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When I was a pastor, I had many couples asked me to perform their wedding ceremonies. In fact, one year I officiated at 40 weddings. In case you are wondering, I was really stupid to accept so many invitations.

I am pretty conservative about doing weddings. I see the role of the Christian minister to be narrowly defined regarding when he says “yes” to such opportunities. As a result, I often found myself in some awkward positions when I had to decline to perform the ceremony.

The dilemma became much more palatable when I sent a letter to the prospective wedding couple who inquired about my availability. A lot of the awkwardness dissipated, and a good number of the couples never came to see me. When my assistant received a request from a couple inquiring about my performing a ceremony, she told the couple that she would send them a letter. They were welcome to make an appointment with me after they read the letter shown below.

Dear Prospective Newlyweds,

Congratulations on your engagement and upcoming marriage! I am honored you asked me to perform the wedding ceremony.

Please understand that I perform weddings for couples where both the man and woman are Christians. My role is that of a Christian minister. I am unable to be a part of a wedding where either the husband or the wife will not be fully committed to Christ. The most important foundation of a marriage is the faith commitment of the couple. Both the husband and wife must demonstrate when they meet with me that they profess Christ as their Lord and Savior; and they must share with me the specifics of their Christian testimony. If you are not certain about your faith, I would be happy to share with you what it means to be a Christian.

The Bible also teaches that intimate or sexual relations must be limited to the marriage relationship between a man and a woman. Any other sexual relationship is sinful. If you are currently sexually active, you must indicate your desire to repent of your sin. If you are living together, you must be willing to live apart from one another until you are married.

Finally, I must require any couple planning to marry to receive premarital counseling. I have several choices I can recommend to you.

If you are willing to abide by the issues I state in this letter, please feel free to make an appointment with me, so we can determine next steps. Marriage is a God-given institution. It is something to be honored and celebrated. It is a commitment for life. I pray that your marriage will honor our Lord in all that you do and say.

In His service,

Thom S. Rainer

Let me know what you think of my letter. And let me know what your experiences are in weddings and premarital considerations. I bet it could be a lively discussion!

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Comments

  1. Mike Ricks says

    Though I’ve never sent this ahead of time in letter form this is close to what I say in the initial consult. Would you ever consider adding “and as a Christian married couple you promise to never divorce, no matter what may come”? I’ve wrestled with this but then I think about the pastor that married my wife and I. Five minutes before we walked into the worship center to begin the ceremony he said, “Mike, if there is any reason you think may cause you to divorce Angie, if there is any thought at all that she’s not your one and only wife, let’s go out there right now and call off the wedding. The heartbreak it would cause today is nothing compared to the pain divorce causes.” Talk about a gut check. 10 years later those words are the only ones I remember from my wedding.

  2. Stephen Feild says

    Seems Biblical. I did the same, when planting a church among a postmodern-minded target group. I also added that they must consider divorce as a non-option except for marital infidelity. I always felt that it set the stage for premarital counseling that focused on forming a covenant and a marriage built to last.

    • Keith says

      My bride and I went to an Engaged Encounter weekend retreat (are those even done anymore?) approx 6 weeks before we married, only 38 years ago.

      The priest said to the group about 4 hours in that if divorce is even a part of your thoughts, a part of your dialogue, a consideration spoken or unspoken, to stop right now. Delay the wedding and get some serious counseling. It is better to be embarrassed with your family and friends now than commit the sin of divorce.

      Two couples began muttering to each other and a minute or two later got up and left.

      He went on to describe the biblical expectations of marriage and the Catholic Church’s expectations of marriage. Another couple got up and left.

      As you can tell, that retreat made a big impression on me even though I was and am a conservative protestant.

  3. says

    Thom, An exhilarating, clarifying letter. I love the simultaneous integration of the Lordship of Christ, the gospel, the encouragement to steer onto a healthy path, and the reduction of demand on your schedule. Simplicity is so attractive. Thanks for sharing this post.

  4. AJC says

    This seems great, however, do you think that by sending it out ahead of time, and not ever meeting with the couple you’ve missed opportunities to share truth in love? If couples are living in sin, recieving this letter certainly could fuel a fire of anger.

