Monday, February 10, 2014

How It's All Different Now: Couples, Weddings, and Counselling.


            Weddings have changed a lot over the past thirty years. Sometimes they disappear altogether. So what is a pastor to do?

            I love weddings as much as the next person, but especially when the people getting married are close friends, their children, or relatives. On the other hand, I can’t say that weddings are the favourite part of my work as a pastor.

            When I began in the ministry, most of the difficulties were practical. They took a lot of time and money, two things that always seemed in short supply. The toughest issue was time. A wedding meant offering three or four premarital counselling sessions, another to discuss the wedding liturgy, then a rehearsal (usually on Friday nights), followed by a rehearsal dinner. Then there was the wedding itself, usually on Saturday afternoon, followed by a reception, usually in the evening, effectively eating up the whole day. My wife and I would have to sort out how much babysitter we could afford, how many invites to rehearsal dinners or receptions we could turn down, and then decide how much we could afford on wedding gifts. Preparing wedding sermons took a lot of time too. I tried to make every wedding sermon very personal and unique, so that the audience would know I was speaking to this couple in particular. As a young pastor, I sometimes had to do this five or six times during the summer. It was a big, sometimes costly load. The fifty or seventy-five dollars honorarium barely covered costs.

            Eventually, Irene and I figured most of this out. We decided that as a matter of course we would turn down rehearsal dinners. We decided that we couldn’t afford the purchase of wedding gifts—and I would explain this to the couple well before hand. If the couple were participating members of the church, Irene tried to attend the reception with me. Sometimes I would decline the invitation to the reception if it came during a busy stretch of the year. We bathed all of these guidelines in lots of communication with the couple getting married. We never had any problems—at least that I heard of.

            Over time, however, I became more and more frustrated by the expectation that I should provide premarital counselling. At first, naively, I thought, “no problem.” I treated it as a class on marriage in the Bible and agape as the Christian approach to love. We studied the formulary and its claims. I explained over and over again how Paul’s demand that women submit to husbands meant that they should love their husbands as their husbands loved them. And so on.

            Over time, however, as my wife trained to be a therapist, and then specialized in couple’s counselling, I began to realize that all I had for my couples were platitudes. My wife had real training—years of it. She had many annual seminars, and regular professional supervision as well. My two seminary classes in pastoral theology couldn’t hold a candle to any of that.

            Sure, there were a bunch of marriage training courses out there that included mail in tests that would tell me a bit about the couple. But the couple could take such tests on their own, if they wanted. And, in any case, counselling--that I'm not qualified to do--only begins once you have a (hit and miss) profile of the couple. Mail in tests are no substitute for a real therapist.

            So, as time passed, I became more and more convinced that my premarital counselling was little more than a charade. It was more for the benefit of parents who demanded free counselling for their kids than the young couple themselves. Eventually, I made a stand. I wouldn’t do it anymore. Instead, I insisted that all couples receive premarital counselling from a licensed therapist. I provided a list of names of Christian therapists if my couple insisted on it. But it was far more important to me that the couple find a great counsellor than a Christian one. "Great" and "Christian" are not synonymous. In fact, in a province like Ontario, just about anyone, trained or not, can put out a shingle (though this should change soon).

            The other big change, of course, is that now many couples choose to live together without being wed. This was already happening occasionally during my college days, among friends—even though the couple usually spread their cohabitation between two apartments to keep it quiet. But by the time I was in my last Christian Reformed congregation, it was pretty clear to me that many couples were (still often very surreptitiously, but not always) living together. I’ve written about this in another blog post. Check it out at: http://tinyurl.com/kon8dnt
            Does this mean there is nothing a pastor can and should do, anymore, before a couple marries—or even chooses to move in together—something that is quite common in my new church setting in the United Church? Not exactly.

            First, I still urge all couples who are committed to a long-term relationship to get some professional insight into their project. Lots of fine therapists offer couples counselling and/or couples retreats. My wife, Irene, has being doing retreats for years, usually sells them out, and gets consistently good reports on them, even years later. Check out her upcoming retreats at: http://tinyurl.com/lyfp536

            Two. Saying that I’m not a therapist doesn’t mean I’m ignorant about marriage. The Bible has things to say about committed love, and I preach that. More importantly, I have a great deal of lay fascination about couple relationships—in the same way I am fascinated by global warming, or end-times prophetic groups, or evolution. I know what models are most commonly used for marital therapy and who the key scholars are. This enriches my preaching and grounds my pleas that couples get pre-moving-in counselling in something other than ignorance.

            Third. I strongly encourage couples to educate themselves about couples relationships. In that respect, I cannot recommend highly enough Sue Johnson’s new Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. The book is highly recommended by well-known scholars such as John Gottman and James Coan, as well as practitioners like my wife! Johnson’s approach, usually called Emotionally Focused Therapy, builds on the recognition that humans have a deep need for attachment. It is too complex an idea to explain in a few words—though I make a stab at it in the same post I mention two paragraphs above. One new feature of this book, compared to Johnson’s previous ones, is how it dips into neuroscience to help explain her approach. It makes frequent reference to clinical studies—a relatively new development in this field.

             Sue Johnson’s work is all the more appealing due to the breadth of her approach’s explanatory power. Thus Johnson’s book also offers great insight into contemporary issues like pornography, social media, and how to raise children.


            I wish that I had something like this thirty years ago! It would have given the lie to the reality that I was prepared to offer premarital counselling. And it would have been a great boost for the young lovers at whose weddings I officiated.

