06 December, 2012

I came across this while re-reading a book this morning. I have enjoyed this parable as means to imagine change in a tangible way. A link to the author's original work is found in the byline and at the end of the post.  

Turning the Fear of Transformation into the
Transformation of Fear
Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I'm either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I'm hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I'm in control of my life.

I know most of the right questions and even some of the answers.

But every once in a while as I'm merrily (or even not-so-merrily) swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It's empty and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart of hearts I know that, for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar and move to the new one.
Each time it happens to me I hope (no, I pray) that I won't have to let go of my old bar completely before I grab the new one. But in my knowing place, I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and, for some moment in time, I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar.

Each time, I am filled with terror. It doesn't matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing I have always made it. I am each time afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars. I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. So, for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of "the past is gone, the future is not yet here."

It's called "transition." I have come to believe that this transition is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched.

I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a "no-thing," a noplace between places. Sure, the old trapeze bar was real, and that new one coming towards me, I hope that's real, too. But the void in between? Is that just a scary, confusing, disorienting nowhere that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible?
NO! What a wasted opportunity that would be. I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.

We cannot discover new oceans unless we have the courage to lose sight of the shore.
So, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to "hang out" in the transition between trapezes. Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void, we just may learn how to fly. 

01 November, 2012

A Newsletter Article From the Archives

I first published this here in July, 2008.  I felt it was worth bringing back to the top of the list.  

As an alternative to preaching on some Sundays, I’ve had people write anonymous questions for me to answer during worship. One of the questions submitted was this:
“…religion is something people do because that’s what is expected of them. We are told we must believe in God to go to heaven, so we do it blindly or not sincerely because we are afraid of the consequences….Is there true sincere faith?” 
Wow!  Why are we part of a faith community? What do we get out of it? What difference does faith make in our everyday lives?  Here’s a few possibilities:

  • Some people attend church because they’ve always attended church. Their ancestors before them attended church, so they do too. It’s a habit and a duty.
  • Some people participate in a community of faith because they are looking for answers to life’s questions. They are looking for what will fill emptiness in their lives, trying to satisfy an unidentified hunger. They shop from church to church, faith to faith, looking and looking, and moving on when something offends or challenges them.
  • Some people attend church because they fear the wrath of an angry god. They’ve been told that God will judge harshly those who do not jump the hoops and submit to the anger of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present God.
  • Some are part of a community of faith because it is in relationships with others that they are fed, nourished, challenged to grow, and refreshed in their whole being.
  • Some people don’t attend church because they see people who do as hypocrites and judgmental, but they still have questions, are still looking to fill that emptiness. 
  •  Some people don’t attend church because they can’t wrap their minds around the whole “motivation by fear” concept.
  • Some people are not part of a faith community because they have no idea what goes on there but have seen and heard in the media what “Christians” are about and they don’t like it.
  • Some people are not part of a faith community because they’ve never been there, their parents didn’t attend, and none of their friends attend. These are spiritual people and the consumer’s market of offerings in the Spirituality section of the bookstores and the internet communities are great places to check things out.

I would propose that participating in a faith community and having faith are not the same. One can be a “member” of a church and not “have faith.” Humans are born with a spirit, a soul that yearns to be connected to something larger and beyond themselves. That yearning is satisfied through faith, but not by faith. Faith is not a solution, but a journey. True, sincere faith is an honest and open trek through life – both the challenges and the joys – growing and reaching toward that “something” beyond and greater than us. In Christianity, that trek is guided by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the writings of his earliest followers. And that “something” is the One Jesus called God.  With faith, we never remain the same; change is the only constant.
Yes, my friend, there is true, sincere faith. It is not found in a book or on the internet. It is not found in the media or in anything someone else can give you. It’s not even found at church!  It is found by looking within yourself, recognizing the God-shaped hole within you, and seeking honest, open, and challenging ways to fill that void. It is a journey we must share with others who feed, nourish, and challenge us. Easy answers and the status quo of life will not be a part of this journey. It is a journey that will continuously transform, change, and remold you.
Blessings on the Journey!      Carly

20 September, 2012

A Sewing Machine and Ministry

My mother’s sewing machine was a mainstay of our home when I was growing up.  It was at that machine that many of my clothes were made from hand-me-downs and recycled Goodwill clothing, repairs and patches were administered to well loved wardrobe items, my sisters’ wedding gowns were crafted, several sets of drapes were assembled and later repaired, the sails for my brother’s boat were repaired, and the dress my mother wore to
my wedding was created.  The walnut case – assembled at a factory in the early 1900’s – was constant reminder of memories of good times, challenging times, sad times. It was a piece of furniture I received from my brother with great joy.  This I would treasure in my own home; I would use it to create and repair clothing and household items, as well as for my own memory-making. 

