Modern Family (which is one of the best shows ever, by the way) plus a few episodes of Glee. But I am telling you this because in looking over my summer schedule to prepare for this conversation, I had a shocking realization: This is the first summer in about a decade that I will not participate in or preside over a single wedding. WOAH.

Since reaching the age of 22, weddings have been a big part of my life as friend after friend has taken the plunge into matrimony, and Mr. L and I have come along for the ride, sometimes donning brightly colored dresses (me mostly) or tuxedos (him mostly), or sometimes just being part of the revelrous crowd. We love weddings and think it important to bear witness to these important events in our friends' lives (apart from which Mr. L LOVES wedding cake.) But since becoming a minister things have become much more serious for me. It is quite cool to have someone you know as the officiant at your wedding (I know this as we had several people who knew us as officiants in our wedding and it was cool). And so having become a minister exactly at the age in which many of my contemporaries were getting married has meant that I have gotten  swept up in the martial tide in an unexpected way.

Now, I, like many of my colleagues preparing for ministry, believed that officiating at weddings was going to be one of the most treasured privileges of my clerical status.  I had imagined myself presiding wisely and authoritatively over crowds of well-wishers and young happy lovers, sprinkling it all with a dose of humor and theological profundity, while finding the whole thing incredibly fulfilling and gaining the respect of colleagues and friends far and wide.  But it's turned out differently than that.

Because weddings are actually REALLY hard work. Ask any pastor, and he or she will likely tell you that they would MUCH rather preside over a funeral than a wedding.* Why, you ask? In short, because no one's been thinking about exactly what they want their funeral to be like since they were 7 years old.

Quite obviously, there are so many expectations surrounding a wedding. So many layers of emotion and anxiety and anticipation.  And while you might have high ideals that as a minister you will be a grounding spiritual force in this swirl of fantasy and logistical madness, that is only seldom the case. Many times, you end up being simply one more check box of an expectation fulfilled.  BUT, now here comes the really difficult part: the expectations of you can be high and vague at the same time. Though some people have constructed impressively detailed plans about what each piece of their wedding will look like (some before they even met their partner!), the ceremony and minister are not always a part of that fantasizing. They know it should be amazing and meaningful and unique and life-changing, but most have no idea what that will actually entail (especially if they are not plugged into a religious tradition already). And now you are in the super high-stakes game of trying to craft a meaningful ritual around your psychic predictions of the whims of a bride and groom with much more important things to do like choose the flower arrangements and create the DJ's playlist.  This becomes even more uncomfortable in this instances in which you are asked to set aside your own carefully molded and deeply held beliefs in favor of something "more neutral." ("Not too much of that Jesus talk that I know you're into, if you wouldn't mind.")  So you are left alone with the huge task of finding a way to say meaningful things and guide this couple into the world of marriage in a mature and wise way whether they're asking you to or not, often without the guidance and traditions of your own faith.** This takes thought and TIME, more than one might realize.

Additionally, being the officiant means you end up in this strange in-between place. You are not "in" the wedding, as in "in" the bridal party, and you don't get to experience the intimacy of those "in" moments. No matter the proximity of your friendship with the betrothed, you likely aren't invited to dressing room to see the holy moment of donning the gown or to the pre-wedding manicures or for a mimosa before the ceremony (though you might be the one who needs it the most!). No one cares if you are in any of the photographs or if you know the schedule of the day. You are like a free-agent milling the grounds waiting for your contracted part to being.  Yet at exactly the same time you are very much more "in" than anyone. You are the one there in the moment; it is you that is saying their vows alongside them, you who is ushering their marriage into the world, like some sort of matrimonial midwife. An incredibly intimate affair indeed.***

And all this adds up to quite a bit of tension and anxiety for Madame Minister. Now let me be clear:  And am I happy to be asked to officiate at weddings? YES, OF COURSE.. There are few greater honors. And it is sacred and a privilege? YES, CERTAINLY. And have I had fulfilling experiences? WITHOUT A DOUBT.
Some of my most favorite moments?
-Offering two of my dearest friends their first communion as a married couple as part of what I consider to be the Most Presbyterian Wedding Ceremony Ever Conceived (love you T & B!). It was so meaningful to be a part of something that represented my own tradition so thoroughly and the couple so authentically.

