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two gold rings on top of a Bible

Sacramental Presence

two gold rings on top of a Bible

As a single person, I need to remember that–while officiating weddings–I am a billboard for the unexpected and unearned favor of our Lord and Maker.

There are a number of things that I like about being single. I like changing into my sweatpants as soon as I get home from work. I like eating spaghetti and not worrying about how inelegantly or noisily I slurp up the noodles. I like having my own bathroom; I’m not grossed out by the hair in the shower in the same way as I would be by the sight of someone else’s hair. I like having complete autonomy over what entertainment to consume. I was on a date once, and after dinner the man asked if I wanted to get coffee and continue to talk. I politely and swiftly declined – I realized that I would rather go home and watch a DVD by myself than have the date continue. It was clarifying to realize that I preferred my own company than his. I watched the DVD and went to bed, enjoying a full night’s rest under the warmth of all the covers. Solitude has its perks.

Nevertheless, when it comes to officiating weddings, I feel very much at the disadvantage. Who am I to counsel couples as they make this serious and binding commitment, one that I have never made? Recently, I did pre-marital counseling with a couple who were planning to get married in my church’s historic chapel. They seemed appreciative of our counseling sessions. I created space for them to reflect, I asked questions, and I closed each session with prayer. I did not try to pretend that I was drawing from vast personal experience in dating and relationships during the counseling sessions.

But, as I considered what to say during my wedding homily, I felt my singleness acutely. I felt like an imposter. I feared my advice would be of little worth. Mercifully, I saw my friend Peter a few days before the wedding. Peter was a Catholic priest for many years and he officiated hundreds of weddings as a single, celibate priest. I asked him what weddings were like for him and what kind of advice I could give to a couple about to be married when I was single myself. He replied, “Emily, you are a sacrament. It is not so much important what you say. They aren’t going to remember much of that. But they will remember that you were there with them, that you loved and gave yourself to them that day. That’s what’s important: the sacramental nature of your presence.” Read more

Worship Bloopers

In times of solemnity, we have all heard things or said things that were unintentionally hilarious.

I recently watched the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”  I found the romantic leads to be one-dimensional, and the movie wasn’t particularly funny, with the exception of one scene. Rowan Atkinson, a British actor most famous for depicting Mr. Bean on screen, is a nervous priest officiating one of the weddings. His scene had me hooting, and he ended his first prayer by saying, “…who reigns with you and the Holy Goat,” before self-correcting and saying “uh, er, Holy Ghost.”

The anxiety of Rowan Atkinson as priest is squirm-inducing and the wedding guests stare at him intently, their anxiety increasing as they await his next malapropism. He makes many, including asking the groom to repeat after him that he promises to take the bride “to be my awful wedded wife.” The groom modifies the words to say, “lawfully wedded wife.” “That’s right,” the priest admits, before rushing to end the service (and the end of his misery!) by concluding, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spigot …Spirit. Amen.”

Movies, of course, tend to hyperbolize the mistakes made by a character for comedic effect, but there was enough truth in that scene of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” to make it memorable to me. I’m sure many of us could share stories of things that we have heard or things we have said in times of solemnity that were unintentionally hilarious. One pastor told me that she accidentally called God “immoral” instead of “immortal.” One male colleague at my last church told me that he was ministering to a family before a funeral, and he suggested chlamydia as a good choice for the flower arrangement (unfortunately, chlamydia is not a flower; it’s an STD).

My Dad went to a wedding in the 1970s. The officiating pastor was elderly, and it was a hot August day, and there was no air-conditioning in the church. Who knows whether it was the heat, the pastor’s age, or some other factor, but the pastor was not with it. During the vows, the pastor said, “Do you, Larry…” and the matron-of-honor (who was the bride’s sister) whispered loudly to him, “Earl!  His name is Earl!” The pastor then said, “Do you, Larry Earl, take this woman, Edna…?” The bride’s name was Linda. No one corrected him this time, and everyone joked afterwards about whether the couple were actually married since the pastor never got their names right.