But my brother had stored it for 5 years in his basement.  The moisture from that Connecticut River Valley home had caused the walnut veneer to mold, buckle, and peel. The varnish finish was checked from hot summers on Cape Cod.  The machine within this case was still fully functional with a little fine tuning; but the case in which it was housed was in serious danger of being non-useable. Something needed to be done about the case, but I was conflicted about how to proceed.  To re-veneer and refinish the case would decrease its historic value; to do nothing would also diminish its value.  It was not as it used to be and, it seemed, it could never be like that again.  Change had happened and was yet to happen, and there was no course of action that I could take to avoid some type of loss.  Yet the promise – and challenge – of renewal and rebirth engaged me.

The state of the Church, to me, is very much like the status of my mother’s sewing machine.  We are in a time of major transition, and change is not something we do well.  Often when faced with limited choices we find conflict and grief are more comfortable than change.  We know things will never be the same, but we have great difficulty knowing how to proceed into God’s future. 

Ministry happens when the needs of creation, the giftedness of individuals, and the will of God collide.  Ministry is about building trust and strengthening relationships: between individuals, between people and God, between groups, within families and communities.  Ministry is about learning and growing: in our personal and spiritual lives, in our understanding of one another and “the other.”

For most of the last 28 years, my role as a pastor has been to engage, foster, and lead ministry in the settings to which has God called me. My ministry has centered on the needs of congregations and individuals who need healing from conflict, clarity in their mission and purpose, new hope and vision their future, and spiritual and faith renewal. The image of my mother’s sewing machine explains this well.

My wedding band & finger suffered damage in this work.

To restore and renew this treasured item was painful.  As I emptied the drawers, I found spools of thread that matched the colors of many memories: patch-sized pieces of cloth carefully stored to repair long-gone but remembered clothing; bobbins and needle threaders, buttons and snaps, darning needles and crochet hooks; and a shuttle bobbin from the machine that the case previously housed.  Memories flowed as I handled each item to decide what was worth keeping.  But this was just the beginning of the work.

The sewing machine – the heart of the piece, had to be carefully extracted, first by unclasping the leather belt that wound from the wheel to the treadle; then by unscrewing the bolts that held it firmly to the case.  Lifting it carefully, several small metal items fell to the floor; they were straight pins long lost in the midst of a forgotten sewing project.  Each wood screw had to be removed so that the wooden lid, the machine pedestal, and hinged spring could be separated and their veneer layers replaced.  The checked finish on the drawers and lower cabinet needed to be repaired, but was the finish shellac, varnish, or lacquer?  How to proceed depended upon the make up of the cabinet.

Ministry is, for me, a careful study of the history and life of a congregation.  I listen to the memories, hopes and dreams of the church members, and engage the congregation in a time of self study that assesses the strengths and challenges of the congregation and the gifts and abilities of its members.  Together, we carefully examine the layers of history, disclose and address the worn and painful areas, and seek to discern the direction God is calling the congregation.  This is not a painless process; how to proceed depends upon the make up of the congregation and the trust levels of its members. 

Initially, I tried out several approaches to the checked finish of the sewing cabinet, each tried in an inconspicuous place; but the finish did not respond.  I brushed the finish with lacquer thinner and finally the checked finish dissolved just enough to smooth out some of the checked area.  Ultimately, this too did not work in the larger areas, and I had to strip all of the original finish off of the case.  These first attempts were not failures but learnings.

Ministry engages the congregation in learning:  about themselves, about their faith, about their life together, about God’s purpose for them within that particular community.  Not everything works perfectly because we are human and imperfect; but when we view our experiences as a journey of learning, we grow stronger.  The journey into God’s future travels through the valleys of errors, over the mountains of success, and across the flat plains of the ordinary.

On the floor of my garage are ten components that will eventually be reassembled into my mother’s sewing machine case. I am waiting for the right time -- a warm, humid day -- to apply the new veneer with old fashion hide glue.  I have a vision of what the completed project will look like, but need to remind myself to be open to the surprises the wood may yet have in store.  Assembled, it will still be the piece that adorned my childhood home and filled my memories, even though the scratches and finish will be new.  With the Singer machine reattached, it will be put to good use toward the purpose for which it was crafted.  All this will happen in time.