    I completely respect where you’re coming from in sending this, I’m just concerned that you might be slamming doors closed to share.

    • Thom Rainer says

      You have a good point, AJ. I saw the other side, however, where there would be both embarrassment and anger when I shared it in person. That is why I eventually took this path.

  5. says

    Thom, I fully understand the need to set a limit on the number of weddings a pastor performs. However, wouldn’t it be more effective to redirect them to another pastor who could mentor them toward faith and good conduct. I have taken the approach you outline in the past (though in person, not via letter). I realize now that it effectively said “Go away” to people who needed good news the most. Is there a way to both protect our time and meet people where they are to help them move forward?

  6. Joel says

    This is a good letter. It is even easier when couples have to find a deacon (ie, duly ordained) who is not the pastor. Someone who knows them well enough to know the answers to your conditions. I only do weddings for close friends.

  7. Mark Dance says

    I’m usually not a fan of plagiarism, unless it benefits me personally. This does, so I’m stealing it! You can send me the bill Dr Rainer. It will be worth it just to have the expectations clarified up front for the couples.

    Our staff all share the same wedding policies, which helps to reinforce these biblical standards, without making them seem personal or arbitrary. It might make the negative part of the policy seem less personal if the letter said, “I (We) require any couple planning to marry to receive premarital counseling.” Other options are “our staff” or “our church” (single staff).

  8. says

    I started out firm on issues such as these. I know every pastor seeks the Lord’s leading here. Over time I have come to see, weddings provide the pastor a unique opportunity to speak the hope of Christ into the life of people who are actually seeking me out. Who are coming to me. If I am gentle and loving I have found that they will listen. I have had some who have become believers and then brought their whole and extended families into the church. Others have not. Naturally I cannot take all comers but I do not want to stand before the Lord and have to give an account for not sharing the gospel with those he sent to me. I like the letter idea especially so that people know what they are walking into. But I would not want to be deliberately off putting and miss a divine opportunity. They are going to marry. If it’s a non believing young man and woman who some how in their depravity are moving in the right direction and God sends them to me I am here to help. They get the whole spiel about godly Christian marriage and if they will do the homework we move forward.

  9. says

    Thank you for this post. As a new Pastor I am working on laying out my expectations/requirements for marraige. I have actually been asked to do 2 weddings this summer. I have a question about the living apart requirements of your letter. While I agree with everything you said I have a question specifc to one of the weddings I was asked to perform. The couple is currently living together and have for a number of years. They have a young child (6 months old I believe) and both profess to be believers but both were saved fairly recently. Would you stil counsel them to live apart until the wedding knowing that there are financial and child rearing implications?
    Thank you for your time and help to pastors/church planters like myself. I enjoy reading your blog and have gained valuable wisdom and information from your experiences.
    God Bless You
    Billy Morrison

    • Thom Rainer says

      You might consider an early private ceremony that would be followed by the public ceremony. It could be done in the privacy of their home.

      • Mark Dance says

        That is a good idea Dr Rainer. Unfortunately, I suspect pastors will be put into this awkward situation more often in the future.

  10. says

    My practice has been quite different. I recall one Sunday when a young lady from my congregation came to me with a man she had known only 2 months and who was not a Christian. They wanted me to perform their wedding – the next Friday. I did my best to talk them into waiting longer, to no avail. I asked them what they would do if I refused to marry them. They said they’d go to a justice of the peace. I then agreed to marry them on one condition – that he study the Bible with me. He agreed, I married them, studied with him, and he became a Christian.

    That was more than 35 years ago. Today they are still happily married, and he serves as an elder in the congregation.

    Granted, this is not a typical outcome for a marriage begun in those circumstances. Yet I highly doubt there would have been this result had I refused to marry them and they had gone to the JP. My attitude has been that I want to open doors to reaching the lost without cheapening the teachings of Christ.

    I have not always been successful in doing that, and I respect those who take a different approach than I. I try to remember that I, too, am a sinner saved by grace. I want to extend the same grace that saves me to the imperfect souls who have sought me out to help them in one of life’s most important events.

