When ministers tell prospective couples 'I won't'

Must a minister marry every couple that asks? More clergymen today are daring to say no when the match seems a poor one.

Rev. Luke Witte has said it to mixed-faith couples and to those too young for lifelong decisions. Rev. Virginia McDaniel has said it to couples who don't communicate well. And Rabbi Richard Address has said it when the topic of children becomes a lighting rod for an otherwise happy pair.

"No," say these gatekeepers of holy matrimony to stunned couples in the throes of engagement. "I cannot marry you."

The judgment comes down like a gauntlet on those select occasions when clergy feel they have no alternative. Each of these clergy has seen their negative assessments of a relationship lead to canceled wedding plans within the month.

And yet, despite the heartache and rage that sometimes ensues, clerical marriagemakers are feeling good about doing more to prevent those that seem doomed to fail.

"In retrospect, I wished I'd acted on my gut more often in the past," said Ms. McDaniel, Pastor of Christ Church United in Lowell, Mass. "When I find out that a wedding was called off after I said No, I think things probably worked out for the best."

Pastors haven't always felt so good about denying nuptial rites. Many, in the name of tolerance, purposefully made church weddings easier to get by relaxing requirements over the past three decades, according to Donald Browning, author of "Marriage and Modernization" (Eerdmans, 2003) and professor of Religious Ethics and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Yet in a climate charged by same-sex marriage cases in the courts, questions of who should get married are once again on the minds of the institution's religious gatekeepers, who perform more than 80 percent of America's 1.1 million weddings each year. And as half of the nation's new marriages continue to end in divorce, some pastors feel it is high time to ask certain couples to reconsider.

"There's quite a movement growing for churches to get on the ball and revisit the trend for marriages to happen as soon as the couple wants it," Professor Browning says. "Pastors are asking themselves, 'Did we adapt too quickly to the culture around us? Did we do young people a favor by adapting to the consumer mind-set?' Some are saying, 'Maybe we should have maintained our heritage a little more strongly.' "

Among the signs of a raised bar is increased usage of premarital inventory tools among clergy who counsel couples. In 1993, just 100,000 couples took such tests measuring communication skills and compatibility in such areas as finances, sex, children, and religion. Today, about 800,000 use such an inventory, according to Michael McManus, founder of the national marriage strengthening project, Marriage Savers.

Since 10 percent of inventories come back with a "don't proceed" message, 80,000 couples a year find their wedding plans facing a red light. Clergy seem increasingly willing to deliver the bad news, with hopes of preventing future disaster.

"You're seeing more pastors saying no [to the couple wanting to marry] because the inventories suggest it," Mr. McManus said. "Most churches have become wedding factories. Organized religion has some responsibility here that it has not borne."

Although major inventories rely largely on a common set of criteria, not all pastors say no for the same reasons.

Couples in their teens or early 20s are often told to postpone plans, especially if they've been dating less than a year, when they meet with the Rev. Luke Witte, family ministry team leader at 2,000-member Forest Hill Church in Charlotte, N.C. But Mr. Witte goes even further when only one partner is a believing Christian. Those couples get a flat no.

"They're unevenly yoked," Witte says in Biblical parlance. "If one person is really on fire to serve the Lord and the other doesn't care, you're sure to have problems. The church in those marriages becomes something like an extramarital affair."

In his 31 years of ministry, only two couples have ever received a refusal from Rabbi Richard Address, director of the department of Jewish family concerns for the Union of Reform Judaism. Both times the subject of children came up in counseling, he said, "and it was like somebody changed the channel for one person." Both times he told them, "I can't do this," and both couples broke up shortly thereafter.

Convincing others surrounding the couple of the rightness of their match has been an important concern since the days of Romeo and Juliet. Fox's new reality TV show "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé" - in which a young woman strives to convince her parents that her unlikable suitor is the right choice for her - is just the most recent modern twist on such concerns.

But no matter the religious tradition or family background, clergy agree that refusing to perform a wedding requires a hefty dose of courage.

Pressures can be enormous to satisfy a family long connected to a congregation, or to preserve nonrefundable commitments to caterers and function halls, or to earn an extra $500 or $1,000 to supplement a cleric's modest income.

When a wedding is refused, reactions can be mixed at best. Witte once watched a dejected man angrily storm out of his office. His fiancée later confided that they had broken up because she saw a different side of him that day.

Yet despite ongoing pressures to provide a wedding tailored to a couple's demands, clergy in 183 different communities have recently forged alliances to require that anyone getting married there must engage in at least four counseling sessions before the ceremony.

Reform Judaism has over the last three years developed a similar idea, encouraging couples to go through a seven-session program on Jewish marriage basics.

Through more extensive preparation, clergy say, some couples decide on their own not to wed. But the need for others to intervene may not disappear soon.

"No rabbi would say, 'You're just not meant for each other,' " Mr. Address says. "What they would do is ask questions that might make the couple aware of some serious issues. More and more clergy, aware of the stakes involved, are ready to enter into those discussions."

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