I remember with horror the first wedding I ever officiated. The blinding stage lights, an overworked air conditioning system, sweat from my forehead dripping and bleeding the ink on my manuscript, and the realization that I was to do almost all speaking, were almost too much. Forget the bride, from my sweaty perspective, all eyes were on me. Thank God the VHS tapes have deteriorated.
Twenty years and a hundred weddings later, the terror has dissipated, but not the discomforts. The pastor is usually outside the loop of the social build-up to the wedding, so I am constantly under- or overdressed for the rehearsal. Premarital counseling coordinated around three schedules inevitably occurs very early in the morning, late in the evening, or right in the middle of one my kids’ most important soccer matches. Now 49, I’m occasionally relegated from the fun table where everyone drinks a little too much, right past the thirtysomething table where childrearing anecdotes are interrupted by naughty tales of glory days, all the way to the grandmother table where iced tea reigns and conversations begin with “How big is your church?” or “Do you know my Pastor, Bill (no last name given)?” And then there are the wedding consultants who think they are rock stars and the wedding coordinators who were trained at the School of the Americas or, even more frighteningly, in the Junior League. “Rachel Getting Married” isn’t a nightmare for me. It’s a flashback.
Thankfully I now pastor a young church that throws fantastic weddings. I’ve also encountered a powerful and unexpected reality on this “dearly beloved . . . would you like the chicken or the salmon?” professional journey. My participation in the transition to marriage -- the hours of premarital counseling, planning the worship gathering, and engaging with family and friends at the wedding and related events -- is the most prophetic aspect of my pastoral life.
The Hebrew prophets were poetic truthtellers, inspired to connect the lives of their listeners to an honest telling of their spiritual, political, economic contexts. Some prophets challenged the assumptions of kings. Others revealed blessings and opportunities that were easily missed in the tedium or terror of the contemporary context. All connected the creative and redemptive mission of God to the lives of their constituents.
Weddings are clear checkpoints in life. This is one reason why so many behave so oddly at these affairs. In the midst of our atrocious electric slides, ridiculous chicken dances and buffet/open bar gluttony, are thoughts such as these:
“Could I fit into that dress now?”
“Do I have friends like that?”
“I remember when we were that in love.”
“I hope they notice I have been promoted/my new car/my hot date.”
“My, how life has changed since those two were kids?
“We had a bit of surgery, didn’t we?”
We are evaluating and judging our own lives.
This point is exponentially true for the couple at the altar. Many couples see this as an opportunity to craft new patterns in life, to take risks that they have never taken before, to make permanent certain values and dreams, and to grow dynamically (and often painfully) from the perspectives of an intimate friend. In short, it is a time when people are listening. We are more alert, more aware of our wounds, more malleable, and more courageous. We are open to blessing or challenge from another.
For the pastor -- the woman in the robe and decidedly uncomfortable shoes or the man in the dark suit on a 100 degree day -- there are profound lessons of leadership in the discomforts of this journey. Our greatest leadership possibilities lie not in the moments of our own making. With no disrespect to meticulously crafted orations, moments of bold clarity in the boardroom, or our subtle theological reflections, some of our greatest leadership comes in the out-of-control, ill-fitted, inconvenient, and unchosen moments of our work. This is a lesson that pastors and plumbers, academicians and account executives, celebrities and caregivers should all remember, again.
Tim Conder is the founding pastor of Emmaus Way in Durham, North Carolina. He also serves on the Board of Directors at Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, Washington. He is the author, most recently, of “Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community.”