Ministry, too, is a matter of vision and of timing.  For the Church to be renewed, rebuilt, and retooled for this Post-Christian era, we must actively watch and listen for the direction and vision God gives us and put our gifts, abilities, and purpose into the hard work of living into God’s future.

     Just as my mother’s sewing machine will find a new purpose in a new place, so my ministry is being transformed and changed.  For six years I led a congregation through healing (from an abusive pastor) to new vision. I have co-pastored a new church exploration.  I have guided 9 congregations through painful transitions and healing to ready them for the leadership of a called pastor.  I have experienced the transitions in these congregations and then left the new life for another to lead.  I feel strongly that God is calling me to a new challenge in leading beyond the transitions and into the new vision God provides.  In the language of my mother’s sewing machine, I have led God’s people through the remembering, disassembly, testing, and refinishing; I feel called to finish the project, to imagine and form new ministries and new life within a now-healing congregation.  

03 September, 2012

Traveling Church

I hadn't had any breakfast; it was a very early flight. As I walked down the terminal to find a cup of coffee, someone called my name. It wasn't a page over the airport PA. It was a male voice behind me. I turned around in search of its source. I recognized no one. I walked on.

He called again. "Carly!"

It couldn't be a family member; they would have called me by my given name, Carla. I still saw no one I recognized. I turned and walked on.

A third time the voice called my name.

It is unusual to hear your name called across the expanse in a strange place. I am alone in this airport and far from home. There is no one I would expect to meet in this place. But it is a holiday weekend. So it is conceivable that an acquaintance from some past existence is also traveling through this hub of an airport. But no one seems familiar within the realm of my vision. I walked on; who ever it was, he had to be calling someone else.

The narrative is reminiscent of Samuel's call in the Temple. God called and the child assumed that the old man, Eli, was calling to him in the night. Eli told him to go back to bed. The voice was unrelenting. Samuel heard his name called several times. Eli discerned the source and told the boy to respond with an appropriate response.

Is there an appropriate response to hearing your name shouted across an airport terminal? Should I have walked around seeking some familiar face? Should I have called back asking for its source to come forward? To where does one turn for direction in such a situation?

The Church finds itself in a similar situation. We are traveling through an unknown land called postmodernity, or if you prefer, a post-christian era. We hear the call to be the Church but we no longer know what that looks like. We don't recognize the faces around us, nor the voices calling to us. We are strangers in a strange land holding onto the promise of a future we cannot yet imagine.

For many congregations, the landscape is as alien as Mars; church members cannot recall a time when they didn't exist exactly as they exist today, when the role of the church in society was not dominant, when the norm was not for children to be raised in the faith. And yet today it would seem that our 1955 church no longer has influence in society and most young people have no interest and little knowledge of the faith.

For others, the change has been happening with varying paces...from a a gradual decline to rapid loss of members either through death or attrition of friends and members. All face financial challenges as the cost of maintaining a building outweighs the available sources of income; mission and ministry are hardly affordable while staff salaries are a luxury.

And still we hear the call to the future. Still our names echo in the halls of time to step forward in faith and be the church. Where do we turn for direction? Where is our Eli? Who will guide us in our response to God's call to thrive? How can we walk through this transitional terminal alone? Where are the familiar faces?

On the return walk to the gate with a strong cup off coffee in hand, I heard the voice again. This time, he called me "Pastor Carly." 

The face was only vaguely familiar, and as he walked toward me it was clear that he knew I didn't recognize him. He stretched out his hand and told me his name. I had been the pastor that married him years ago when I served a church in his town. He recalled the amusing way I had introduced the "church rules" at the rehearsal, the care I had given him and his beloved in the premarital counseling, the way I had included the children from both previous marriages in the vows and unity candle. He remembered that I cared, that I was inclusive, that I embraced the diversity of his new family, that I didn't try to "cram religion down [their] throats;" he remembered too that the other churches in town refused to marry them. Because of their experience with their marriage preparation and ceremony, the couple had become active in that congregation, were raising their children there, were participating in learning opportunities, and were supporting its missions and ministries. I had brought him into the church, he said.

Despite the memories he shared, his wedding did not come to my mind. What he shared could have been any of the marriages at which I've officiated. What I thought was ordinary ritual and liturgy, he found to be meaningful and nurturing. My putting faith in action was what put faith into his own life.