When my Grandpa Art turned 80 years old, his children and grandchildren gave him as a present a new suit. He wore it to church the following Sunday, and we all sat in the pew with him as the pastor said during the announcement time, “We’re so happy to see Art this morning in his birthday suit.” The pastor caught his mistake immediately, and he blushed deeply. The laughter that followed was not directed at him, however, but rather with him; the laughter was—as grace is—warm and generous. Grace abounds.

Because grace is abundant and laughter does us good, I invite you to share your own stories in the comments section below. What are some examples of verbal bloopers in your pastoral context?

Wedding Season

The author’s wedding cake, 2008

It’s that time of year once again: Wedding Season! Young clergy women are here to offer some helpful advice and words of wisdom to the happy couples and their family and friends. Let the wedding bells ring!

Planning:

  • If you want to get married in a church and/or by a clergy person, contact the church and clergy person before finalizing the date! Make sure you have read and agree to comply with any policies of the church and the officiant. Make sure your vendors (photographer/videographer, wedding coordinators, etc.) have also read and agree to comply with the church and officiant policies.
  • Do not assume that you can simply rent a church and bring in your own officiant. Most churches have policies about this. If it isn’t clear in the wedding policies, ask.
  • Know that most clergy require some kind of premarital sessions with the couple, so plan accordingly.
  • Research local and state laws regarding wedding licenses. It is the COUPLE’S responsibility to secure the wedding license, and you will need to do this within a certain time period before the wedding. Don’t come to the wedding rehearsal without it! Make a clear plan for how the license will be filed. Will you or a family member be mailing it? The clergy person?
  • It’s a big day, but it’s not the only day. Be mindful of your budget. Starting off a marriage with a huge debt for wedding festivities is not advised! Also remember that just as your photographer, cake baker, and musicians are professionals paid for services they provide, so is the clergy person. For many weddings, clergy will put in 10-20 hours of additional work, often on days and at times where they would otherwise be off. If the clergy person is required to travel, all expenses should be paid, including a hotel room if overnight accommodations are needed. Clergy might have set fees, which will be communicated clearly, or they might have sliding scales or leave it to the discretion of the couple. Remember that the clergy person has at least one advanced professional degree, and is putting significant time and energy into your big day, and compensate accordingly.
  • We know, we know – online ordination is a thing, and your best friend, your cousin’s uncle, or any Joe Schmo off the street can become credentialed to officiate. That’s not really equivalent to having an ordained, trained, and experienced clergy person as an officiant. If you do choose to go that route, please don’t ask a clergy person to lend expertise.

That “religious” thing:

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Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Here Comes the Bride Edition

Dear Askie,

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I’m getting married this summer! My fiancé and I aren’t particularly religious (we sometimes go to church on Christmas Eve), so we’re planning on having the ceremony outdoors at our reception venue. My aunt’s best friend’s daughter is a minister, so my aunt wants me to ask her to officiate. That sounds like as good a plan as any to me, but I have a lot of questions. Am I supposed to pay her (and how much)? How do we figure out what she’s going to say during the ceremony? Is there a polite way to ask her not to talk too much about God? Am I supposed to invite her to the reception, and is she supposed to get a plus one?

Puzzled by pastors,

Bride-to-Be

Dear Bride-to-be,

First of all, congratulations and blessings in this exciting, stressful, and sacred time in your life! Preparing for marriage is often the first major challenge a couple faces together, and one which can set the tone for how the two of you will deal with families, stressors, and joint decision-making in the years to come. My unsolicited advice to you and your fiancé (before we get to the solicited advice) is to give careful attention to becoming, and staying, a team. In some families, this will be easy. Other families try to play engaged couples against each other – “Why isn’t she letting you invite our gajillion family friends?” “Could you please convince him that he and all the groomsmen need to wear kilts?” Be sure to communicate with each other, come to decisions you can both live with, and communicate them as a united front (“We’d rather have the groomsmen wear tuxes, Aunt Madge.”) When your big day rolls around, please know that something – something you’ve never thought of – is going to go wrong. When that happens, take a deep breath, roll with it, and try to laugh. Someday it’ll be a great story, and the more able you are to take mishaps in stride, the stronger your relationship will be.

