Sunday, January 20, 2013

Explaining My Wedding Ceremony Contract

I recently posted the text of a contract I now execute with couples who wish for me to perform their wedding ceremonies (here). I put up that post because it took me no time at all to put it up: Just copy and paste. As is, I guess, evident to the world, I don't give much time to blogging any more (not that you all aren't wonderful people, but just because life is short and there is much to do).

Anyway, from some of the comments received (one on the blog and a few through other media), it became clear to me that I needed to elaborate a bit more. In which case I might not have posted the thing to begin with, but that horse is already out of the barn. So, for clarity's sake, please allow me to spell out what I'm shooting for with the contract. I plead with you to understand that I'm leaving for Senegal this week and probably won't interact in the comments at all.

The Idea

A few years ago I heard Kelly Shackelford mentioning the horrible state of marriage law in Texas. In our state, the marriage contract is the only contract in which one party can break the contract and leave it without penalty or obligation to the other party. Every other contract is enforceable; a marriage contract is not.

That bothered me, but then a germ of an idea came to mind: What if one were to put into place a simple financial contract ALONGSIDE the marriage contract? You couldn't force people to stay married, but you could at least add some incentive perhaps to make them work a little harder at avoiding a divorce.

Also, I've seen marriages break up that made me feel that one of the spouses had been defrauded—and, frankly, that I myself had been defrauded and the church had been defrauded—all the way back to the time of the wedding. Somebody had said things about what he or she believed about marriage that he or she did not truly believe. They say those things because it is cheap to lie and expensive to tell the truth at the time of marriage.

If a couple came to me and said, "We want to get married. We love each other. But when this relationship cools off, we just plan to get a divorce and move on," then I probably wouldn't agree to perform the wedding. That's not the kind of marriage vows I will solemnize. But there's a constant stream of people who really think that going into marriage, but just won't be honest about it. When that happens, a fraud has been perpetrated upon me (not to speak of the defrauded spouse in those occasions when one spouse agrees with me but another does not!).

And so, I decided to put together a business contract to put at least some small teeth in place alongside the impotent marriage contract that our state provides and to make it absolutely clear to everyone that couples whom I marry are making contractual representations to me about the kind of marriage that they are asking me to witness and upon which they want me to ask the Lord's blessing.

The Details

Not all the details, of course, but a few things that might have caught your eye:

  1. The $10,000: Of course, as you read down further, you'll notice that I'm really talking about a $10 wedding. It's the DIVORCE that winds up costing $10,000. Why that much? I'm looking for an amount that will make people stop and think, but that won't necessarily drive most people into abject, life-long poverty. Also, I wanted an amount for which I could reasonably say, "You'd be better off financially to pay for a little marriage counseling."
  2. "Premarital Consultation" and "Christian Wedding": I wouldn't have drawn up a contract just for the purpose of these two items, but while I'm doing one, I wanted to put these things in there. If for no other reason, these things perhaps protect me a little bit from unintended consequences. I didn't want MYSELF to wind up in court for breach of contract if I executed one of these contracts for someone and then wound up refusing to perform the wedding for other reasons. Probably, I need to make sure that I include in this thing the reasons why I might wind up refusing to perform a wedding.
  3. Recipient: I don't want people coming back and saying, "Hey, we've been tithing for 10 years. We've long ago paid off that $10,000. We're getting divorced and we're not paying a penny."
  4. Financing: This is the heart of the contract. I'm setting up every one of these couples with a debt, but no payments are required and no interest will accrue. All they have to pay is the initial $10, and then the rest of it comes on their schedule (if at all). Why $10? I think that it makes it more clear that this is a real contract if at least some amount of money changes hands from the get-go. If it doesn't make it more real for the courts, at least perhaps it does so for the people involved.
  5. Joint and Several Liability: Legally, I believe this means that I can collect the accelerated debt, if necessary, from both spouses or from either spouse, at my sole discretion. And so, if one deadbeat husband commits adultery and walks away from his spouse for another woman, I don't have to go after her for $10,000. I can, if I wish, just go after him for the total amount.
  6. Forgiveness of Indebtedness: If the marriage survives "'til death do us part" then the debt goes away.
  7. Acceleration Clause: If the marriage ends in divorce or annulment, I have the right, if I should choose to do so, to demand immediate payment of any unpaid balance of the $10,000.
  8. What Would I Do With the Money? Legally, whatever I wanted. It's my money, paid to me for performing the wedding ceremony. That being said, I'd have a lot of options. If I wanted to give it to a wronged spouse, I guess I could do so, couldn't I? If I wanted to put it into trust for minor children caught up in a messy divorce, I guess I could do so, couldn't I?


