If you’ve read a few posts on this blog, you may know that I’m in the midst of wedding season. I’m officiating weddings this summer. A lot of them. So many, in fact, that in my spare time, I’m giving my energies to the rest of what it means to be a staff pastor at a church, an adjunct faculty member at a seminary in an intensive class, and a cab driver and chief entertainer for my son.
When you look at my schedule, it almost looks like most of what I do is weddings. Thus far I’ve had one in the chapel at NU, one on a boat, and one in a rose garden. Later, this year I know I’m going back to Alice Milar, maybe twice. I have three more in front of me. I’m toying with the idea of learning to play the guitar and making a full-fledged business out of it. I could sing, open the ceremony, charge the couple, and lead the vows in 30 minutes or less! I could offer a package. I know a great photographer. I could ask some capable videographers to go in on the work, too.
Uh, I’m kidding. I don’t officiate everybody’s wedding, despite my schedule. I’ve pointed to my thoughts behind my pastoral practice in this post here.
The other day I met with one of the couples for whom I’ll officiate in August. The groom-to-be asked me an interesting question. We were talking about discernment, my word for decision-making. I had asked my two questions for the first premarital session. He was answering the first question. And in his answer he asked, in other words, why pastors weren’t forthcoming with helpful feedback or wisdom when it came to a guy deciding to marry. When a guy wanted to know if this girl was the right one to marry, would a pastor be helpful? I loved the question.
My response to him was only slightly satisfying to me. It was even less satisfying to him, I think. And I’d be interested to know if you had any feedback. I told him that the decision to marry was a narrow decision inside a larger–what word did I say? I can’t remember, so I’ll make another up–world of decisions. Pastors are concerned with helping people develop the overall ability to pay attention to scripture (since that is our primary text), more appropriately to attend to the God of the scripture, and to connect the story of scripture with the stories of our lives (since the lives of people are our secondary texts, if you will).
I told him that our roles in people’s ears was to say over and over, “Are you submitted to God? If you are, your decisions will reflect that, including the decisions about who to marry.” I told him that when we’re submitted to God, it doesn’t matter, the particular question. I told him that pastors do our best work when we stay a little distant from the questions about this job or that job, about this relationship or that relationship.
Of course there are flags to respect. Wisdom and experience leave pastors and ministers with some tools and abilities that we must honor and offer when obvious. But offering my experience is a slippery slope if someone could mistake what Pastor Michael said with what God said. That happens. And it’s a slight move, in some people’s lives, to go from “I had my doubts about this person and when the pastor said to stay or leave them, that’s what I did” and “Since the pastor thinks this, it must be what God wants.” So here are a few reasons why pastors don’t tell people who to marry.
- People are grown. A friend of mine asked me if I took the weight of marriages on my shoulders. I told him no. I told him that I didn’t for the same reasons that I didn’t take the decision for a couple to marry on my shoulders: those people are grown. Sure, I told him, I have a responsibility to care, to offer biblical and theological tools, to connect dots, to point out potential concerns. But the couple is grown. And, in the words of a seasoned pastor, grown people do what grown people do.
- We respect the decisions couples make. We should. Yes, we should “check” those decisions when needed, but we should still respect the agency of the men and women in our churches. We are pastors, not police officers. Well, there is an example or two where a pastor (one of my mentors) will look at a guy’s credit report and say to his intended, “Don’t you dare marry this guy.” Indeed, we are shepherds and spiritual leaders, and our role, in part, is to ensure that our couples have a sense of what marriage will bring, an understanding of the covenant of marriage, language for what scripture and tradition says of the relationship, and community to challenge, support and love them through their transition as a couple. That means that it is a couple’s solemn responsibility to choose, to decide, and to do so every day after a marriage ceremony. We don’t just choose when we pop the question. We choose when we wake up every morning next to the same person, when we come home daily, when we’re present and committed.
- Pastors aren’t that smart. One of my favorite researchers in marital literature is John Gottman. I first made his acquaintance through the text in James Cordova’s psychology of couples and intimacy course at Illinois. Dr. Gottman can predict divorce. He’s a 30-year veteran of marriage, relationships, and psychology, and he can predict divorce after watching an interaction with a couple. But pastors are pastors. We aren’t John Gottman. We aren’t psychics, not that Gottman is. We aren’t future tellers. Most aren’t at least. So why would we set ourselves up to be someone we aren’t? To misrepresent ourselves and our work? Our work is not to identify the couples that will last or to only marry the good ones. Our assumption and approach is that every couple will honor their vows, living together in faithfulness to those sacred words, for life. And there are no good ones if the Gospel is true. All of us are incompatible, and that’s how grace becomes essential to life. But we can’t predict tomorrow. That’s why we are professional people of faith.
- Pastors aren’t supposed to make matches. We get in trouble when we do. People break up, before the altar and after the altar. It’s a sad truth, but it is real. And if a pastor steps in the business of suggesting who is a good fit for you, that pastor is inviting a problem. He or she is doing something that is best done by the people who watch your life closely. In most churches, that’s a small group of people, a circle of friends, a ministry group, not the pastoral leader. As a rule, introduce your pastor to the person after you’ve come to some sense of determination. That’ll relieve us. We don’t want to decide for you. Now, we might not mind taking the credit for your relationship 20 years down the road. And even then, we’re telling ourselves that your relationship was not in our hands. Our lives as leaders should be daily reminders to ourselves and to our congregations that our lives and our relationships are in Someone else’s hands. That doesn’t mean, though, that pastors can’t be in the business of weddings after the couples have matched. We can sing at weddings. So if you hear that I’ve started guitar…