But that’s not what you asked about, Bride-to-Be. So let’s talk about officiants. First of all, give some thought to whether you really want a minister to officiate your wedding at all. It sounds from your letter like you might be more comfortable with a Justice of the Peace. If you do want a minister to officiate, you should be careful to find the right fit, not just to go with the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend. Get on the phone with her and talk with her about what you’re hoping for, and how she approaches weddings. If you do decide to go with a minister in general, or this minister in particular, here are some thoughts about dealing with your wedding officiant:

  • Money: Yes, you are supposed to pay your officiant. There are a few exceptions; for instance, in many churches, officiating members’ weddings is part of the pastor’s job, so there is no officiant fee for members (don’t join a church for that reason, though). Clergy typically waive fees if they officiate for immediate family or very close friends. Neither of those are your situation, Bride-to-be, so ask your officiant what her fee is. Some clergy are uncomfortable stating a fee and say something vague like “Whatever you feel comfortable with.” (Clergy: stop doing that, it makes things awkward for everyone.) If she does this, remember that she is a highly trained and qualified professional with a graduate degree, who is giving up a good chunk of her weekend time and putting 10-20 hours of work into shaping a meaningful ceremony for you and your beloved. I know weddings are expensive, but please pay her fairly for her time and expertise. If your officiant is coming from out of town, you should cover her travel and lodging expenses, as well.
  • Festivities: Having consulted some wedding etiquette books, Askie notes that it is considered proper etiquette to invite your officiant and her significant other (if she has one) to the rehearsal dinner and the reception. That said, clergy know that weddings are expensive, and we are typically more flexible on these matters than etiquette experts, so if you’re not inviting us, we usually won’t be offended. Either way, be very clear so we don’t have a miscommunication. If you do invite your officiant, many clergy will decline your invitation with thanks, wish you and your family a lovely evening, and go home. (Your “amazing wedding with all our loved ones” is our “working this Saturday,” so while we’re thrilled to be part of your joy, we don’t plan to stay until last call.) If you want your officiant to pray before the meal at the reception, please do communicate with her about that well in advance so she can plan accordingly. And seat her with the guests; Askie has heard a few horrifying stories of officiants arriving at receptions to discover that they are receiving a vendor meal in a back room.
  • Premarital Counseling: You didn’t ask about this, but let’s talk about it here anyway. Premarital counseling can be very helpful as you and your fiancé enter this new phase of your relationship. Some clergy require it, some merely recommend it. Some include it in their fee, others charge extra for it. For premarital counseling and all other meetings with your officiant, please show up on time, call if you’re running late, and give plenty of notice if you need to reschedule. Oh, and every officiant, regardless of her personal stance on sexual morality, knows that most engaged couples are sexually active, so don’t try to be cagey or deceptive about that. She can handle it.
  • The Ceremony: How do you decide what words the officiant is going to say? Can she leave out all that stuff about God and Jesus? It depends, and maybe not. Ceremony planning varies from one religious tradition to another, and from one clergywoman to another. Your officiant may be constrained to use the ceremony provided by her denomination, with very limited leeway to edit or revise. On the other end of the spectrum, she might be totally free to craft a personalized ceremony for you and your fiancé. Many clergy have denominational or personal commitments to include prayer and scripture, although others have a more flexible approach. Most have heard a request they weren’t able to accommodate on principle (“No, you can’t perform a pagan wine blessing ceremony on our Communion altar.”) As for religious language, some clergy have a strong commitment to using traditional religious language, some might be able to find language about the Holy that feels like a good compromise, others might be very comfortable switching to language that reflects the values you hold dear. Figure out what you want, and ask your prospective officiant whether she would be interested. If she isn’t comfortable providing the kind of ceremony you’re envisioning, thank her for her time and find someone who is a better fit… She won’t be offended, and everyone will be a lot happier in the end.
  • Vendor Trouble: Oh, the horror stories Askie could tell you about rogue vendors and their conflicts with officiants… You aren’t having a church wedding, so there’s no risk that your florist will fill the baptismal font with flowers. But if you have a wedding planner, talk with your officiant about the planner’s role and vice versa so they don’t step on each other’s toes. All too often, wedding planners treat the officiant as some sort of live prop: “You stand over there, I’ll tell you what to do.” That doesn’t work for most clergy officiants – especially in our own churches, but also at other venues. We expect to be treated as professionals by other vendors, and are happy to return the courtesy. While we might not know a whole lot about chiavari chairs or hydrangeas, we do know a thing or three about conducting a smooth and meaningful wedding ceremony. Askie’s personal approach: I run the rehearsal, giving guidance to the wedding planner about what is “my” domain and what is “hers.” During the ceremony, I ask the wedding planner to be stationed at the back, helping the wedding party to prepare and process. Once they’re at the front of the aisle, they are in my hands and her work is done until the ceremony is over. Your officiant’s approach might be different, though, so check in with her. Talk about photography as well: what guidelines does your officiant have about the use of flash? How close can the photographer get, and how much can they move around? An intrusive photographer can be distracting and disruptive to the sense of sacred space as two people pledge to join their lives together, and we clergy feel a responsibility to maintain the dignity of the occasion so that you and your loved ones can be fully present and attentive, honoring the commitment the two of you are making to each other.