The voice that called to me across that airport was the same voice Samuel heard so many years ago. In the voice of this former groom was the wisdom of God assuring me that this new era of the Church will carry forward the essentials of the faith, that the Body of Christ has a role in the worlds of today and tomorrow, and that we will find the answers that our Still Speaking God still offers to us. If we are open to listening and responding to the call of our names in unfamiliar places.


28 June, 2012

The Interim

Let me finish my time of interim ministry with an apology:  I didn’t get everything done I intended to get done.  For example:  every summer when I return from a week of vacation, I throw the sermon out the window and spend a Sunday with a time of questions and answers in the place where the sermon usually goes in the service.  Since last June I have had on my desk nine slips of paper with the questions I did not have time to answer on that “Stump the Pastor” Sunday.  I had promised I would put the responses into the newsletter.  I only made time to respond to one – and it was just a month ago.  

There were other things I intended to do as well: offer another class of “Called to Care,” gather a task force together to revise the Building Use Policy, follow up on the families of some of recently deceased members, and visit with certain members of the congregation just because I wanted to understand them better.  I didn’t do these things.  And for that I am sorry.

I could make excuses for these things.  I could tell you how many funerals have come up.  I could point to the number of meetings and pastoral care situations I’ve attended.  I could tally up all my missed days off and all the late nights I’ve spent doing this or that of church work.  But these are, at best, reasons for my not completing the tasks.  Excuse, in the Oxford English Dictionary, is The action of looking indulgently upon an offender or an offense; a consideration, indulgence, pardon.  An excuse is not mine to give; it requires both of us working things out and you pardoning me for my omission. 
So I am left with an apology to offer.  I did not complete all that I would have liked to complete in 24 months.  And, I am sure that along the way, I have offended more than one of the members.  To these, I confess that I am sorry; I wish it could have been different.  I seek  forgiveness.

I am sure that I have not been the pastor each one has wanted.  I am confident that a few deem my time doing interim ministry a waste and a farce.  There are things for which some will blame me, especially since my being “out of the picture” will make that convenient.  For these, I can only offer that I have done the best that I could with what gifts God has given me.  And to these I would hope they might pray about the role their expectations, participation, and words might have contributed to their disappointment. 

If there is one thing I hope each member of the churches I've served has learned in their time between pastors, it is this:  Each of us plays a role in the results we share.  If you are not happy with a situation, prayerfully and humbly examine the role you have played in helping it come about.  If you are pleased with the outcome of something, humbly acknowledge that you did not accomplish it on your own.  If you are stressed about a situation, humbly and openly discuss with those directly involved that stress and confess your own part of the making.  This is what being a member of a healthy congregation requires.  

As for me, I have been changed by all of you.  A part of each of you will go with me to a new ministry in a new location.  As Stephen Schwartz so aptly wrote in the musical, Wicked, “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”  I hope the same is true for you.

Blessing on your journey, where ever God leads you.        

Pastor Carly

12 May, 2012

Unfinished Work

I’m sitting at my laptop on a table with a calendar hanging over it.  The calendar sports several pictures from days gone by:  my husband and his sister singing in church at about age 12 or 13, my youngest son strumming a guitar, my husband reading a newspaper with a teddy bear under his arm, and my youngest son leaving the church amidst bubbles with his new bride on his arm.  

It’s the large picture in the center, however, that draws one’s eye first.  It is a smiling 3 year old, my first born son, who is eating freshly frosted sugar cookie.  Outside the window behind him, snow sits on the window sills and the snow on the roofs beyond the window is deep.  In the fore ground are unfrosted sugar cookies: the bottom of a snow man, a couple of candles.  By the turtleneck and long sleeves and the chapped lips on the child, it is clearly mid winter.  

It’s a memory I cherish of my oldest son’s earlier Advent seasons.  The enamel topped metal table and matching red chair upon which my son kneels reminds me of a different time when my children were so very small.  His baby teeth shine in his bright smile.  His eyes twinkle with joy as he “sneaks” a bit of a cookie he’s supposed to be decorating for Christmas.  

Those were very different times. Life was simpler.  The laughter of children in the house made a different atmosphere of daily living.  It was a harder life.  Our income level was only just enough on which to live without receiving welfare; we struggled to pay off our student loans.  It was a time of stress as we juggled the roles of young parents, freshly minted pastors, part time social advocates, and full time na├»ve young couple.  

