“One last thing. If you ever have a choice between performing a wedding or performing funeral, take the funeral.”
So said my pastor when I was 15 and announced my goal to follow in his footsteps.
He wasn’t joking. At funerals, people tend to respect the dead. At weddings, respect is often dead — or at least drunk. Weddings frequently are more like hostile mergers of corporations.
Early on, I learned to be proactive in heading off conflict. I once had a wedding planning session with a couple whose families I didn’t know. At the end, I asked if there was anything else we needed to talk about. The couple looked at each other awkwardly, and the bride said, “Actually there is.”
She sighed. “My parents are divorced and remarried, and his parents are divorced and remarried. So, we’re going to have eight parents and stepparents there.”
She paused. “They all hate each other, but we love all of them. We want to have a big family picture. But you know how photographers rearrange people by height? We’re afraid two people who hate each other are going to make a scene.”
“We’re afraid two people who hate each other are going to make a scene.”
I smiled confidently and said, “Would you like me to handle that?”
Wide eyed, they nodded. With the best peace-inspiring swagger I could muster, I said, “You’ve got it!”
At the rehearsal, I faced the wedding party gathered in the church pews. You need to know I was in my 30s but looked like I was in my early 20s. It was hard for folks to take my baby face seriously. So, with my most commanding matter-of-fact tone I said, “WELCOME, everyone. Before we begin, I need to see all parents and stepparents of the bride and groom. Please come with me.”
With wide-eyed apprehension, they followed me to the choir room.
They spread out across the room that would seat about 50. A well-placed grenade would not have hurt two people. Even the married couples were not sitting next to each other. They looked scared.
I perched on a stool and smiled serenely. “I want to tell you all a story. At the college where my father taught, graduations were held in the football stadium. When graduation was over, everyone filed out onto the soccer pitch. My dad once found a female graduate standing in the middle of the pitch crying. He asked her what was wrong. Pointing to her left, she sobbed, ‘My mother and stepfather are standing over there.’ Then she pointed right, ‘But my father and stepmother are standing over there, and I don’t know which way to go.’”
I let that sink in. Then I continued, “By not being willing to stand together, those parents made their daughter a rope in a tug of war.”
Shaking my head, I said, “Your children have told me they love each of you, but they say you hate each other. They’re afraid you’re going to cause a scene at their wedding. Let me tell you something: I’m older than I look. I have been to and performed more weddings than you think, and I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen shouting matches; I’ve seen cuss-outs; I’ve seen a bride spat upon in the face by her brother.”
“Your children have told me they love each of you, but they say you hate each other.”
I narrowed my eyes as I scanned the room. “That ain’t gonna happen at this wedding. I am the officiant of this wedding. That makes me like a referee at a basketball game. If I see a foul, I’m going to blow my whistle. If the foul is bad enough, I will toss you out of the game. But we are going to prevent that by conducting ourselves as adults.”
I let my smile return.
“Here is what it means to conduct yourself as an adult: you will do nothing to pull attention to yourself; you will let the spotlight stay on your children at all times. Let’s be specific. If a photographer places you next to the person you most hate in this world, you will smile like it’s the best thing that ever happened to you.
“Now, in a moment we are going back into the sanctuary. If you are capable of behaving like an adult as I just described, you are welcome to participate. However, if you know you’re not capable of behaving like an adult: as we head back toward the sanctuary, without saying a word, you are to go down the hall, out the exit, get in your car, leave, and not come back. But if you take one step in that sanctuary, you will behave as an adult and make this event and tomorrow’s wedding a wonderful experience for the children who love you. And you’ll do that because you love them. Any questions?”
After a brief pause, the mother of the groom said, “We’ll do just fine.”
I clapped once and said, “Great! Let’s get ’em hitched.”
Later at the rehearsal dinner, there was one long table that seated about 30. The mother of the groom invited me to sit with her at the middle of the far side of the table. Across from us, there were two adjacent seats remaining. The only two people still standing were the mother and stepmother of the bride. They smiled at each other and took their seats. As the meal went on, they were chatting and laughing like sorority sisters at their five-year class reunion. At one point, one of them gregariously said, “Girl, you are hilarious!”
Beneath the raucous laugher of the room around us, the mother of the groom discreetly leaned toward me and whispered, “Thank you for what you said to us. I think we just needed to be reminded to be adults.”
I smiled and nodded as I thought, “Don’t we all.”
Brad Bull is an ordained minister and licensed marriage and family therapist. He has served as a minister and university professor and currently works in private practice. His counseling and speaking services are operate through DrBradBull.com.