2009-03-26 / Features

More Church Weddings?

Not only are engaged couples cutting back on wedding spending, some are also deciding that having the ceremony in a church adds meaning
By Sarah More McCann CORRESPONDENT OF THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

When Eileen Weir of Boston gets married in November, she'll probably walk to the church to save the cost of a limo. She purchased a wedding dress for $200 at the annual "running of the brides" event at Filene's Basement and plans to make her own invitations.

Saving money on the wedding matters to her, but Weir really has only one requirement for her wedding: that it be at St. Brendan's Catholic Church, where she was baptized and received her first communion and confirmation. If she can't have it there, she doesn't have a second choice - it just wouldn't matter.

While engaged couples bemoan a recession that's forcing them to scale back their spending, a different conversation is also bubbling: Will the economic downturn help focus attention on the religious importance of the wedding ceremony or even reacquaint some with a faith tradition from which they've drifted?

"You have to ask yourself what's important," Weir says. "How many decorations do you really need? We are tied to the Catholic Church. If getting married is a leap of faith, than this is the place to do it."

According to a recent Gallup poll, the recession isn't increasing Americans' weekly church attendance, but for those already affiliated, a faith community can help prioritize the creation of a sacramental bond.

Despite the fact that Weir is worried about wedding planning amid financially tough times, she says that St. Brendan's has given her something more important than money. It has helped her ponder the future with the confidence that she's chosen a suitable partner.

St. Brendan's "is a place I've gone when I've needed hope and inspiration," Weir says. "When my father died, the first thing I did when I woke up the next day was go to the 9 a.m. mass. Marriage is like this.

Your spouse is someone you go to for comfort and who grounds you. ... It's the person you want next to you in the bad times. That's a lot like faith.

My fiance and I are connected, and you have to be married in a place that has the same connection for you," she says.

There are many ways people feel connected to their faith communities, says Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University who is conducting a study on how people talk about their spirituality.

These connections include "liturgies and music, things that evoke something awesome, transcendent. Sights, sounds, and smells," she says, adding, "It's the connection to community. Some Jewish people, for instance, have talked about how important it is for people to attend services to learn the traditions, through the community."

Community is of utmost importance at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, which recently began offering a complete wedding package (minus the photographer and band) for $10,500.

The weddings are held in the building, and five local kosher caterers agreed to offer the same menu for the same price, explains Avi Frydman, executive director of the Orthodox Jewish congregation.

The caterers "police each other, down to the length of the tablecloths," he adds with a laugh.

Previously, families who were part of the congregation had only two choices for weddings: Travel to New York or Lakewood, N.J., to host less expensive weddings, or pay between 50 and 70 percent more to have the celebration locally.

"If you don't have to be as concerned with money and paying for it, you can focus on what it is - a communal celebration of two families getting together," Frydman says. "The community is there to observe and to provide support; not just eat, drink, and be merry. Families think of the couple and what is happening to them."

The wedding package is just the latest effort to make participation in religious rituals easier. In the tradition of a gemach, or free-loan organization, community members are ready to loan, for a reasonable fee, items ranging from wedding dresses to wedding centerpieces.

Frydman's two daughters utilized a bridal dress gemach for a fee of about $50 each. Another member of the congregation runs a gemach for table centerpieces, yet another for party favors, etc. People learn about them through word of mouth.

"This also binds the community," Frydman says. "In Orthodox circles, these are people who do not live together before they are married. ... They are entering a different phase of their lives, and the community signifies this through the wedding. That's what makes Orthodox weddings special. It's a new phase of lives and a new phase for families, too."

For couples who have drifted away from a religious community, a wedding can reintroduce aspects of a tradition they still feel ties to, many ministers say. This may be especially true in a recession.

People are getting away from a formal denominational connection, but many have strong feelings of identification with the tradition in which they grew up, says the Rev. Gary Ritner, founder of Saint Savers Wedding Officiating Services in Minneapolis.

"Rites, rituals, and ceremonies have a lot of meaning for people," agrees nondenominational pastor Jack Porcello, who officiates at about 125 weddings a year in upstate New York.

Many engaged couples who turn to Ritner or Porcello to conduct their weddings want to include religious elements in their wedding, but don't belong to a church. The two men are also seeing couples who feel inspired by the economy to focus on substance over glitz.

"People are starting to pare things down," Porcello says. "They are concentrating on the more practical side of the relationship, and a practical appreciation of the faith, the reality of what marriage is more than the fairy tale wedding,"

Many couples mention that they had originally planned a larger wedding budget, "but that they are cutting back so they want to make the service really spiritual," Ritter says.

But for some couples, the decision to have a church wedding does hinge on its economy, says Pam Kacys, a pastor at the nondenominational Chicago Wedding Chapel. "A lot of our brides are younger brides, and a lot of hotels, if you have a wedding onsite, charge extra to host the ceremony there. We find brides think that if they are going to pay extra anyway, why not go to a church?"

The chapel provides the music, flowers, candles, and lets brides customize their ceremony to reflect their denominational preferences.

Church weddings can be very cost-effective for those who belong to a congregation, notes Judith Stephens of Lexington, Ky., a Church of Christ member.

Stephens's wedding budget of $5,000 has forced her to carefully evaluate her options for the wedding and reception, and she found that her church was cheaper, at $400, than other alternatives.

"When you factor in the cost of renting chairs, it was cheaper than having it in my backyard," she says.

Regardless, Stephens wouldn't have her wedding anywhere else. It needs to be in a church, she says. "A wedding is a union with God - God is included."

Snapshots of wedding planning in a recession

While a recession won't stop most people from getting married, more engaged couples are scaling back their wedding spending. As many as 75 percent of brides-to-be say they will make some adjustments to their budget due to the economy, according to a study commissioned by David's Bridal.

Spending is down in a variety of areas:

The average amount spent on an engagement ring in 2008: $3,215. The expected average amount that will be spent in 2009: $2,939.

The average cost of a wedding in 2007: $28,704. In 2008: $21,814, a drop of 24 percent.

Spending in other areas also saw a marked decline from 2007 to 2008:

Wedding dress: -31 percent

Rehearsal dinner: -34 percent

Reception food service: -53 percent

Wedding cake: -33 percent Wedding favors: -9 percent

Limo rental: -24 percent

Other ways couples are saving money:

To save costs on photography, some brides are turning to student photographers.

Do-it-yourself invitations. Overall spending on invitations dropped 34 percent, according to the Wedding Report.

Sources: David's Bridal, The Wedding Report.

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