Look, I'm of no delusional persuasion that taking this action will cause a dramatic drop in the divorce rate in Eastern Collin County. But I'm happy to think that I'm doing SOMETHING. If nothing else, I'm forcing engaged couples to think, in a business sort of way with real money on the line, about the commitment that they're making.


Anonymous said...

If you are truly serious, and don't intend this as humor, this is, then, pretty fringe stuff, and instead of having some influence, you will actually end up having none. Might as well raise your hands and admit defeat. But your Fridays and Saturdays will be free.

Bart Barber said...

Dear Anonymous,

You wrote: "If you are truly serious, and don't intend this as humor…"

I reply: I am 100% serious and don't find any humor in this at all.

You wrote: "…this is, then, pretty fringe stuff…"

I reply: The mainstream is a widely accepted divorce rate that will claim around half of all marriages. The mainstream is a population so disillusioned with the popular state of marriage that the average age of marriage is climbing higher and higher while the rate of marriage is sinking. We are a people who avoid marriage and then bail out of it once we've entered it. You state that I am not in the mainstream, but am on the fringe. Thank you for noticing. You've paid me the highest compliment that I have received today.

You wrote: "…and instead of having some influence, you will actually end up having none…"

I reply: I might have been discouraged by your belittling comments, but for the fact that I spent some time yesterday reading Letter from Birmingham Jail…but for the fact that I spent some time this week and last watching "The Abolitionists" on PBS. You might want to study history a little closer and reexamine the relationship that you propose between the "fringe" and "influence." Martin Luther King, Jr. was on the fringe (as was Martin Luther). William Lloyd Garrison was on the fringe. Frederick Douglass was on the fringe. I'd say that Martin Luther King, Jr., was influential. Can you name any of the clergy to whom he was replying in Letter from Birmingham Jail? The ones who warned him that his position on the fringe was diminishing his influence? No, neither can I. Influence doesn't come from sucking up to a sick culture, Anonymous. Influence comes from shaking people out of the mainstream and showing them something better out on their fringe.

You wrote: "…Might as well raise your hands and admit defeat…"

I reply: Better to admit that you're being defeated than to continue in denial.

You wrote: "…But your Fridays and Saturdays will be free."

I reply: God did not call me to be a hireling seeing how many notches I could put on my belts for the total count of weddings that I've performed. In fact, I'm still searching for the part of the New Testament that measures pastoral ministry by how many weddings you perform…that says that performing weddings is among the tasks of a pastor at all. But I'm happy to perform weddings between actual followers of Jesus Christ. You're welcome to have all of the folks who are not interested in vowing 'til death do they part. Apply for an online ordination if you don't have one, and by all means, stack your Fridays and Saturdays full.

Dave Miller said...

We need to get Louis' legal opinion on this.

Bart Barber said...

i admit, I've been awaiting Louis's evaluation. He probably sees some gaping, obvious legal hole and doesn't want to embarrass me publicly.

Or, since I post something about as frequently as Joel Osteen reads Augustine, maybe Louis is no longer watching.

Dave Miller said...

I'm currently writing an article to post at Voices tomorrow called, "Has Bart Barber Lost His Mind? You Make the Call." Lots of tepid compliments and soft insults.

But I thought the idea was worth discussing.

(By the way, the title is real)

Bart Barber said...

