Have you ever overheard a conversation between a wedding coordinator and the pastor? I had one that went like this:
Wedding Coordinator: “Have you met the bride yet? She is a real Bridezilla. Her first question was about the carpet. She wanted to know if we were going to have it changed before her wedding. It seems she doesn’t like the color.”
Pastor: “Sounds like a bride with the wrong priorities!”
How does a pastor counsel a couple to focus on the right priorities? What is an essential and what is a frill? This is where competent pre-marital Christian counseling comes into play. To really get to the heart of marriage preparation, pre-marital counseling is vital. You may have noticed I wrote marriage preparation and not wedding preparation.
Many couples enter my office with a lovely planner that has lists and lists of things to do before the wedding. Rarely does the list mention “prepare for a marriage”. The wedding is important not because of extravagance but because it is a worship service. So, I tell them that I am certain we can plan for a beautiful worship service, but my most important job as a pastor is preparing them for marriage. It is my responsibility to take the focus away from a one day event and toward a lifelong commitment—a covenantal relationship between each other and God.
I generally hold three sessions with a couple. During the first session I get to know them. One of the key things we talk about are faith traditions, why they want to get married in the church, what their faith means to each of them, and where God is in their relationship. We discuss how they met, where they met, how long they dated before they got engaged, what they have in common, and where they have found themselves in conflict. Other topics are families of origin, family traditions, friends, education, careers, and their thoughts on having children and parenting. The conversation always leads to values and money (one of the key stressors in a marriage).
During the second session, we plan the worship service. This includes going through the entire service and offering them choices for each section of the liturgy. They also spend a significant amount of time reading Scripture together and deciding on passages that speak to them and their relationship. Watching their interactions during this process gives a great deal of insight into how they work together and problem solve. It gives room to begin the discussion on compromise. This also gives insight into how they respect each other, how they speak to one another, and how they value the other’s worth as a person. We talk about fighting fair: talking to each other in a respectful manner, no name calling, and discussing the matter at hand rather than every grievance they have from the past.
In the third session, we discuss how things have been going over the past few weeks and any concerns they have about the relationship. They have a chance to voice their struggles and areas of concern so that we can discuss them openly. I also ask what makes their relationship special and why they have decided they are meant to be together.
Every pastor has his/her own method of conducting pre-marital counseling. The important thing is that it is conducted openly and honestly and offers the couple the opportunity to truly explore their relationship. As a pastor with an Mdiv degree, when I sense that a couple has serious issues that go beyond my level of expertise, it is vital that I refer them to a person who is specialized in Christian counseling—like someone with a master of social work degree. I am never reluctant to refer a couple because as a pastor my desire is for them to enter into a solid, Christ-centered marriage based on a loving, devoted relationship. Marriage is not a 50/50 proposition. In a successful marriage, each person gives 100 percent.
The Rev. Carolyn Cranston ’99 is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and serves as the director of alumnae/i and church giving. As an ordained teaching elder, she’s also temporary associate pastor at Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and often officiates weddings.