Help an athiest get married in a Lutheran church.
February 24, 2010 8:20 AM   Subscribe

What actually happens when you go to see an ELCA Lutheran pastor for pre-marriage meetings? Will the fact that we're both non-believers come up and will it be an issue?

According to the pastor (technically the pastor at my "home" church but she came to the church after I left for college and after I dropped off the face of the church's planet so I barely know her), normally she likes to meet 5-6 times with a couple before officiating a wedding. Because we're having a very long distance wedding, she said it would be ok if we only met with her once so that we can "do a marriage inventory and talk about things like what you would like me to do for the ceremony, etc". She seemed *very* willing to work with us and to assure me she is very flexible. My question is, since I have no idea what we'll actually be talking about, do you think our religious views (and lack thereof) will come up and will it be a problem? I'm perfectly comfortable discussing with her my views and why I don't believe, I'm just worried she'll back out of officiating and I'm looking to avoid that hassle.

So, for those of you who were also married by an ELCA pastor - what kinds of things should my fiancé and I expect to discuss with her? In case it matters, my parents still attend that church weekly and both know her well and have gone to her for counseling and advice. Also, my parents know about my views towards religion.
posted by kthxbi to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
We're getting married in an ELCA church. My guess is, based on my time working in church administration and seeing pastors make these decisions, is that if she is the type who doesn't like to do weddings for non-members/non-believers, she would have sussed you out on the topic before agreeing to do the wedding. I know pastors who feel that way (in fact, the one who will be marrying us does), and that's how they do it- they feel too strongly about it to leave it to chance, and it's not like your situation is uncommon. I doubt she'll back out now, certainly not if you parents are still members. The inventory meeting will probably cover a lot of the "big" issues- children, sex, money, communication styles, etc, just making sure the two of you have discussed all the issues and are on the same page before you get married.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:31 AM on February 24, 2010

My husband and I were married by the ELCA pastor at my "home church" last year. The pastor started at the church after I'd left home for college, so I didn't really know him, but he knew my family. I'm nominally Lutheran but my husband had never really attended church and hadn't even been baptized.
We met three times, and that was plenty. At our first meeting about 5 months before the wedding, we took the marriage inventory (PREPARE) and laid out the timeline for the rest of our meetings.
At the second meeting, we talked through the results of the marriage inventory and talked generally about where our views on money, children, sex, etc. might differ. I remember very clearly the pastor telling us "I'd of course strongly recommend that you go to church as a family, but that's something you'll have to decide," so that was really low-pressure for us.
The third meeting was just for us to talk about the order of the ceremony, what readings we'd be using, etc.
I don't recall that we started or closed the meetings with a prayer, or really got into biblical thought or anything like that. I felt it was very relaxed, open and helpful
I can ask Mr. Coffeemate to share his thoughts, too, if that would help.
posted by Coffeemate at 8:39 AM on February 24, 2010

FWIW she's marrying us in a different church in a different city. We rented the church (a methodist church) so that the ceremony and reception could be in the same city and asked her to officiate since my mother had already asked her if she'd be willing to officiate at a different church knowing I wasn't tied to my home church or city enough to get married there. IMO that could make it more likely for her to back out, amirite?
posted by kthxbi at 8:41 AM on February 24, 2010

Coffeemate: what do you mean prepare? I have no idea what will be asked so what exactly should we prepare for?
posted by kthxbi at 8:42 AM on February 24, 2010

IMO that could make it more likely for her to back out, amirite?

I really don't think so. In fact, I think her willingness to perform the marriage at a church outside her own points to her flexibility. You could always call her, you know, and just find out right now, if you're really worried.

Oh, and on preview: PREPARE is a course some pastors use for pre-marriage inventory. You each take a quiz online, and then the results go to your pastor, who uses the results to point out areas of strength and weakness i.e. "You appear to be on the same page about money but not children". There are also some open-ended questions to discuss during your meetings. Our pastor used this course, and it provided a nice structure for our meetings, though I found some of the quiz questions poorly-worded and confusing.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:46 AM on February 24, 2010

I think she means the marriage inventory is called"PREPARE" ... I believe mine was called "FOCCUS" (Catholic pre-Cana prep).

FOCCUS was a list of statements (over 100) that you put "agree strongly" through "disagree strongly" on a Scantron, and I think you also ranked how important certain things were to you. Your spouse-elect does the same, a computer spits back out a joint score sheet that highlights areas of compatibility and lack of compatibility, and you discuss those areas with the minister, who's typically been trained in the system.

My husband lied about how religious he was so he'd "look better" to the priest, so we came up as very incompatible on religion and the priest flagged it as an area of concern, and I was like, "No, it's just that one of us is honest and one of us doesn't want you to be disappointed in our church attendance frequency." :P
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:50 AM on February 24, 2010

:) Thanks for the clear up. I thought Coffeemate was urging me to prepare in all caps.
posted by kthxbi at 9:06 AM on February 24, 2010

IMO that could make it more likely for her to back out, amirite?

No it doesn't.