Wait until Thursday. I'll be in Africa by then. ;-)

Bart Barber said...

And whatever you do, DO NOT LET MY WIFE COMMENT on the major question of your post.

Dave Miller said...

Hey, its not my job to tell your wife what to do. Plus, I may even offer her a guest column.

Anonymous said...

Bart: You state that I am not in the mainstream, but am on the fringe. Thank you for noticing. You've paid me the highest compliment that I have received today.

Anonymous: I stated that your proposal (i.e., “stuff”) was fringe, not your person. Acknowledging a thesis of Harvey Cox that change often comes from the edge, it is also true that fringe is sometimes just that, that is, it is fringe and ought to remain fringe or, better yet, not at all.

Bart: I might have been discouraged by your belittling comments ...

Anonymous: Like those that you had for Joel Osteen? Recall “... about as frequently as Joel Osteen reads Augustine [, states Bart].”

Bart: Letter from Birmingham Jail ... "The Abolitionists" ... Martin Luther King, Jr. ... Martin Luther ... William Lloyd Garrison ... Frederick Douglass ...

Anonymous: This and these with “Bart’s $10,000 Clergy-Marriage Contract.” Sorry, Bart, but your proposal is not ready for the Witttenberg Door, but it would have been a fine addition to the Wittenburg Door.

Bart: You're welcome to have all of the folks who are not interested in vowing 'til death do they part. Apply for an online ordination if you don't have one, and by all means, stack your Fridays and Saturdays full.

Anonymous: This is just another “about as frequently as Joel Osteen reads Augustine” moment. “My” belittling aside, you have some very deep and practical problems with your clergy-marriage contract proposal, to name just a few:

1. While most ministers insist on emphasizing grace, you are running toward the law, instead, literally, and making it very central to and for a religious ceremony. That is, when the discharge of a wedding ceremony must first involve legal counsel and contracts initiated by the minister and that such carries coercive force, is one left with the notion that the ceremony is taking place in a church or the Office of the Justice of the Peace?

2. You are significantly inserting self, beyond reason, into a relationship between two people and God. “Now, before we proceed with our counseling session, I need to explain a few legal issues and terms concerning your marriage that will involve, your minister, on a monthly basis well into your marriage, or you can just pay me $10,000 now, but really what I want you to do is let this contract hang over your head for a long while and serve as a coercive means for slowing any potential dissolution of your marriage and provide you an incentive to stay together. Otherwise your pain is my gain.”

Pardon me, pastor, but do you mind if my attorney reviews this aforementioned clergy-marriage contract? Thanks. My people will get back to your people, which then your people can get back to you. Surely, in the name of God and with the Spirit of Christ, we can work out a great clergy-marriage contract that will serve as the basis for this marriage and religious ceremony going forward. I agree, covenant is such quaint concept. Thanks.

Bart, you are admired for wanting to be more influential in the development of successful marriages. This isn’t the way. Drop this nonsense or you will attenuate your credibility.

Tom Shelton said...

I would suggest a change in the language of point #6. I suggest you change it from "Forgiveness of Indebtedness" to something that says upon the death of one spouse the payments received constitute the new contract price and the contract is now paid in full. The correct wording should come from a lawyer. The reason for the change is that if this contract proves to be legally enforceable then you would be required to issue the surviving spouse a 1099 for the amount of debt forgiven and the surviving spouse would have to report debt forgiveness income on their tax return of the amount of the debt forgiven. Since this is obviously not what you want to happen the change in wording would be necessary.

Tom said...

I actually like it. I don't utilize such a contract, but I do require couples to agree to a minimum of 8 counseling sessions, the first 2 of which are largely exploratory. After the 2nd session either they or I am free to withdraw. Over the years I've had couples decide they did not want me to do their weddings and I have also decided that I did not want to do some weddings. One of the stickier points for some has been my modest apparel requirement.

From the outset of my ministry I have made it clear that performing weddings is not in my job description. When a couple is serious about establishing a Christ-honoring home with a Christ-honoring wedding, I'm all in. Otherwise (with a few, rare exceptions) not so much.

