As with most pastors, I’ve performed many weddings. The wedding is usually an unforgettable moment in the life of a couple, but I believe what happens before the wedding matters even more. Before the wedding, I have a chance to speak into a couple’s life in a way, unique to any other time in their life. It’s important to help couples, as much as I can, prepare for marriage. Below are a ten things I have learned along the way about how to do it.
- Think through your policies. The leaders of your church should sit down and hammer out some issues: Will we require premarital counseling for couples our pastors marry? How many sessions will we require? Who will conduct these sessions? How long before the wedding should this process start? Will we marry anyone under any circumstances (couples who are living together or who are unequally yoked)? Will there be a charge for these sessions?
- Do some initial screening. After you have answered the above questions, put your above policies and procedures down on paper and have it on your web site so prospective couples can read it over before the first meeting. This will help couples know what they are getting into and discuss whether they are willing to make the commitment required.
- Have a plan. Don’t just jump into your sessions without thinking through what you want to accomplish and how you will go about it. There is always a possibility that you will change your plan as you go along, but without a plan you will get nowhere. I always tell couples in the first session that I am willing to meet with either of them, one on one at any time upon request.
- Determine your materials. There are many great resources out there for premarital counseling. For years I have used an assessment tool created by Prepare/Enrich that is very helpful. I also like A Handbook for Engaged Couples by Alice and Robert Fryling because it allows couples to discuss key issues before each session and then come prepared to discuss what they are learning or struggling with in your time with them.
- Cover the bases. There are several topics which must be covered over the course of your time together: expectations, family of origin, communication, conflict resolution, personality issues, extended family relationships, money, sex, children and parenting, spiritual compatibility, roles and leisure activities. There are also some key biblical passages that should be looked at such as Genesis 1-3, Song of Solomon, Mark 10:1-12, 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, Ephesians 5:21-33, 1 Peter 3:1-7.
- Make friends. It is not all about content. The relationship you establish with this couple is just as important as the information you communicate. Try to spend some time with the couple outside of your office. My wife and I try to spend an evening over dinner with each couple I marry. We always ask them to come prepared to ask us any questions they want about our marriage.
- Utilize the body of Christ. When possible, I include my wife in our premarital sessions. Having a woman’s perspective is invaluable! This also offers the couple an example of transparency and commitment in marriage. Many churches also have premarital programs that include trained lay people, which can be a great way to augment your own time with each couple. I also strongly encourage the couples I marry to attend a Weekend to Remember conference put on by Family Life Today.
- Plan the ceremony. I always tell the couple that we are meeting together to prepare for the marriage and not the wedding. Eventually, though, you will need to discuss the ceremony. I like to come prepared with a basic template of a ceremony, walk them through what that looks like, and then encourage them to think through what elements they might want to add or subtract to make it their own.
- Meet again. I suggest you plan to meet with the couple at least once in the first six months of their marriage. After a few months of marriage, the things you discussed in theory before the marriage become urgently relevant!
- Plug them in. My wife and I got married in college. Unfortunately, our premarital counseling was sorely lacking and we both brought plenty of baggage into the marriage. But we got plugged into a small group of other newly married couples, led by a more experienced couple who had been married for what seemed to us to be an eternity (5 years). That group was a lifesaver to us! When you are finished counseling a couple before marriage, give them some next steps for getting plugged into community during the first year of marriage.
I believe in premarital counseling. Not only do I enjoy it, but I believe it is one the most significant things I have done in over 30 years of pastoral ministry. Although it is not foolproof, it can provide a solid foundation for couples to build upon in the years to come.