As I look at this picture now, I long to tickle that little boy’s tummy with my fingers to hear him squeal with laughter.  I remember all the good times we had in that little house in Pennsylvania.  And it all feels like something I’d want to do again. 

Only I don’t.  Even if it were possible, I wouldn’t repeat those years.  Yes, I remember them fondly. Yes, I feel things were easier then.  But I wouldn’t want to repeat them because it would mean losing out on the experience of today. Today, when my sons are young adults exploring lives of their own. Today, when as empty nesters we have the joy of being able to pick up and go whenever we choose without regard to school calendars or nap times.
 Today, when I am wiser, more mature, and certainly a different person that I was 24 years ago.  Today, while a very different era, still offers its own joys, challenges, stresses, and—yes – sad times.  

I can’t go back; I am not the same now as I was then.  I can’t go back; it is not possible to turn my adult sons into children again.  I can’t do it over; I’m not young and spry, limber and energetic.  I don’t want things to be the way they used to be even if I’m not completely happy with how things are today – because I know in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t as happy then as my memories would like to lead me to believe.  

What is true in life, is also true in the church.  We can never again be what we once were because the world is not the same now as it once was and because you and I are not the same people we used to be.  We have grown older, (hopefully) more mature and more wise, and (hopefully) to a different place on our faith journey.  We can never again be what we once were because the world doesn’t need us as we used to be; Christ needs us in the world as he calls us to be for today.  What worked in the culture of yester-year cannot work in the world today.  

Friends, we’re not in Kansas any more.  We are in a new era when the Church is not dominate in culture (if indeed it ever was in our lifetimes), where the choices of belief systems have developed along side of our capitalistic, consumer based economy, and where people of faith struggle as an alien culture in a strange land.  

Working through the change of the church is constantly unfinished.  When we stop changing we die.  We must remain relevant to the ever-changing world in which we live.  And to do that, we must not focus upon the past or wish that we could repeat it.  Our focus must be on getting out of the church and listening to our neighbors and the strangers around us. The center of our focus must be upon God by living God's mission for this world: loving the world into restoration and reconciliation with one another and in union with God.  We must adapt our traditions so that they speak to the neighbor and the stranger.  And we must develop an attitude of mutuality with which to embrace those who choose to sojourn with us.  

May our work never be finished.  

10 May, 2012

The Real Threat to Traditional Marriage?

A couple of days ago, President Obama announced that his position on same gender marriage had evolved to one of acceptance of equal marriage rights.  Immediately the blasts came from all corners about this position. Prophesies about the "war on traditional marriage" fill the airwaves and the internet. And I have difficulty understanding this perspective. Has anyone looked at the state of marriage in this country lately?  Have you seen the statistics about divorce?  Really, if there is any threat to "traditional marriage" it is having a nonchalant attitude toward the permanence of the marriage relationship. 

Divorce rates are high.  Some should never have happened to begin with (see my previous post).  I understand why some marriages don't last.    Infidelity happens. People change.  I get that.  There are those who work hard to repair a relationship and just can't work it out for what ever reason.  We are all human and we fail at the perfection test.  

But, there are those who don't try to work at their relationships.  Specifically, I'm referring to those -- particularly certain public figures -- have been through many marriages that have ended in "irreconcilable differences." Is the pattern not obvious to these people?  If at first you don't succeed, learn something from your failure and get it right the next time.  I can't speak from experience here, I admit.  I just seems to me that if a certain celebrity newscaster has been through four failed marriages that there has to be something else going on besides "irreconcilable differences."  I'm just saying....

From this outsider's point of view, it would seem that to these people marriage is viewed as a disposable relationship. "If it doesn't work out MY way, I'll just walk away and pay the lawyers to get me a huge settlement" seems to be the sentiment of all together too many people. Yet certain, more public of these people seem to have the most to say about what threatens "traditional marriage."  Frankly, I feel they have no ground upon which to stand in this conversation. If they can't figure out how to preserve their own marriages, how can they make healthy judgements about what is a threat to "traditional marriage." 

For many, marriage isn't even in the vocabulary.  "Lets live together, raise children together, and avoid all the complications of marriage."  And really, who can blame them given the painful experience they had as children of divorce with one parent playing the kids against the other parent, using them as pawns to hurt the other, or even hurting the children as a means to get back at the other parent.  Without the commitment to permanence there is no marriage, let alone "traditional marriage."