-Officiating at a tiny wedding ceremony atop a Portland, OR landmark....outside....in December..... in the snow and sleet....and seeing them be filled with happiness! I wouldn't have missed it. (K&N....hope to see you this summer!)
-Hearing a year later from friends and neighbors that they still remember my wedding sermon...and try to enact my advice! What a privilege to have spoken a word to you all that was helpful in your relationship, though you didn't need it, as you are an amazing couple. (K&S: If you are reading this, let's get drinks again soon!)
-Helping to co-officiate at my father-in-law's wedding to P (who we are so happy to have in our lives!).... It was such an honor to be invited into that special family event!
-My first ever wedding at the Grand Canyon, by far the most striking locale and two of my favorite people who also happen to be my cousins! Thanks for taking a chance on a novice officiant!
There have been more, though I don't have room to share them all here.

But I also feel compelled to share the challenges of this office. I should note that all my minister friends actually told me NOT to post these thoughts. Brides and grooms across the nation will be racked with self-reproach and fury if you critique your experience as their minister-in-that-moment, they warned. And I agree....sharing the frustrations of ministry with those to whom you are minister is tricky business (I still don't know how pastors get away with writing books about their congregants without totally betraying the pastoral relationship.....though I hope they tell me sometime, as I have some great stories!). But I do long for more awareness of what is being asked and what is being offered in the invitation to become an officiant. If folks don't know what it's like to be a minister, it's because we haven't told them. So I'm telling. And sharing my advice for how to help be a great couple to an officiant.

So here is the Love-it-or-leav-itt Guide to Interacting with Your Officiant in three simple steps:

1) Be professional. Maybe she is your cousin, or your best high school friend, or a buddy from the gym, but if she is also a minister, you must realize that she is a professional, and that you are asking her to support you in her capacity as a professional. Yes, this will blur the lines of your relationship a little bit. Yes, it my be uncomfortable. But becoming a minister takes years of preparation, significant education and, actually, a CALL FROM GOD. It is serious. And you should treat it that way.**** This means responding to her as a professional when you interact about officiating details. It also means allowing her to maintain her own professional integrity, whatever that means to her. And lastly, as this is a professional task, it is appropriate to offer to compensate her.***** You didn't ask the caterer to do this work "just for fun," and you shouldn't do the same with your minister either. Most likely she'll say, "No, way!"  But offering, directly and concretely, is essential. It is a clear way to say, "We recognize you are a professional. We appreciate your expertise. We know this is work for you."****** If you have limited funds, find another way to say these things (I am excitedly awaiting a custom-made communion set offered as a gift to me by a couple in whose wedding I recently participated....perfect!). Just be sure to do something. If you don't, you risk making her feel as if you don't appreciate her professional expertise. (Exceptions to this rule MAY include: 1) Family. It's still nice to offer, but likely not as necessary. 2) The Minister of the church of which you are a member. This is their job and one of the "perks" of being involved in a church community!)

2) Be Clear. Communicate clearly your desires and wishes. Perhaps even think ahead of time about what you want the ceremony to be like, what message you'd like it to convey, and what elements you'd like to include. I officiated for a couple once who came to our first meeting prepared with three themes they wanted to weave into their ceremony, along with readings and song choices that were meaningful to their families and an self-apapted version of a pastoral prayer I had sent to them. (M&T....you are the best!). They had no idea how immensely helpful this was in helping me to think through how to craft something that was be meaningful to them. I wish everyone did the same.