    • KS says

      I can understand your choice, but I would absolutely refuse to perform a wedding between a Christian and a non-Christian. I would ask the Christian “how can you expect God to bless your marriage when you know that you are disobeying him by marrying a non-Christian?”.

      Certainly I would also offerto study the Bible with the non-Christian, but I believe that one of the most important messages a Pastor has to transmit is that being a Christian means submitting to God’s authority in every aspect of life. Christ is not only Savior, he is also Lord.

  11. Brian says

    Giving the nature of our societal view of marriage, I have included language in my “wedding contract” that ours is a church that agrees with and abides to the BFM 2000 concerning marriage. I guess many times that is assumed in a church, but with the changing climate, one can never assume.

  12. says

    I communicate this same thing to prospective couples and it inevitably thins the ranks of those desiring me to do the wedding. My motivation is that, because marriage vows are the most intense vows we make as believers, those vows to one another and God cannot hold substance when they are made to God apart from a commitment to obeying Him. Church members wrongly assume that pastors are obligated to officiate weddings. Every time I have declined to do so it has been in an attempt to help the couple, not to condemn them.

    • Mark Dance says

      That has been my experience as well Jeff (member’s assumptions about pastor’s obligations). Letter’s like Dr Rainer’s should help stave off criticism from the couple’s families, as well as other members.

  13. says

    Thom, I’ve not ever sent a letter like this, but I like the idea. I cover pretty much everything you mention at our first meeting . . . and it is there that I lay out 10 session of pre-marital counseling that I require. I am interested in what you said about the pre-marital counseling, that you have “several choices” that you could recommend to them. What were those “choices?”

  14. Randy Bowman says

    I think this is a great idea. Perhaps the letter could be adopted by the church board in t its policies for conducting weddings in the churches facilities or by the pastors/staff of the church.

    It makes the policy less personal. It also precludes the possibility that if someone or their family is upset with the policy, it is not the pastor’s personal decision but a policy that has been discussed and adopted by the churches leadership.

    I would simply include in a packet of material given to anyone who inquires about having a wedding held at the church or officiated by a staff member of the church.

    • Mark Dance says

      Good point Randy. Our staff recently updated our wedding policy manual because of our location change. We always give this to couples (and parents) who request our facilities or pastors involvement. These policies will be will be posted next week on our website: 2bcfamily.com (go to “ministries” tab, then “marriage”).

  15. says

    I too limit my amount of weddings. But I have found, I can use them as an evangelistic opportunity. I let them know I just don’t “do” weddings. Instead my goal is to develop a relationship with them. I’m a pastor – and the pastor part of me wants this so not only can I celebrate their wedding. I can celebrate other events of life with them as a friend.
    I ask why it is they would want to have their wedding in a church. Usually it’s some vague answer about it seems like God should be involved, Great – as part of our pre-marital I would like to explore that “God” seed with you. I also suggest as part of the pre-marital they come to church for four weeks to further explore some of this.
    It hasn’t always worked, but sometimes it does… after the four weeks, some just keep coming – find Christ- and become a part of us. Another one of those side doors into the church!

  16. Charles Rambeau says

    Excellent article. I have the couple sign a covenant document that outlines much of what you have here. Thanks for sharing this letter.

  17. says

    To me, these standards are a given. But I might want to tell them in person, instead of sending a letter, in order to have an opportunity to engage them in a conversation about the gospel. Then again, you may have not had enough time on your hands for such an approach.

  18. says

    In the future I’m wondering if ministers will have to be even more restrictive in order to provide themselves a defense against same sex couples wanting to sue if they don’t get you to officiate their wedding: something like having a policy that at least one of the two must be a member of the church that you pastor.

  19. Shimshon Chaddock says

    Thank you for sharing a great idea which puts Jesus at the forefront of marriage. I agree with all points of your letter but would like add something that I require when asked to marry someone, and that is post marriage counseling. In my own marriage experience, I was married for first time at age of 39 and my wife was 34, we were two kingdoms crashing together. We sort of talked with other newlywed couples and either they were lying and everything was just great for them while we were left thinking what’s wrong with us, why are we having a hard go at it. Due to both of us loving Jesus more then we loved each other and we were able to overcome our challenges after six difficult years and now have been married for 12. We are very very much in love. So due to this experience I find that post marital counseling is more important then pre. So I require of any couple that wants me to marry them to agree to twice a month counseling/ phone call/ get together for coffee for a year , to give them an opportunity to discuss any challenges they may be going through as newly married couples usually do.

