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Gathered among Fairy Lights and Other Hallowed Honors: A Conversation with Michael McLaughlin

Michael McLaughlin and Sally Ann McKinsey

Michael McLaughlin (MM) is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Cookeville, Tennessee. Sally Ann McKinsey (SAM) is the editor of Call to Worship: Liturgy, Music, Preaching, and the Arts.

Editor’s note: I sat down with my own pastor, Michael McLaughlin, to discuss his perspective and experience officiating meaningful events like weddings and funerals, many of which have taken place apart from Sunday morning and outside of a church building. The following is a transcript of our conversation. 

SAM: As is the case for many pastors, you’ve been asked to do weddings and funerals for family members, friends, or others who are not necessarily members of the church you serve. I’ve also heard you describe other liturgical events that took place in nontraditional locations. Can you describe a few of the liturgical occasions you’ve officiated outside of the context of Sunday morning worship in the sanctuary? 

MM: Over the past fifteen years, I’ve served three congregations: FPC in Manchester, Tennessee, FPC in Cleveland, Mississippi, and now FPC in Cookeville, Tennessee. In each of these communities I have been blessed to officiate a variety of liturgical celebrations outside of the sanctuary and Lord’s Day worship. At this point I have officiated over thirty weddings with only about half of them occurring in the sanctuary of the congregation where I was serving at the time. 

In fact, the very first wedding I ever officiated was for friends from high school who held their wedding in the very public World’s Fair Park in Knoxville, Tennessee. Witnesses to that first wedding included bicycle-mounted police officers, children and families frolicking in the splash pad fountains, unhoused folks enjoying the benches and warm weather, and of course, the wedding guests. 

The second wedding I officiated was also a union of dear friends, one of whom grew up devoutly Roman Catholic and the other devoutly Presbyterian. This second wedding was a destination union sealed at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Georgia, where the Monsignor from the Archdiocese of Atlanta and I co-officiated. To say that I felt very Reformed in the context of the impressive opulence of the Cathedral would be an understatement, yet the Monsignor could not have been more welcoming. 

I’ve officiated numerous other weddings at a variety of venues ranging from hip and rustic to old school and fancy across Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama. One huge wedding I officiated with help from the former mayor on the front lawn of a home in Rosedale, Mississippi, where apparently all the surrounding towns came to celebrate. I officiated nuptials twice in backyards, once on the front porch of an old country store, once in a quaintly reclaimed alleyway in Indianola, Mississippi, and once in the lush woods of Franklin, Tennessee, complete with ethereal fairy lights and super cool hipsters who asked for communion and even knew/sang the Doxology. My heart was so happy. 

Though all but two of the baptisms I’ve been blessed to officiate have been in the sanctuary of the congregations I’ve served, I had the unique (for Presbyterians) experience of baptizing a young guy in a creek during the same service in which we baptized his infant brother at the nearby font. One of my most cherished memories of baptism was when we baptized your daughter during the Easter sunrise service at our local Dogwood Park! 

SAM: . . . and my most cherished memory as well! What a gift that you came alongside our family to celebrate her baptism! As a minister member of the church you serve, I have learned from you that it is so important for all of us to have pastors. That service was so beautiful, too, because of the setting outside on Easter morning and because of the way it was designed, simple and profound. I loved the way the congregation gathered at 6:00 A.M., all barely awake but dragging their folding chairs around. We were setting up for something special and sacred, and we knew it, but we didn’t need words for it.

What other interesting or unique contexts have you led that would be outside of the typical Sunday morning? 

MM: I have led liturgy marking the installation of a local judge, the deliberations of the Tennessee State Senate, the ground breaking of the Grammy Museum, and even a Little League championship tournament. I have also officiated a couple of wedding vow renewal celebrations on Friday evenings in the sanctuary or chapel of churches I’ve served and even had the spectacularly fun opportunity to lead a house blessing for congregants who’d just moved their family into their home. We made our way, clumped together around the home, lifting gratitude to God for the manifold ways life would unfold in each of the spaces of their abode. 