3) Be thankful. Being a minister means doing a lot of thankless work, work which most of us ministers feel called and privileged to do. But that doesn't mean we don't like getting thanked every now and again, especially if we have gone out of our way (for instance, by taking off one of our limited vacation Sundays in order to fly all over the world and marry you).  It helps to be thanked. Sincerely. Officially. Really. Maybe you could send a note (not the same one you sent to thank me for the $30 blender I got you, but actually a whole different note). And please don't say "Everyone really loved the ceremony." (We hear that all the time in the hand shaking line at the back of church....and it is a central truth that people will lie through their teeth in that line. ) Instead try, "It was so meaningful to me, personally, because....." We will cherish these words. We will put them in a file and read them when we are down and out, and they will be like manna for us in the wilderness of a trying job. As will the memories of couples who we have had the privilege to join together.

I hope whoever is reading this will not take offense at anything I've said here. What I do hope is that you will convey this information to your friends and loved ones who are on the verge of tying the knot, helping out a few of my many colleagues along the way and making the world of ministry and marriage a happier place for all!

And now, by the power invested in me by the world wide web, I declare this rant over!

*This is a verifiable fact...if you're not a minister you won't believe me, and likely if you ask a minister, they may lie to you about this, but it is TRUE.
**This is tough, right? Because you want to be open and affirming and create something that authentically reflects the people getting married, while at the same time you don't want to throw all your integrity about your own beliefs and commitments out the window. I have some friends who will refuse to perform any wedding that is not Christian....I don't know that I'm quite there, but it is a little bit deflating to be told not to use any theological language after spending years preparing to become a theological authority in the world.
***Strangely, in the instances in which I've officiated at the weddings of more distant friends, I've found there can be some awkwardness after the intimacy of being in the midst of someone's wedding covenant,  from which the friendship may or may not recover.  It's like making out with someone for the first time and then meeting them for coffee later....it's a challenge to return to a more shallow level of intimacy.
**** Please, please, please, please PLEASE do not get me started on getting ordained online to perform weddings. While I completely understand the impetus behind this and know many people who have chosen to do this for various reasons, it can feel like a bit of a slap in the face to have others accept a privilege for which I spent years preparing with the click of a button. I like Massachusetts' model of allowing a civilian to become a Justice of the Peace for a day in order to perform a wedding ceremony. This seems to make more sense and more importantly doesn't piss me off.
***** People will hate me for saying this, but really I am just being real. Your photographer friends, your cake-making friends, your flower decorating friends, they are all thinking this and just not saying it. So offer. Most likely they'll say no and you'll be off the hook. But they appreciate you saying it. 
****** While I am on this crazy bandwagon, might I point out that covering transportation costs is not the same as compensation? Mr. L's employer, for instance, offers him a discount on his subway pass, but it would be considered INSANE if they did not also offer him a salary. Getting to the job is not impetus enough to do it.  I might be going over the edge here, but it seems to me it should be the same for ministers.


  1. Oh dear...we are guilty of promoting the online ordination. You make a good point that it is totally offensive to you and other ministerial professionals who worked so hard for your ordination. Eek. Sorry. But this post was awesome, and not at all offensive. I sorta want to email it to all the wedding blogs I read. (I'd ask before I do that, obviously. I won't, for now).

  2. This is FABULOUS......and YES, you SHOULD have posted those thoughts. Remember, OUR wedding had to be done in such a rush we had NO choice WHO would be an officiant.....if WE....had been able to make that decision.....guess WHO would have been asked......... (and it wouldn't have been online).

  3. @MWK: First, as I said, I know dozens of people who got married by ministers ordained online. And many more who pursued ordination that way themselves for one reason or another. It's not a legitimate beef...just something that is ironic in a slightly annoying way. Second, I would love love love for you to pass this on to your wedding blog-o-sphere connections. Get this info out there! :)
    @Mark H: I would LOVED to marry you...it would have been the greatest privilege! Maybe we can arrange something for when you renew your vows one day!