I hope your contract catches on and creates a major stir. If nothing else, it should force all gospel ministers to stop and consider what we are doing when we perform a wedding.

May you never receive the full payment for any of your contracts.


Bart Barber said...

Great catch, Tom Shelton. I will make that change.

Bart Barber said...


You made me mad. I replied in anger. It was pretty evident in my tone. I apologize and ask your forgiveness.

I do, however, differ with both of your numbered assertions.

1. Marriage is already a matter of law, and should be. Spouses and children need the protections of the law. Justice is, wouldn't you agree, an important theme in the Bible (and not only in the minor prophets)?

2. I could not disagree more wholeheartedly. Marriage is the business of the church, or the vows ought not to be solemnized in the midst of a church or in a church's facilities.

Bart Barber said...

Thanks, Tom. I'd be happiest of all if, (1) I never collected, and (2) out of the major stir created something far better than this weak and awkward measure were to emerge.

Bart Barber said...

I leave for Senegal in the morning. This might very well be my final comment on the thread. I do apologize for abandoning the conversation. If you are a friend of mine or a friend of the gospel, I do solicit your prayers for our work in Senegal.

Anonymous said...

Bart: You made me mad. I replied in anger. It was pretty evident in my tone. I apologize and ask your forgiveness.

Anonymous: I don’t mind the anger, but I do mind one holding me to a different standard than one holds for him- or herself. It is and was granted before you asked. I hold that you would do the same for me.

Bart: Marriage is already a matter of law, and should be. Spouses and children need the protections of the law. Justice is, wouldn't you agree, an important theme in the Bible (and not only in the minor prophets)?

Anonymous: I don’t disagree, but let the law concern the law, and the church concern the church. That is, the church has its role and it fails itself and others when it tries to be something it is not. The church can speak to the law, but it’s message is beyond the law, and its ultimately coercive nature, to something much more powerful and non-coercive.

Bart: I could not disagree more wholeheartedly. Marriage is the business of the church, or the vows ought not to be solemnized in the midst of a church or in a church's facilities.

Anonymous: The marriage relationship is a covenant between two people and God, not between two people and God and the church and the pastor. The church is a body that can covenant to nourish the marriage relationship, just like it may with other types of relationships operational in the church, but the church and its leadership is not party to the intimacy of the marriage relationship and said relationship with and to God. You seemingly are seeking to cross a boundary that is not for you to cross if you think another couple’s marriage is your or the church’s business apart from whatever spiritual support you or it may offer. Even if a couple violates the covenant of their relationship, the working out the relationship is between them and God, not you and the church, apart from a request for assistance. Again, know your boundary. They, and they alone, are responsible for their marriage. While your concern for the couple may be admirable, notwithstanding your leadership position in the church, the inner workings of a marriage relationship is not your business and its success or failure is not your responsibility. The church can bless and be a blessing to the married couple, but such does not include it being a party with an inherent standing to the intimacy of the sacred relationship. I hope you don’t pursue the ill-considered clergy-marriage contract for your own sake, but I don’t worry that it will ‘catch.’ It’s already DOA, even among conservatives.

Rusty Keltner said...

I love this idea and have been looking for a more binding type of contract for when I perform weddings. I would love to see a final copy of the contract.

Anonymous said...

While I'm grateful for your burden for Godly marriages, I don't believe the proposal parallels the 'Christ and the Church' model.

Also, wouldn't the debt have to be forgiven in the year of the Jubilee Anniversary? (smiles)

I believe the real "teeth" in the contract are ultimately spiritual.

Any premarital classes should be strongly Scriptural and also very relevent to todays culture and climate of temptation, where there exists a mentality of everything being disposable.

I personally remember nothing about our premarital classes, however, the Scripure on our wedding invitations has been my pillar though our 23+ yrs.
"A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart" Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NAS)

Shalom to you and yours! Beth

Unknown said...

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