  20. Jason says

    This is great. I too have shared these thoughts in meetings with prospective couples but not in letter form. Can I have your permission to use this as a basis for my own letter?

    Thanks for your ministry to ministers.

  21. says

    Interesting policy (sending a letter), and I can see how that would help prevent embarrassing couples sitting in your office. I tell inquiring couples that I’ll need to get the approval of the other elders in our church before agreeing to perform weddings. This safeguards me from making (too many) foolish or uncomfortable marriage decisions by myself (we’ve all been there) while providing some accountability for me. Plus, those guys might see something I totally missed when I’m considering helping a couple. Not sure how this would translate smoothly into a church w/o plurality of elders, but perhaps a leadership team (or deacons) could assist pastors in making these decisions?

    My 2 cents. I appreciate your helpful articles, Thom!

  22. Mike says

    Thom,

    This was a breathe of fresh air. This has been my criteria for marrying people as well. The one thing I added was post marital counseling. I have told people I’m not here to do your wedding but to build your marriage.

    Because of this established criteria that I have developed after a couple train wrecks, I haven’t done many weddings and I’m actually fine with it.

    I believe no matter what society says or does, the spiritual bar of marriage needs to be upheld. It’s way too big of a commitment.

    Thank you for sharing, sometimes I have felt like the only one.

  23. says

    I have not been asked to do anywhere near the number of wedding that you are talking about. But as a pastor of a small church, I try to use a weddings as a way of reaching out to young couples. Before I preform a ceremony, I require the couple to go through marriage counseling. I am the one that does the marriage counseling. This give me an opportunity to get to know the couple better. And during the counseling sessions, I present the Gospel three times and give the couple an opportunity to share there testimony.

    Early in my ministry, I contemplated what should be my requirements before preforming a marriage ceremony. I asked a pastor who had been in the ministry longer what was his thoughts. He said that the couple were going to get married anyway. It would be better for them to have someone share the truth while preparing for the ceremony. This is why I have taken this approach.

    As a result of marriage counseling, I have had people trust Christ as there Savior. This is not always the case, but I have shared the truth with the couple concerning Jesus and His love.

    After 13 years of ministry, I do not know of a couple in which I preformed the wedding ceremony that has gotten a divorce. To God all the glory.

  24. Derek says

    Hi pastor Thom, in one of your comments, you said yes to limiting marriage to Christians, do you mind to extract a little bit more from your statement?

  25. Alex Clayton says

    Thom,

    Thank you for this much needed post. There are two questions that I ask before proceeding with marriage counseling ( which is a must) if I perform the wedding. 1) What is your relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit? 2), If you do not have a relationship with God then why do you want me to perform your marriage? In premarital counseling I often hear the reason they are living together is because they can save money? My response is turning to the girl and saying that giving yourself for the price of rent or mortgage is not marriage; it is called prostitution. Young Pastors need to be careful and not fall for the “sin” that if they are living together and get married then everything is alright. If it starts in sin it will be destroyed by sin. Getting married is not the same as repentance and godly sorrow.

  26. Russ says

    Thank you for sharing this! I started doing something similar to this a few years ago and it has saved me many headaches, and, I’m sure, some friendships.

  27. Lindall says

    Dr. Rainer,

    I agree with your theological stance, but I handle it a bit differently than what you’ve stated here. Case in point: A couple was referred to me who were not believers and who were living together. They were not a part of our church, but someone from their family was. I called the woman and explained that all I do is based on Scripture. I told them that my counsel would be Biblical and that if they wanted something other than that, there were options other than me available. I agreed to meet with them for one session to discuss parameters of counseling. They agreed. When we met I emphasized what I had said earlier; I indicated that 5 pre-marital counseling sessions were required, along with homework each week. Again, I said that if this was not their preference, that I was not their guy. They agreed.