So, with all the concern expressed about the fate of traditional "marriage," here is my response
If you want to preserve marriage, start with your own -- do you communicate well, negotiate differences fairly, treat one another with respect and dignity, and act as though you plan to spend your lives together, or are you in the marriage only until things feel uncomfortable? And, if you're concerned upon the effect a marriage has on family values, start in the same place -- practice these same values so your children will learn them and have strong marriages themselves. 

When I posted the first draft of these thoughts on my Facebook page, I started a firestorm of comments from my friends and relatives who have been through divorces and perhaps felt targeted by my comments about divorce.  I hope this clarifies from where I'm coming.  

08 May, 2012

To Wed or to Bury?

Most pastors would admit that they'd rather do a funeral than a wedding.  People ask why this is so.  Let me tell you my perspective.  

In much of my experience, weddings are occasions where the church is being used for a commercial transaction and not for a faith based covenanting ceremony.  As a member of the clergy, I am too often asked to be a servant of the couple and not a servant of God. 

When a couple decides to be wed, much is at stake.  Huge dollars go out to pay for a wedding.  There are megabucks to be spent on a dress, on a reception hall, rings, invitations, food, a rehearsal dinner, flowers, etc. etc.  There is that fairy-tale event to plan amidst the family politics, differing ideas of parents and their adult children, distances between participants.  There are many people, their calendars, and their whims to choreograph into this big event.

The couple chooses a date, buys rings, and books a reception hall before they ever contact the church or the clergy.  Many couples shop around to find the church that is the prettiest, has the largest seating capacity, or is most convenient for the family.  For many couples, the church is business to be transacted only after the "more expensive things" have been booked.  And couples (or their parents) get very upset when a church is not available on the date they choose.  Or if the church is not open to their renting the building and bringing in their own officiant.  Or if there are premarital counseling sessions required by the clergy.  And especially if there are conditions the couple must meet to be wed in the church.

A lot of planning goes into a wedding.  But little thought goes into the marriage itself.  When a couple comes before me to be wed, I want it to be a faith based decision, a faithful covenant they are making, and a worship service of integrity in which these commitments are made.  I want to be sure the couple has the communication skills and a solid foundation in relationship building before they make those promises.  In a worship setting, the focus should be on God. In a marriage, the relationship is a three-some -- the couple plus God.  

Too often, the couple who asks me to marry them wants a fairy-tale transaction where there is a princess for the day, where everyone is in costume, where each plays a role as if on stage, and anything less than perfection is deemed to ruin the special day.  More energy -- and finance -- is put into the production than into planning for what happens after the honeymoon.  Too many couples have said to me that if the relationship doesn't work out, they'll just go their separate ways.  That's the point at which I would like to cancel the transaction.  

But, if that couple has a church membership (or is the grandchild or relative of someone who has a church membership), saying "No, I will not officiate at this wedding" can and too often does, lead to employment issues for the clergy person.  There could be openly known abuse in the relationship and still a major issue will be made about the pastor who refuses to marry them.  

Weddings have become secular rituals.  And clergy have been made into agents of the state.  It is the state who issues a "license" to marry which is necessary if one wishes for marital "rights" within the state or federal laws.  In other countries, the legal contract of marriage (and it is a "contract" even within the USA) is handled in the court house.  The couple goes to the legal authorities to have their relationship made official.  They then go to the church -- if they so desire -- for the blessing of that relationship and for making their faith covenant to one another in the presence of God and a congregation of faith.  I have no desire to be an agent of the state; I am a shepherd of those who seek to be faithful  (a little like herding cats most of the time).  

So long as these conditions are present in a wedding, I am being used for a secular purpose; I am not doing ministry.  I am serving a couple, not God.

A funeral, on the other hand, is an opportunity to care for people, to provide a ministry, and to support the faith of those who are in doubt.  The family of the deceased are not trying to create a stage production, do not shop around for the best price or the longest aisle, and turn to the faith community for support not service.  They don't spend a year perseverating upon the planning of the details of the funeral.  They don't spend thousands of dollars upon clothing, food, and other cosmetic and temporal details.  They are people at a loss who seek closure and comfort, not performance and perfection.  

No one questions why a funeral is planned with religious integrity.  There is no legal role for the officiant of a funeral to play.  There is no staging about which to argue, no rehearsal to choreograph, no extravagant reception to distract from the purpose. The focus is faith based.  In a funeral, I am doing that to which I am called and for which I was ordained:  Ministry.