Before They Say "I Do"

It was early in my second pastorate. A fine couple, active in the church, asked me to officiate at their wedding. So far as I knew, there was nothing to hinder me. From all reports everything was in order, and I was pleased that they had asked me as the new pastor to share in their wedding.

Prior to the wedding I probably did not spend more than ten minutes with them, unfortunately. I took too much for granted. At the wedding they were the picture of marital bliss. For several months it seemed they had a picture-perfect marriage. Then one day he did not come home from work. He pulled a disappearing act and simply walked away from his brokenhearted wife and relatively new bride. It was a shock to her and to me.

In a way, I felt partially responsible. I kept asking myself, What if... I had checked into his background more, discussed the principles of a Christian home, shared his conversion and commitment to Christ, talked over the wedding ceremony and its components, had them read some helpful books on building a strong home, understanding their temperaments, sexual knowledge, and the challenges their marriage would face.

I did none of the above. I simply served as the "marrying parson" believing they would "live happily ever after." After all, they were adults, older than I, and they should have known what they wanted in the person with whom they would share the rest of their lives. My naivete was glaringly exposed in this traumatic incident.

But I learned from it. I determined that in the future, to the best of my ability, I would do everything possible to tie a "tight knot" with every couple I married. I recognized that I could not be wholly responsible for a failing marriage, but I certainly did not desire to be even partially responsible. Next to the conversion experience, marriage is probably the most significant commitment we make in our lifetime. Since what happens to the home reflects on communities, churches, nations, and businesses; since children from a marital union are impacted by their home environment—as a minister of the gospel I have a golden opportunity to influence the direction of that new home in its formative stages.

From that moment on, I made the counseling and the wedding event a priority in my ministry. I read, studied, listened, and inhaled all I could about weddings, marriage, and the home. I then viewed the biblical teachings in a clearer light. As the years have rolled by, I have come to certain basic convictions and commitments I trust have been helpful to those I have tied together in marriage.

In over twenty years as a pastor, I have officiated at several hundred wedding ceremonies. To the best available knowledge, I cannot name over a dozen of those marriages that have ended in the divorce court. I do not take credit for that, but I am convinced that the time the staff and I devote to a couple, the strong demands and expectations our church has for godly homes, and the instruction we provide in one-on-one sharing, small-group study, and from the pulpit have undergirded those couples in building a lasting marriage. I also feel strongly that the wedding ceremony itself and all of the attendant proceedings have added a binding dimension to the marital ties.

The wedding ceremonies here have a strong biblical emphasis. You will recognize that none of these services are "five-minute specials." I see the wedding ceremony as one of those superb "teachable moments," not only for the couple but for the attendants, the family, and the friends who attend. In fact, through the wedding we have been able to reach at a later date many of these people for Christ and His church. The touchstone was the wedding ceremony. The Holy Spirit used it to convey certain eternal truths to which members of the wedding party were open at that particularly sensitive moment.

I have also made several other observations about a Christian wedding ceremony. First, the higher demands we have made on the couples concerning counseling, a Christian worship service, and a time limit (discussed later in this chapter) have not lessened the demand for our services—but increased them! When we put on our agenda the priorities God places high on His, we can expect blessing. I thought some of our expectations would run people away; instead, they seem to be invisible magnets drawing people from all walks of life.

Second, we have observed a high level of appreciation for the time, effort, and energy that I personally, the church, other staff members, and laity have put into their wedding and pre-wedding plans.

Third, the weddings have become more Christ-centered and worshipful. There is a sense of expectancy, a feeling that the living Christ is indeed involved with what is going on. Many couples even ask me to make sure that the gospel is included in my remarks, that some of their unsaved family members or friends can hear the way to eternal life.

My fervent prayer is that these introductory pages will be instructive, informative, and inspiring to those who read them and use this book in future years. I do not consider myself the ultimate authority on premarital counseling, marriage, and wedding ceremonies. No two ministers will perceive and do everything in the same manner, but we have found and practiced some things which have stood the test of the years and proven workable and helpful. I trust you will face the same situation, that the plowing of your life into those who sought you for assistance in marriage will cause them to remember you as one of the strong links in forging an enduring chain of love in a joyous Christian home.

The Premarital Interview

I suppose the first question to be asked is why I require a premarital interview. I've found some couples who expect it and desire it, but some are shocked when informed I want to talk with them before consenting to marry them. It is particularly offensive to those who think of the minister and the church as an addendum, a "necessary evil," or someone you are supposed to include because that makes it "legal," or it is a cultural custom. The interview is basic to all else that follows. Here are some of the reasons:

It enables you to get to know the couple in a much deeper relationship. Thus, when they stand at the altar, they see you as a trusted friend and vice versa.

It prevents those who want you to marry them on the spur of the moment from taking advantage of your compassionate spirit and demanding your services because you are a minister. When you explain you have a policy requiring everyone you marry to have an interview with you, and you have a minimum time requirement of three months' notice, it removes pressure and enables you to deal meaningfully with those who are serious about marriage.

