The Other Side of the Altar, Part II

Pastor with couple No. 1

PREMARITAL AND POSTMARITAL counseling can be arduous for couples–and for the pastor, too–because the affianced or newly-weds are usually so emotionally involved in their relationship that they cannot look at it objectively.

How Ministers View Weddings, Alpine

NOTE TO READERS: While reading the article below, keep in mind that it was written in 1996. All the ministers quoted have moved on to other parishes or retired. The priest has left the priesthood. I had originally intended to alter the verb tenses in this re-publication to better reflect that these interviews are now history, not current events. However, that tack proved to be unworkable for me, so I am leaving the article as it originally was printed, except for correcting any typos I spot.


© 1996, 2011, 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

By the time most young lovers set a date for marriage they’re usually too much in love to consider counseling worth their time, but they feel obliged to talk to the minister anyway.

Local ministers vary in their approaches to pre-wedding and post-wedding counseling, largely in response to what they have learned from couples’ reactions earlier in their careers.

First United Methodist pastor Rush Smith has been a minister for 19-1/2 years now.  While he was serving churches in El Paso he had couples take a compatibility test: “The test didn’t make any difference whether I married them,” he says, “but it gave us something to talk about. Here in Alpine during the first year I found that nobody even wanted to take it. They already pretty much knew their compatibilities. They’d just come right out and tell you, ‘Well, he won’t do this’….‘Well, she don’t like that.’”  Finally, he quit suggesting the test.  “It wasn’t something I dropped reluctantly,” he adds.

Now, in two or three sessions before the wedding, Smith tries simply to get to know the couple.  He concentrates on the expectations of young engaged couples, while older couples require a different scenario.

“The church requires I ask how long divorced persons have been divorced, and, most important, are there children involved,” he says. “I try to talk through many of the situations with children: Where’s the discipline going to center? Where do children fit in? Should they have children of their own?  I want to know why the previous marriages didn’t work. Then we talk about how that might affect this marriage and be avoided.

“In both cases, we always talk about the format of the ceremony itself.  That’s really up to the bride; it’s her day.”  In nearly every instance the preferred service is traditional — out of the book — but what happens afterwards can sometimes be unconventional.  Smith recalls how he married a couple in the traditional manner and then watched them drive off in an 18-wheeler, fully loaded.  “They were both truckers,” says Smith, “and they had to make a run to Houston. Some other truckers on motorcycles escorted them out of town.”

Smith says he doesn’t suggest any post-wedding counseling. “I think that would be a little presumptuous on my part,” he says.  However, he will meet again with the couple if they request it.

Baptist minister Philip McCraw, like Smith, has three pre-wedding counseling sessions and spends the time trying to get to know the couple and build up a rapport with them.  He differs from Smith, however, in that he uses a series of three videos and requests a post-wedding session.

“There are three basic things I work on,” says McCraw, “communication, money and sex. The video deals with all three. I spend most of my time dealing with the specifics of the situation.”

McCraw says he asks a couple if their parents were divorced and whether they consider their parents to have been good role models.  He asks if they consider their parents’ marriages to have been healthy ones.

Other questions discover whether they have been married before, whether they already have children, whether they are living together, and whether both families are supportive of their marriage.  “I’m looking for factors that are going to lead to a healthy marriage and factors that are going to be inhibitors,” McCraw explains. “I lay those out for them and find out if they are talking to each other about them.”

McCraw suggests that the couple return in six months for another talk.  “I can’t require it,” he says, “so I try to set up in the first three sessions a scenario where they can enjoy it and want to come back. Some do; most don’t.”

However, McCraw says he’s not overly concerned about the lack of response to the post-wedding counseling session among his Alpine couples, because he often encounters them around town and can check up on them informally.  “I try to set up a rapport,” he says, “and I think they are surprised how gracious I am with their situation and that I’m not here to condemn.”

Of the 30 marriages he has performed, McCraw says he feels regret about going through with only one of them. “The woman told me she had already had a child by a man she never married,” McCraw recalls. “During our third session, she said, ‘I ought to tell you I’m pregnant with his (her fiancé’s) child.’  Six months later, they attempted to come in — she called, but he wouldn’t come in with her,” McCraw says.  In a poignant footnote to the episode, McCraw tells of an 18-year-old man who came to see him later about getting married, and it was this woman he wanted to marry.  “She grew up with her grandparents, not her own parents,” McCraw explains, “so she didn’t have good role models. She didn’t have a very good self-image.”

First Presbyterian minister Ed Waddill says that in his 31 years in the ministry he hasn’t changed his pre-wedding counseling approach much.

One difference, however, is that while he was pastoring a church in Temple he started giving couples the opportunity to customize their wedding service as long as the basic integrity of the service and the idea of commitment were retained. “It seemed to me that it was a good counseling technique,” Waddill says. “It personalizes the service for them when they have gone through the trouble of writing the service. Not everybody wants to go through that process, but quite a few have.”

Waddill says he doesn’t require lengthy counseling anymore. “When I did require it, it didn’t accomplish much,” he says. “They were just going through the motions. But some people have wanted to come to me because they had particular things they wanted to work out. I do require that they come to me so that we can get acquainted,” he says. “I don’t do quickie marriages. And when they do talk to me it’s been very fruitful.”