Whether your wedding is conducted by a local clergy or a friend-of-a-friend, a Justice of the Peace or a Pastafarian you hire off the internet, I hope it is a really beautiful wedding, Bride-to-Be. Even more than that, I hope it is a really beautiful marriage.

Blessings,

Askie

Safety Pins and Masking Tape

Ten minutes to show time, and the pews are filled with guests. Soft, unobtrusive music flows from the organ pipes, muffling voices and the footfalls of last-minute arrivals. The groom and groomsmen, thankfully all present and accounted for, wait in the lounge for their cue. Parents smile and check for the tissues they’ve tucked into purses and pockets. Hidden away in a corner room off the narthex, one woman in white huddles with several others in some shade of satin that they’ll never wear again, whatever the bride may have promised. She adjusts her posture, realizes her stiffness, shifts again, breathes deeply, purposefully; her friends and sisters fuss with hems and hair and bouquets.

Meanwhile, I crouch at the front of the sanctuary, robe and stole puddling on the slate floor, a roll of masking tape around my wrist like a particularly hideous bracelet as I secure the aisle runner that everyone else forgot until now and no one else knows what to do with. In the back of my head the usual voice whispers, “This is not what I thought I was getting into when I went to seminary.” That thought is true of so much of ministry that it’s barely worth my eye-rolling response to myself. The bride’s mother taps my shoulder – do I happen to have a safety pin? I do, as a matter of fact. I have several of them, in a variety of sizes, in the same bag from which I produced the masking tape – which also came in handy when the unity candle set didn’t quite fit into the holders. The same bag also holds bobby pins, double-sided tape, a Tide pen, a small sewing kit, tissues, water, and assorted other helpful objects that I’ve accumulated. I was a bridesmaid four times, a personal attendant another four, and I’ve performed well over fifty weddings (I don’t count, but that’s a conservative estimate). You pick up things over time – skills and objects that smooth the chaos that goes on around weddings.

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One Wedding… and a Funeral?

It was the weekend after Christmas Day, the year of our Lord 2006. The rector was out of town. I had been ordained to the priesthood for, oh, maybe three weeks. I had assisted at other weddings, but this was the first time I was running the show myself. I wanted everything to go well, not only for the couple’s sake, but also to prove that I could do this, that I was capable and competent.

After the procession, during the opening prayer, I didn’t think too much about the woman who was sitting while everyone else was standing. It was an oddly warm day for December, and I remember thinking that I would probably be sitting down, too, if I had that option. I would not have remembered her at all, that woman fanning herself with the bulletin, if it weren’t for what happened a few minutes later. While I was reading the Gospel, I looked up from the pulpit to see someone stretched out on the floor. The woman who had been seated in the second row, well, her heart had stopped. I just stood there for a few seconds. “Let’s take a break,” I heard myself say. Read more