SAM: I can imagine these were all very special experiences to share with others and be a part of. These kinds of invitations have always been for me—(it sounds like) for you, and probably for many pastors—opportunities to be part of important events in people’s lives but also opportunities to think carefully about my role and about the elements and language of worship as well. What were some of the theological or liturgical issues that arose for you in some of those experiences? How did you navigate them? 

MM: At the onset of planning liturgy for any of these celebrations, I have found that for me the nature, depth, and length of the relationship(s) I have with the participants has a significant role in navigating theological and liturgical nuances of the service. Like with preaching, the longer and deeper the relationships, the more readily the liturgy flows during the writing/planning phase. Though there is a bit of an interesting dynamic I have experienced when the participants in the liturgical event are particularly close, namely the shift from the familiar and casual to the intentional and sacred in the sense of naming our hopes, fears, dreams, and gratitude before God. 

So, in the backyard weddings, for example, the participants and guests were all very close friends and family, and with the more casual space and nature of the gatherings, the liturgy did not feel right when it was more formal. Navigating this dynamic meant we would not have liturgy on paper bulletins or video screens, but instead the calls and responses and other liturgical interactions and language were more conversational with me teaching/leading the group through the service. These liturgies lean more toward simple, direct language, but always seek to hold before all present the sacred sense of God’s fingerprints evident in that moment in their lives. 

In all liturgical contexts these days, I find it important to attend to inclusivity of language, especially with shifting uses and understandings regarding the faiths, orientations, and identities of the persons present. In other words, I am always seeking a balance between the liturgy representing with integrity the faith and beliefs of the Reformed tradition while also ensuring that all present are welcomed, included, seen, and heard. This can be tough, especially given my blinders of white, male, cis, hetero privilege. 

SAM: For sure, thank you for naming that important consideration. In my experience, too, many weddings or other life events in the lives of friends that I’ve been a part of as clergy have included these sensitivities. But because part of our Reformed identity is that we are constantly being reformed according to the Spirit, the balance holds, I find. In these contexts especially, my sense of my own Reformed identity leads me to remember that I do not hold all the wisdom about how God operates, of course, and making room for the experience of others can be done as we also name what we believe.

What about the sometimes tricky and emotional request to officiate at a family member’s wedding or funeral? How do you navigate the complexity of that role?

MM: This is a toughie for sure. It is a hallowed honor to be asked to lead family services, but navigating the emotional complexity of funerals has been difficult. I have officiated funerals of my father, my grandmother, and my grandfather and did so with varying amounts of flowing tears and choked-up phrases. If I’m honest, there were times when being “on” in terms of planning and officiating family funerals enabled me to avoid facing my grief, which is a mixed bag. I would not change the choices to officiate for family, but there is a sense of precedent being established and some guilt about wanting simply to grieve my loved one without having to be “on.” Thankfully, we are a family that mostly talks through our feelings, and, thanks to the blessings of therapy and openness, we can talk through this complexity in healthy ways. So, for example, my younger sister, Marina, is getting married in October, and ever the conscientious one, she presented me with the option of officiating the service or of being in the wedding party with a nonliturgical responsibility. With deep gratitude, I chose to join the wedding party and look forward to joining in the liturgy as a member of the wedding party. 

SAM: It’s interesting to hear how you’ve navigated those ceremonies. In those situations, maybe it’s okay for the boundaries to break down a bit, because they have to in certain cases when you hold both identities as pastor and son, brother, etc. What about those experiences expanded your understanding of your role as a minister of Word and Sacrament, or did they? How do you view your role in these instances compared to your role on a typical Sunday morning at First Pres, Cookeville? Is it different in any way?

MM: I have come to understand our role as ministers of Word and Sacrament in a much broader, less “churchy” sense. Though there have been times when I felt a bit like a prop or simply one of the other vendors in line behind the caterer and in front of the florist, most of my liturgical officiating has shown me that, when conscientiously and faithfully planned, most folks across a wide spectrum are not only open to prayer and the experience of brushing up against Divine presence, it often resonates in profound, surprising experiences. I’ve heard directly from numerous otherwise non-churchy folks of varying ages during receptions, at gravesides, and even via text and email about the impact of the service and liturgy on their lives. 