(I use three months for advance notice; you may use a time limit suiting you. I have found the three months give time for the counseling, preparation for the marriage, and clearing the church calendar. In fact, I prefer six months. The reason? If there are serious problems that unfold, there is time to correct them or even delay the wedding. It gives you ample opportunity for positive input concerning the rehearsal, the wedding ceremony, and the building of an enduring union.)

It gives you opportunity to provide the couple with specific information concerning the spiritual, emotional, and physical aspects of their marriage.

It enables you to work out the details for the wedding and answer any questions they may have relative to the service, rehearsal, time, and place.

It provides the privilege to ascertain their personal commitment to Jesus Christ and His lordship in their lives. I have had the joy of leading many prospective brides and grooms to Christ in or after the interview session. I have often found it reveals what a person is not willing to commit or does not believe. This usually comes as a shock to the other party, but it is an eye-opener, a confrontation which can lead to salvation, conviction, or understanding of biblical principles of which they may have been ignorant. It can be painful or pleasant, but handled carefully, worthwhile for all involved.

The interview is preeminently important. Failure at this point can be detrimental to all concerned. Participation in a well-planned and prayed-over interview is one of the great blessings of the pastor's ministry. How many sessions should you plan for? I believe that is determined by the emphasis you as a minister place upon the Christian wedding ceremony and marriage. Every conscientious minister has hectic schedules, but this should have top priority. Through the years, until recently, I had three sessions lasting for thirty to forty-five minutes. In my present pastorate, I have one session of forty-five minutes to one hour. If I make a commitment to officiate at the wedding, the couple is referred to a six-session premarital counseling course our church offers on Sunday nights year-round. This gives the couple six hours of teaching conducted by another minister, plus the reading of books, listening to tapes, and completion of a workbook.

The question inevitably comes: What if they cannot come on Sunday night because of schedule conflicts, or one of them has to be away in college or service? We offer some alternatives. If there will be some weekends when they can be in town, a minister will meet with them for at least two sessions other than the original interview. If that is impossible, tapes, books, and the workbook are required to be read, listened to, and completed.

The majority is appreciative of these expectations, and I cannot recall anyone who has been unable to fulfill the requirements. In fact, our willingness to share in the wedding is predicated not only on the interview but also the attendance in the classes and the fulfilling of the requirements. If the couple is not willing to spend time seriously considering their wedding and marriage, they disqualify themselves as far as I am concerned.

The Structure of the Interview

I cannot offer you a stereotype of what you should do or say, but I can share a few of the subjects we deal with and the questions we ask. They are to the point and sometimes seem rather blunt. I have discovered that no one has the luxury of beating around the bush. Specific questions tend to receive specific answers. I have discovered that in some cases we delve into areas where the couple has never probed. It opens a new world to their own communication process; it enables them to think through or rethink some preconceived notions; it allows their discussions with me and each other to reach a much deeper level.

Let me briefly share the aesthetics, room setup, and personal preparation I bring to the interview.

I make sure it is private. The couple must know that their personal remarks are being made to you alone, and that their confidences will not be betrayed. Therefore, the room should be out of earshot of everyone else, and if possible, out of eyesight, too!

Second, I try to set them at ease as much as possible. Friendliness, warmth, and a hearty welcome help to set nervous marriage prospects at ease. I begin with chitchat, maybe telling them something funny or challenging that has happened to me that day; I inquire how their day is going. Before we move into the questions, I pause and lead in a word of prayer, asking God's leadership and blessing on our session.

Third, I arrange the room so they are seated together, facing me. This gives them more togetherness plus the encouragement they need as they face this uncertain time with a man they may have observed from the pulpit more than any other place!

Fourth, I offer them some orange juice or a cup of coffee as we begin. They usually refuse it, but that act of concern helps to establish rapport and a sense of caring.

Fifth, I try not to assume an authoritative stance. If I begin with that attitude, I may find myself "preaching" and the couple trapped listeners. The interview is an inducement for them to talk! That does not mean I do not make observations or give guidance, but I do all I can to get the couple to open up and share. It is good for them individually, it is good for them to hear what the other is thinking, and it gives me insights I can draw on later in the interview.

Sixth, I find that forty-five minutes to one hour is more than enough time for one interview. Longer sessions can degenerate into repetition and wasted time. At the conclusion of our share time, I ask the couple to join hands with me, and I lead in a prayer for them, their families, their wedding, and their future home.

Last, but not least, be prayerful. Eternal matters are at stake. Future joy and directions, family happiness, children, and even salvation may be determined by this critical time. It may be that these two are really not compatible for marriage and need to discover that before they make a drastic mistake. (We have had several couples to decide that, break their engagement, and start over in another direction.)

I recognize that this potential home will be a blessing or a curse to the couple, their family, any children they may have, and ultimately their community and our nation. I cannot haphazardly approach this hour. All eternity and time is wrapped up in it. I lean heavily on the Holy Spirit to guide me and them as we share.

—Pastor's Wedding Manual, The