12 comments:

  1. The best part of your counseling, John, was when you said, "Paul was a sexist," which said as much about biblical interpretation and contextualism as it did about mutual submission! We just celebrated 20 years; thanks for being there, and doing 2 weddings that day, 2 hours apart. - Steve Fridsma

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    1. Thanks Steve! I remember your service well--one of the best thought out weddings, and most fun, that I ever officiated at! Nice venue, too.

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  2. So I'm not exactly sure where this post leaves you. You point them to good books and help, hopefully you make the day nice like a caterer or an event organizer. Anything more? Do you have something to offer them besides pointing them to resources on how to make their relationship an enjoyable union if therapy, the economy, and health permits?

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    1. Well, like I said, there is a very helpful stream of insight about committed relationships in scripture, and I preach that. I make a point of preaching at weddings, so that the message incorporates some of this stuff in a very personal way. I insist on qualified pre-marital counselling (usually). We meet to talk about the service, the bans, the sermon. But that is it--a lot less than I used to do. When couples get married, which in my new context, is actually quite rare.

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    2. I've mentally returned to your post since I read it, and returned to your answer too. They both make me sad.

      What makes me sad (perhaps) is what seems to be the diminishment of something I've always sensed ministry to be, the declaration of the kingdom of God. They seemed to have been exchanged for a lesser thing, a good thing but lesser.

      You've taken on a therapeutic role, pointing them to a wise counselor. That's a good thing and helpful. You're pointing to a value in scripture that it is fitting to have relationships of commitment rather than utility, that's a good thing. I would argue that in marriage, both the good and the broken there is a space for the glory and power of God to be revealed. It is in that space that the kingdom is announced, sometimes expressed, sometimes revealed, sometimes betrayed, but present nevertheless. It would seem to me that this is the space into which you step and you uniquely are positioned to step there and that is why the wedding happens not in the courthouse but in the church. I wonder how this fits into your journey to doubt. pvk

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    3. Hi Paul. I've been focussed on getting a few blog posts up, so forgive the delay in responding! Actually, I've totally abandoned the therapeutic role, which is why I send people out for pre-marital counselling. I'm not qualified to do it. However, when in the course of a long year of preaching I do have opportunity to talk about promises and their role in marriage, and why it matters to Christians, I do--something I talk about when I discuss vows with couples planning a wedding, as well.
      But you bring up the Kingdom of God--not something that a marriage counsellor is likely to bring up (especially a secular one!). That isn't, as you suggest a therapeutic issue. It's a worldview, big perspective sort of issue. Is the KOG something you or I would normally mention when we preach about marriage or promises?
      I used to, but no more. I think the language of the KOG isn't very helpful anymore. Much of this anthropomorphic imagery is in scripture because of the self-conscious and subversive ways the Biblical authors wanted to undermine the pervasive, violent, and unjust Roman system (and perhaps even in the case of the gospel writers, the local Jewish leadership). But we've moved on. There is no Roman empire (unless we're thinking the Roman Catholic Church). There is no world empire at all (unless we, with some commentators want to talk about the American Empire). There is a whole new set of issues that New Testament writers could not have dreamed of--issues that don't lend themselves to KOG language (climate, wealth, consumption). KOG language is also so anthropomorphic that when we use it independently of the pervasive power of the Roman empire, it puts God into a hierarchal, almost comic-book sort of box, and invites Christians to triumphalistic views about what they're doing on earth as appointed representatives. So, while I hope I can still see and appreciate the sitz im leben of that language in its Biblical context, it just needs way too much reinterpretation and is way to prone to misunderstanding to be of much help today. All of which is not to say I've settled on an alternative metanarrative image to take its place, unless it is "following Jesus." Without a doubt, however, changing my mind about the narratives I grew up with invites a lot of uncertainty as one tries on alternative ideas, stories, and directions.

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    4. Thanks as always John for your honest, open and sincere response.

      This is exactly what both fascinates me and baffles me about your journey. It seems to me even without our cultural frame the job of a clergy IS steward, promoter, and helpful applier of a meta-narrative. You rightly step aside for the therapeutic practitioner (trying to practice within their own frame if that be possible without even an implicit meta-narrative) it seems all that remains is being a master of protocol.

      There is no doubt that the KOG we find in scripture is a function of its sitz im leben, the stewards of the meta-narrative attempt to continue to bring it forward into history through nearly incomprehensible change. Professionalism of course also comes into the conversation.

      My individual self-steward of the story relates to my professional role of stewarding. Integrity demands that these two selves not get too far away from each other. Your transition reflects this integrity. So my question then is what meta-narrative does your current context steward? Of has a more liberal church context given up on meta-narratives and mostly demands of its professionals the task of maintaining traditional protocol available for individual members to apply the narrative that they wish to assert?

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    5. The metanarrative is less-meta than it used to be. The OT is very problematic for me as an equivalent part of the NT story. But I still have a big story--and it comes down to following Jesus. That's the story, the goal, the hope, the reason. It has to do with neighbours and the least and the last and hope for the ever and ever. More needs to be said--about the status of the NT (inspired but not inerrant or even infallible) and so on. But it is about following Jesus.

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  3. How in the world are you the pastor of a church? You are leading a congregation? I am baffled. Almost everything you write is laced with bitterness and is blatantly blasphemous.

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  4. Hi Erin. Sorry you fell that way. The most likely actual answer to your question is that not all Christians believe the same thing, and neither do all congregations. There are different faith traditions. My story is one of moving from one faith tradition to another. Check out my book if you're interested in the story! It's available for order from this web page. Best wishes!

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