As an example of an instance when more counseling was obviously desirable, Waddill recounts the story of “the most traumatic experience” of his career.  “There was a couple in Temple that I was going to marry,” he recalls. “On the night before the wedding they got into a fight in a bar. Three or four others were involved. They all landed up in jail.

“The next day, the mother of the groom came to tell me what had happened. I said, ‘I’m not refusing to have anything to do with the couple, but there are some things we have to talk about first.’ The father of the bride got fighting mad because he had spent a lot of money. I thought he was going to shoot me. That marriage never did take place. I found out later that the groom was an alcoholic and had some drugs, too.”

Many of the couples Waddill counsels are there because they assume it is required of them.  “More than half the time they think it’s important to talk about what they’re going to do,” he says, “but some of the time people are not communicative, which worries me because I wonder if they can communicate with each other. But it’s only a small minority who are that private.”

Most of Waddill’s counseling deals with the same topics Smith and McCraw cover — money, sex, communication, and in-laws.  However, one different topic he mentions is domination.  “Women are particularly interested in talking about that because of the women’s movement,” he says. “They often come into the conversation with some misconceptions about what the service says, especially ‘love, honor and obey’. That’s not in our service; it’s not in the Roman Catholic service; it’s not in the Methodist or Episcopal services. That’s Hollywood.”

Another false quote from the “marriage service” is that business about “if anyone objects, let him speak now or forever hold his peace,” notes Father Ricardo Ruiz of Our Lady of Peace Church.

Father Ruiz, who completes his fourth year as priest on June 13, has been serving Alpine Roman Catholics for two years.  His first church was in El Paso, where he performed about a hundred marriages.  Here, he says, he has performed about twenty.

The pre-marital counseling process is standard throughout the diocese and is comparatively lengthy. “We ask for six months preparation because it takes a long time to prepare spiritually and for all the other aspects of the service,” Ruiz says. “We focus, not on the wedding day, but on the whole marriage. The most important thing in marriage is communication. About half our marriages involve a Catholic and a non-Catholic. Also, some involve coming into a marriage where children are involved.”

For those couples marrying for the first time, the local diocese requires that they spend a weekend at an Engaged Encounter Retreat in Mesilla, New Mexico.  “It’s an intense weekend for the couples, given by other couples, and covers issues of finances, sexuality, problem-solving, and extended family,” says Ruiz.

“As teachers, couples are preferred who have been through some difficulty in their own marriage and successfully overcome it,” Ruiz points out. “Many times the sessions are so intense that a couple might decide during the weekend that they are not right for each other or they might postpone marriage.”

Several Engaged Encounter Retreats are offered each month at the Franciscans’ Holy Cross Retreat House, Ruiz says.  And it is open to other Christian denominations.

Locally, the priest meets with the couple and works through a little booklet, with a test, on FOCUS — Facilitating Open Communication, Understanding and Study.  “It’s interesting — a different dynamic,” says Ruiz. “Depending on how many areas of disagreement there are, it can take two to five sessions.”

Ideally, the retreat should occur last, says Ruiz.  “It’s a peaceful place and helps them put their experience in a spiritual context.”

Another type of pre-marital encounter group, called pre-Cana II, is for couples going into a second marriage or couples with blended families.  “It’s where the couple engages in dialogue with another couple who have gone through the same problems, usually in the couple’s home,” Ruiz explains. “It takes two to five hours and focuses on issues unique to second marriages.”

Still other programs, these designed for the already-marrieds, are Marriage Encounter (similar to the Engaged Encounter), Marriage Enrichment (more like a workshop than a retreat in that it covers practical rather than spiritual concerns), and Retrouvaille (a retreat for couples whose marriages are troubled).

When asked why the Roman Catholic Church requires so much soul-searching, Ruiz replies, “Divorce statistics. It used to be that a couple would meet the priest at the church door and say, ‘Let’s go!”  Also, Ruiz points out, “Some people have the skills necessary for making their marriage work, but they need to be affirmed that they are doing right. Other people need help fine-tuning their skills to prevent bigger problems later.”

As for post-wedding counseling, Ruiz says his involvement depends on the problems a couple might have.  “If they haven’t been married in the church, I give them the FOCUS test, just to focus on issues they haven’t resolved,” he says. “If that doesn’t work, I refer them to a marriage counselor.”

All of the counseling is intended to accomplish one basic purpose: undergirding the marriage.  “I hope to help the couple see that the wedding is important, but it is only a day, and help them focus on marriage as a lifetime commitment,” Ruiz says. “For any commitment, you need to discover the tools and the abilities to maintain and enrich the relationship in good times and bad.”

Waddill notes that a lot of people view the marriage service superficially, as just a matter of saying words.  As a minister, however, he sees it differently.  “I have a responsibility toward God first and the church secondarily,” he says. “I have my ordination to think about. I’m accountable to God and the church for everything I do, including marriage.”

McCraw, too, says he needs “to be sure the tie is tied tight and that each couple has a wholesome Christian ceremony so that it will be something they can look back on and treasure for many years.”

— Alpine Avalanche, June 6, 1996


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