10 ways to have a better wedding
Parish ministers share the inside scoop
By Dan Connors
I’ve got a lot of friends who work, or have worked, in parishes. I’ve kept my ears open around them, and over the years I’ve heard a lot of frustration expressed about weddings. “I hate wedding rehearsals,” a priest said to me once. “I never run them or even go to them. My pastoral associate enjoys that sort of thing, so I let her do all of them. Thank God for lay ministry!”
A lot of lay ministers I know end up feeling the same way. Working with couples preparing to marry can be a real joy, but all the stresses of the approaching “big day” can cause headaches for pastoral ministers too and make them dread the whole process. It can also affect how they feel about their ministry and how they deal with other couples.
It’s a pastoral ministry staff’s job to be warm and welcoming, and to help a wedding be not only a happy event that goes off without a hitch, but one seen by the couple and their families and friends as a holy event, a sacramental event. In a Catholic wedding, a woman and man are making a covenant with each other and with God, and they’re opening themselves to the divine grace that can help them live together in the Lord for the rest of their lives. From this day forth they will be part of the Body of Christ as a couple. So the entire Church has a stake in the wedding.
Most pastoral ministers take this job seriously and will be happy to work with an engaged couple. The Church, of course, has rules that they are obligated to follow, and sometimes they may have to say no to something a couple wants. They are not trying to be mean or to give anybody a hard time. Yes, sometimes you’ll find a pastor or pastoral minister who has piled his or her own personal and subjective rules for weddings on top of the Church’s, and enforces them even more rigorously, but on the whole the people I know in parish ministry work at being welcoming and will accommodate a couple when they can.
These parish ministers deserve a respect that sometimes seems to be lacking in the wedding prep process. In the February issue of Catholic Digest, Fr. Paul Boudreau answers a lot of frequently asked questions about wedding preparation. I’d like to add a companion piece to that: Based on the stories I’ve heard from parish ministers over the years, I’d like to offer these ten tips for working with the parish staff successfully.
I need to say up front, of course, that many couples are charming and cooperative and a joy to work with, and for them and their families, what I’m about to say will seem to be nothing more than common courtesy and common sense.
1. Remember that, while nothing is as important to you right now as your approaching wedding, a parish is a busy place juggling lots of important events. Confessions, Masses, prayer groups, religious ed…: the parish staff will usually do their best to accommodate you, but the whole parish’s life can’t be arranged around your wedding. A pastoral minister once told me about a bride who started screaming at her on the phone on her wedding morning, because her decorators were being held up by a funeral. It’s important to remember that, much as you care about your parish event, other parishioners are just as entitled to pastoral care as you are.
2. If the parish says no to something you want, ask for the reasoning. The parish staff will probably explain why before you ask. But if not, inquire. You may not entirely agree with the reasons, but at least you’ll be able to see the staff as more than rule lovers, enforcing rules for the sake of rules.
3. Don’t play one staff member off against another. This is a big one. If the pastoral associate tells you the parish doesn’t allow the scattering of rose petals, don’t go behind her back to the pastor to try to get him to say something different. You may get your way, but at a cost to the relationship between the pastor and the associate — who was merely enforcing stated parish policy and doesn’t like ending up looking like the rule-bound villain while the pastor basks in the glow of being the beneficent and generous hero. (Why should you care about how parish staff members feel about each other? We’re all the Body of Christ; we’re supposed to care about one another). And above all, if you’re not getting what you want, try to refrain from calling in the artillery — your grandmother, for example, who can remind the pastor of how much she’s donated to the parish over the years. Once again, you may get your way, but if you’re getting married in church for religious reasons at all, do you really want to belong to a Church where money always gets what it wants?
4. Once told the rules, please don’t ignore them. One pastoral associate told me about a wedding party who wanted to bring balloons into the church. The parish said no, but on the wedding day they brought them anyway, and one of the balloons drifted up and shorted out the ceiling fans, cutting the electrical power to the church and starting a fire. A memorable wedding, to be sure, but probably not what the bride had in mind. There are reasons for the rules, and if you don’t want to follow the church’s rules, to be part — even for the day — in the life of this community, why are you getting married there?
5. Make your parish arrangements yourself. Over the years I’ve heard parish staff members tell me about mothers of the bride who call the parish and want to make all the arrangements, and occasionally ask if they can take the marriage prep course and give the notes to their daughter. No! You can’t leave these details to your mother or father or anybody else. The parish staff really needs to talk to you.
6. Be on time for your rehearsal, and for your wedding. This is just common courtesy. For the rehearsal, a pastoral minister is usually giving up part of an evening — and often, time with their spouse and children — to help you prepare, so it’s impolite to make him or her hang around the church waiting for you to show up — or leave after the rehearsal is over.
Remember too that a parish might be a busy place on wedding day. Showing up late may create havoc in the rest of the parish’s schedule. A pastoral associate I know once worked with a bride whose mother had told her that it was normal and expected that the bride show up half an hour late and that everyone would
expect to have to wait for her. The pastoral associate replied that this wasn’t the way it worked in this particular parish, and that, with all the demands of the Saturday schedule, they might very well need to start the liturgy without her. The bride showed up a half hour late anyway.
7. All parishes have requirements for music. More pre-wedding blood is spilled over this issue than any other. Talk with the music director and work something out. And don’t forget that the reception is a great place for all your favorite pop songs.
8. Speaking of the reception, pastoral ministers dream of couples coming to them to book the wedding before booking the reception hall. The church is frequently an afterthought for couples — chosen because of its proximity to the reception site. This is backwards as far as the Church is concerned. In any event, while churches will do their best to accommodate a couple’s wishes as far as possible, it is not reasonable to expect a parish to rearrange its schedule to suit a reception’s starting time.
9. Remember that you’re celebrating a sacrament in church.
Thoughtfulness to your guests does not extend to bottles of water in the pew in case anyone gets thirsty, or snacks in case anybody gets hungry.
10. Most parishes have rules about where photographers/videographers may
set up or stand during the ceremony. Please ask about and abide by them. When one photographer interrupted a ceremony to ask that a part be repeated because he had missed it (and was rebuffed by the priest), the bride told the photographer he was well within his rights, since she was paying him 10 times what she was paying the church. Such an attitude shows a complete misunderstanding what is going on.
This applies to non-professional photographers as well. I was once at a wedding where somebody’s uncle jumped up at vow time and ran to the altar, his huge camcorder facing the couple and the assembly. Evidently thinking that he was not being distracting enough, he turned on the camcorder’s powerful flood light, frying the retinas of everybody in the church. At their best, cameras in worship are unobtrusive and help us remember wonderful moments; at their worst, they change everything and they themselves become the memory.
Ok, I said 10, but I’ve got one more: Don’t stiff the parish. Most parishes charge something for the use of the church, the electricity, lighting, heat or air conditioning, music. Personally, if I were a pastor, I’d want to charge regular, contributing parishioners a nominal fee if anything, and make rent-a-church couples pay through the nose. But that’s me. Whatever the arrangement you’ve made with the parish, live up to it. I occasionally hear of checks that bounce and are never made good or families that take off fast, leaving the parish with nothing. It’s not fair, it’s not just, and it’s not a very good way to start the married life of integrity you hope to lead.
This is my personal, subjective list. I invite parish ministers to add to it. What do you want to say to couples and their families?
I also know, of course, that not every parish minister lives up to the ideal, so I welcome letters from the other side: Based on your experience, what do pastoral ministers need to know about treating couples and families well?
I look forward to hearing from you. And I hope you enjoy our special weddings section in the February issue of Catholic Digest!