Four and a half years ago I wrote this post about premarital counseling. I had visions of grandeur and making post after post of things I wish seminary had taught me. Well, I wrote a total of three posts and my post on premarital counseling was the whole reason I started the “series” (that’s poor word choice, it was really one post with two other ones tacked onto it).
Since that post, I’ve actually gone almost another four whole years in seminary (again) and added another batch of weddings and their counseling to my pastoral experiences. I don’t think that I do the best weddings. I endeavor to make weddings Christ-centered, personal for the couple, light-hearted, and relatively brief.
Thus, I felt like it was time to update the post with what I do, what I still don’t do, and what I’ve learned.
In the original post I wrote of four things commonly run into during premarital counseling: (1) cohabitation, (2) divorce and remarriage, (3) premarital sex, (4) blended families, and (5) wounds. All of these are still true and are a regular part of waters that must be navigated during.
I also wrote about the general flow that I use during counseling. That flow is basically the same, but it has some adaptations:
- Instructions and Commitment: When a couple wants me to do their wedding, I don’t just say “Yes” on the jump. I let them know I’d love to consider it (I say this even to people I know well) and to be looking for some info from me. The instructions let them know what to fill out before our first session and it includes the commitment. The commitment covers some of the issues that, as a younger minister, I’d fumble into and not know how to address in the session. The form keeps things out in the open because couples will know what I’ll discuss.
- Questionnaire: This needs to be filled out before my first meeting with the couple. It’s the general “intake form.” It has been adjusted from time to time and this is the most updated version (though it still probably has typos). This form gives me simple information but also helps me know what to ask during the first session.
- The First Session: Once I get the above docs, I’ll schedule the first session. Doing so puts the ball in the couple’s court. I go, “I’d love to consider this, please look at the attached stuff and send it back when/if you want to get started.” If they turn it around quickly, then they might be pretty serious about pursuing marriage and counseling. To prepare for the first session, I read through each questionnaire (I print off hard copies), highlight things that look important, and write potential questions out to the side. If I’m on my game, I’ll also take a notepad and sketch out a flow for the first session, the questions to ask, to whom, and in what order. I go into this meeting prayerful because from that meeting we generally leave with a commitment to go further in counseling and I want them to know who I am and I want to know better who they are.
- The Book and The Schedule: I use the same book I did originally. Catching Foxes, while not perfect, covers enough ground and provides enough conversation starters that I have found it helpful in my sessions. I don’t ask the couple to answer every question. Rather, I say something like, “Read the chapter(s) and come back ready to discuss one or two things you liked or one or two questions you have. You don’t have to answer every question in the book, but answer the questions that seemed most pertinent to your situation.” The schedule itself has seven total commitments for the preacher and the couple: (1) the preliminary session, (2) four sessions covering the book, (3) the rehearsal dinner, and (4) the wedding. I fill this schedule out during the first session so we have tentative dates on the calendar.
- Other Sessions: Before each session I will re-read (or skim) the chapters we’ll be discussing, I’ll write out any comments based on my interaction with the couple from previous sessions, and I’ll write a rough sketch of the session (60-90 minutes). Each session begins with the couple sharing a high and a low from the last time we met. Part of the final session has this video in it. I usually lead into the session with it and use it as a discussion starter for how marriage might not meet our expectations if our expectations are based on the wrong things.
Along with this, there are a few pointers that I’ve learned along the way:
- Ceremony Flow: No later than session four I’ll take some time to talk about the ceremony flow. What are they envisioning for the service (often they aren’t), do they plan to write their vows or use mine, anything I need to know about family dynamics/etc. My current mentor and Senior Pastor, Kevin McKee, shared with me early on that a wedding has three elements: (1) getting in, (2) getting married, and (3) getting out. At each transition point in the flow there is an opportunity to place an element.
- Ceremony Elements: If couples haven’t thought about elements, I try to help them consider what they might want. Are there passages they want read? Are there songs they want sung? There are two elements that sometimes get thrown in that I talk with the couple about:
- Communion: Generally, I try and discourage communion in the wedding ceremony. I know that sounds weird (in fact, Courtney and I served communion to our wedding party in our own ceremony). However, Jesus gave communion to the church to remember his sacrifice. Personally, I became uncomfortable offering only a portion of the people in a room (often that has believers in it from the same church family) communion. Catholic-style is communion for everyone but Protestants. Honestly, I find that as being more appropriate (logically speaking) than just offering it to the wedding party. Once I talk about what I believe would be best, the couple usually says, “Yeah, let’s not do that.”
- Unity Things: I know unity sand is pretty, but I find it an odd way to try and demonstrate the two becoming one. Why? Because the sand can still be divided into its constituent parts—nothing actually changes. That seems like the opposite of what you are trying to communicate in a symbol. If the couple DOES want some kind of unity image, I tell them to go for a candle because you can’t distinguish the flame once they combine.
- Ceremony Manuscript: At session five, I bring a manuscript of the ceremony and walk through it one more time to be sure the couple and I are okay with the flow. Though I don’t usually manuscript sermons, I often manuscript weddings and funerals. If you click on the manuscript link, you’ll see a sample of how I generally walk through a wedding. This was one of my more recent weddings. I still don’t have the language perfected, but borrow and adjust and make better to your heart’s content. The couple I did this for gave me permission to share it. There are numerous elements within the document that I, too, have borrowed.
- Folder: This is for my sake, but I keep all the documents pertaining to a wedding in a manila folder and pull from it for all my sessions. I title that folder with the couple’s last names and their wedding day. (Why? Because I found that I regularly forgot their date during the session and embarrassingly had to re-ask). Also, using paper and pen for counseling keeps me away from all the digital stuff (like checking my email while I’m in a session). I do keep electronic copies of all the original info, but my hand-written notes and printouts of all docs goes into this folder and stays on my desk so I can refer to is as needed.
When I attend a wedding and see something I like, I try to take a note of it and, if possible, implement it. My counseling sessions and wedding ceremonies are far from perfect, but what exists above is (as of right now) the fruit of the best process I could come up with.
If you’ve done counseling or ceremonies, what elements of your process do you like? If you’re married, what parts of your counseling and ceremony ministered most effectively to you? I’m still trying to learn.