You're not an atheist getting married in a Lutheran Church. You're an atheist who is renting out a methodist church asking a family pastor to officiate. Your mother is the one who asked her to perform the wedding, the pastor is traveling and performing a service to your family and to you as a couple. Pastors not only perform a religious wedding, they also have powers given to them by the state to perform a legally binding wedding. It sounds like you're not asking for the Church to bless your marriage though it's possible that your parents are asking for that. A pastor, at their discretion, determines whether to perform that service. The fact that she's traveling a great distance to marry you implies that she's okay with this.

In the pre-martial counseling, your non-belief will come up. The pastor, obviously, has views on this but the point of the counseling isn't to say "you need to believe this" but rather "have you, as a couple, talked this through and thought about it?" What are the consequences of these "big questions"? What about money? Sex? That's what is usually discussed at these meetings. Since you're only having one, there will also be a discussion on the program, what bible readings to use, hymns, etc. Since it sounds like your parents are involved, it might be helpful to ask them what readings they would recommend, hymns, whether there should be communion, etc.

The ELCA teaches that marriage is important and these types of meetings are designed to help couples stay married. That's the whole point of them. You don't have to be scared. If this really is worrying you, call her up and just ask. Pastors LOVE to talk about this kind of thing - it's much more fun for them than their usual day-to-day church discussions.
posted by Stynxno at 9:10 AM on February 24, 2010

Hi, lifelong Lutheran here, doncha know (ELCA). My Catholic husband and I were married in a Methodist church we rented out, too, and my Lutheran pastor officiated.

In our pre-marital counseling, we took a quiz about out attitudes on various issues like money, housing, family size, etc. We had one session only, because Pastor evaluated our responses as mature and not needing intervention. That's because we'd taken the time beforehand to discuss what life would be like as a married couple, and also probably because we had been living together for a while. Also we were 30 (him) and 24 (me) so we were not starry-eyed high-school sweetheart types.

The point isn't that you pass a test before you are allowed to get married, it is that you have thought about the "big issue" things.

We also discussed the service itself, the type of music, etc. It was pretty high church, we had communion, sang hymns, etc. (He was pretty strict on not permitting the typical "Wedding March" music.)

If you are not having communion at your wedding, and if you are sticking to the typical service, you will probably not have any issue with the pastor officiating, given your beliefs.

Best wishes!
posted by FergieBelle at 9:32 AM on February 24, 2010

We were married in a Lutheran church (National Church of Iceland) -- I was raised Lutheran (doncha know (exactly!)) but am a happy non-believer. Since it was a very long distance thing, we met with the pastor only once, a few days before the actual ceremony. We talked for maybe an hour? Probably less, largely about the logistics, pleasantries and very, very briefly touched on the big questions/issues (in a 'have you thought about?' way). She gathered that we were not church goers, and left it at that.

I think she just wanted to feel us out as people in very general, broad terms.

The one big concept I took out of my Lutheran upbringing is grace -- and our pastor was overflowing with it. She was simply happy to see us happy, and happy to marry us, regardless of our beliefs.
posted by wrok at 10:36 AM on February 24, 2010

Curious: "we're both non-believers" - why are you getting married in/by a church?
posted by davidmsc at 11:52 AM on February 24, 2010

The ELCA is a very large and diverse group and the character of this interaction will depend on the pastor. In general (with many, many exceptions) the ELCA is the more liberal, pragmatic, and ecumenical organization. Religious belief and practice will certainly be part of your discussion; at a minimum the survey you take will compare the compatibility of your perceptions of the role of religion in your lives. My experience, personal and anecdotal, is that you will not be pressed on specific beliefs and your encouragement to include religious practice as part of your marriage will be general.

There is a possibility that this pastor could have issues with your beliefs. I do not personally believe that the characterization Stynxno gave above is accurate. While pastors do receive state authority to execute the civil contract of marriage, which is a separate thing from the religious ceremony (and sacrament) of marriage, I have never met an ordained pastor who considered it appropriate to act as merely the officiant of a wholly secular wedding. Of course a lot of weddings which are superficially religious, but where the participants' attitudes towards the proceedings are wholly secular, occur in churches. These are nevertheless religious ceremonies and the participants, to be completely pragmatic about it and set aside any questions of ideology, are expected to play along with the fiction that they are entering marriage as a Christian sacrament.

It would be appropriate, though probably unlikely, for a pastor to refuse to perform a religious service for a couple who explicitly disavow religion. So if you insist on telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth (as opposed to omitting mention of your literal atheism and staying vague on your specific beliefs, practices and intentions with respect to Christianity) and want to absolutely exclude the possibility of losing your pastor at an inopportune time you should ask her about it.
posted by nanojath at 12:17 PM on February 24, 2010

davidmsc: We both come from religious families and it's honestly just easier that way. As nanojath puts it, we believe that "playing along with the fiction that we are entering marriage as a Christian sacrament" will stop a lot of familial strife. Like I said above, my own mother knows my beliefs, but that wouldn't stop her from crying and throwing a shit fit if I said I didn't want to be married in a church ... etc etc.
posted by kthxbi at 12:46 PM on February 24, 2010

Oops - just checking in after posting my response. Sorry kthxbi for the confusion about PREPARE. PREPARE was indeed the name of the inventory we took.
posted by Coffeemate at 1:47 PM on February 24, 2010

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