SAM: Wow, what an important role to have in someone’s life, especially if you can be a messenger of welcome and love in the midst of the pain so many have felt from the church or religion. Can you share any best practices for other pastors who are asked by a friend or acquaintance not in their congregation to officiate a wedding or funeral? 

MM: This advice holds for all weddings and funerals, perhaps more so for friends and acquaintances, as the intimacy of the relationship may lead to a more casual feel in the planning process. Resist this impulse and spend the time. Spend the time doing the premarital work with the couple. It deepens the meaning of the liturgy, and it’s just responsible pastoral practice. I like using PREPARE/ENRICH as a starting point with couples, but there are certainly several other good approaches. Perhaps a bit more natural is the time needed to spend with friends and acquaintances when preparing for a funeral, depending on the depth of the friendship. Take the time to hear the stories, to weep, to be physically present, to laugh, and maybe to give permission to laugh. So, not the most profound advice, but spend the time.  

SAM: That is profound advice. I have also tried to keep the same practices for premarital counseling in place, even as I’ve officiated for friends. In some cases, I have referred folks to counselors if the relationship was too close for it to be appropriate for me to do counseling, but that decision will be particular to each situation and relationship. The call to be present is always a constant, especially when the occasion and identities of the individuals involved require creative thinking about language or liturgy. How do you define worship and liturgy in events and services when you are aware that your sense of God’s role in the event may be different from the perspective of those participating? 

MM: I believe worship and liturgy, like the gospel itself, to be events / actions / movements / space / time which exist on their own, hold true on their own, and in which all creation is encouraged to join. Worship and liturgy, by the power of the Holy Spirit, offer all persons an opportunity to encounter the Divine presence on mountaintops, in valleys, and in all of the going out and coming in which forms the days between. Yes, it’s a time of grief and mourning, or a time of partying and merrymaking, it’s a time of marking transition or new realities, but worship in these contexts is always even deeper and more profound than we may normally experience it on a typical Sunday, as it occurs on the sacred ground of these unique life events. Liturgy happens when we name the fact that we are not alone, we are not  all there is, and we are all dependent on God for life itself.

SAM: I can hear how these experiences can shape and transform the way we think about worship every week. When officiating a wedding or funeral, I’ve often experienced an electricity that comes from the knowledge that this is a very sacred moment to be a part of. But I’m not sure if I’ve had that sense every Sunday, I’ll admit! I wonder how we would be transformed if we all gathered every Sunday with a sense of unique sacredness, meeting for something incredibly special. 

This is just one example of the gifts that weddings and funerals have to give to daily church life. I wonder, specifically in the case of weddings and funerals for those who may be seeking or religiously unaffiliated, what gifts do you think the church has to offer in these liturgical events?

MM: For the church, the participation of religiously unaffiliated folks or those seeking in some way, these occasions can be challenging (a good thing) as they help us to lift our gaze above the trappings of our familiar assumptions and, yes, even above the beauty and elegance of the Reformed tradition. As has been the case in years past, though the church is certainly called at times to be countercultural, the truth is that the church can also learn from the broader culture. This has been my experience of late regarding using intentional language, metaphors, structures, and imagery which makes room for all persons and manifestations of humanity and creation. To be clear, this can be hard work, but in my experience the effort is always appreciated, and in some ways, it is part of our witness to the world as Jesus followers in 2023. 

SAM: As always, thanks so much for such a great conversation. It seems to me that the experience of leading worship for meaningful life events, in contexts often outside of the weekly Lord’s Day service, can transform the way we practice theology and faith, the way we think about evangelism and relationship-building, and the way we think about liturgy and worship. These occasions call officiants and worship leaders to consider carefully our language and practice, to listen to the experiences of others, and to learn more about where God is calling the church here and now out in the world, beyond the walls of our church buildings. Thanks for walking alongside so many in your ministry and for being my pastor, too, Michael. 

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