    During the first session, I shared the Gospel with them. Both surrendered their lives to Christ. Two sessions later, we address pre-marital sexual involvement and living together. I suggested that if they were serious about their faith in Christ, changes were mandatory. Again, they agreed. I did their wedding. They have since been baptized, are in church every week, and are also in my small group.

    If I had followed what you talk about in sending a letter, my guess is that I would have never had the opportunity to share the Gospel with them. Had they said “no” anywhere along the path, it would have ended the possibility of me doing their wedding. But they said yes.

    I readily understand the potential of anger from those who might not be willing to follow Scripture. That is true. I just don’t want to give away my evangelism opportunities. One session in person, to me, is the way to go. Then from there, it’s up to the couple to decide what they want to do.

  28. KS says

    Thank-you for this clear stand. Some years ago, I was contacted by a non-christian couple, aldready living together with several children, to conduct their wedding. Rather than write, I called to fix a meeting with them. At that meeting, my wife and I explained the same points that you describe in your letter. We left them a questionnaire which served as a reminder and included the question, “why do you want to be married in a church?” and left it up to them to contact us. They later told us that they had changed their minds, but I think that this has left the doors open for the future: we were able to receive them kindly with no open rejection.

  29. Brad Ball says

    Thanks for this letter. I have always stated these truths in my first meeting with prospective couples. Thanks for posting this because I will tweak this just a little and use it in my ministry. I believe we need to stand up for the covenant institution of marriage because so many do not have a clue about what marriage is to be all about concerning God’s Word.

  30. says

    I love this. Several years ago I created my “wedding rules”. It is a document with my rules for doing a wedding. I make it clear that by asking me to do their wedding, or by having it in our worship center, they are asking God’s blessing on their marriage. I explain that if they want God’s blessing, they have to do things God’s way, and I mention the things Dr. Rainer does in his letter, along with some other rules I have. If they want me to do their wedding, they sign it and bring it back to me. If anyone would like to have a copy of my “wedding rules” feel free to email me at rex@fbcelkins.com

  31. Tim White says

    Bro. Rain,
    This letter states clearly the position it took me 8 years to find. I state that if the couple does not seek God first as single/engaged persons, they will likely not seek God in their marriage.
    May I use your letter (probably reword some of it) for the purpose you used it? I would appreciate your permission or refusal.
    In His service,
    Pastor Tim White

  32. says

    Great letter. We are in the process of rewriting our current wedding policies and I think that a letter like this would be a great first contact. I am sure there are many thoughts and feelings that come with being that direct upfront, but I think it brings even more value/ weight to the ceremony. Thanks for the post.

  33. says

    In five years as an associate pastor, I have only performed two weddings, both of which were for couples just looking for a pastor to marry them. Before the first one, I talked with a wise, old friend about my struggle with doing that. My friend—who had been going to the local jail every week for 25 years to conduct Bible studies for the inmates—offered a perspective of grace. Essentially, she said this: “They’re going to get married, whether you do it or not. They’ve invited you into their marriage; you have the opportunity to bring Jesus into that.”

    I agree with the theology of your letter and I’ll always be up front with couples about my beliefs; I will always speak about Jesus, our responsibilities before God and to each other; I will never suggest that marriage should be entered into lightly or with the “out” of divorce. And I’d love to have a track record of only marrying couples who share my faith, but at least with my friend’s perspective I am invited to share my faith. And I have God’s promise that his Word will not return empty.

  34. says

    Thank you! An important topic. Oh, the expectations placed upon us as clergy!! I’ve got stories, good and bad; took your same approach. Thank you for this resource and conversation!

  35. says

    Thom,

    Honesty time (if I may). Using this letter as a guide after reading this back in April, I have begun to do the very same process with a young couple who has asked me to marry them recently. Honestly, this (marrying couples who may not be 100% right with Christ) is something that has been eating away at me for a while now and I have had to really examine the kind of pastor and Christian I want to be. It is my heart’s desire to please Christ, and I thank you for your boldness to share this with this forum. God bless you.

    TJ

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