09/25/2013 02:02 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

The Ultimate Wedding Day Battle: Priest vs. Photographer


The wedding of Rob and Noelle Ruehle was off to an idyllic start: sunny skies, an elegant bride and groom, friends and family seated on a manicured lawn.

Then the priest turned to face the video camera, and the following altercation occurred:

"Please, sirs, leave," the priest said to the photographer. The bride and groom exchanged nervous glances, their eyes averting the screen.

"Where do you want me to be?" the photographer responded off-screen.

"Anywhere other than here," the priest said, his tone harsh. "I will stop the ceremony if you do not get out of the way. This is not about the photography, this is about God."

The video of the chastising priest went viral within days of its posting.

While this may be the first time a priest gets half a million views for a scolding, it certainly isn't the first time a representative of the cloth flared up at a photographer. (Another video that appears when one enters "wedding priest photographer" into the YouTube keyword box includes a female priest at Stanford Memorial Church urging a photographer to move "all the way back, all the way back, keep going," to the back of the sanctuary.)

As a priest myself, I understand why these leaders get frustrated. Yes, it has to do with that incessant click-click-clicking sound drowning out the couple's "I do's," but the noise is also wrapped up in a larger debate about organized religion's role in a wedding, a tension symbolized by the relationship between priest and photographer. Because if the purpose of a wedding is supposed to be about God, if it's supposed to be entirely spiritual, then it shouldn't be rooted in worldly things, like dresses and dessert buffets and expensive, click-clacking photographers.

Yet that seems to be where our society's emphasis lies. Consider the amount of time and money most Christian couples spend planning their ceremony compared to what's spent on the dress, the signature drink, the flower arrangements. Also consider this: The reception usually lasts four to eight times longer than the ceremony, and the priest isn't paid a fraction of what the photographer is (and before you invoke the, "priests should be humble and poor" line of reasoning, recall that they have to feed their families just as much as photographers do, at least if they're Protestants, that is).

So if it's true that we put our money where our mouth is, then for many American couples, weddings aren't about the spirituality. In other words, the priority of our society -- when it comes to weddings, at least -- is on the material things, not the spiritual ones.

Throw in the societal dream of the "perfect wedding day," and the tension gets even more complicated. Caterers, wedding planners, dressmakers, invitation consultants, florists, and photographers make their living off of fashioning the "perfect wedding day" into a reality. That's their goal, and it's such an alluring goal to the American public that they're willing to spend an average of $28,400 to experience it.

For these individuals, the priest clothed in an idyllic stole and collar may be just another actor in the script for the "perfect wedding day." Unfortunately for priests, though, they see themselves as spiritual guides, not as performers. That tension between how priests imagine their role in a wedding and how others do can make some clergy wonder if their work is relevant. It makes others defensive, and I can't help but wonder if that defensiveness is part of what comes through in the video.

So does that mean that priests should only be performing weddings for committed Christians or members of their congregation? Absolutely not; people come to know God in many ways, and a good priest will realize that.

Now does it mean that photographers have no place at a Christian wedding? Well, thus far in this article, I have spoken from my role as a priest. But I am also a married woman, and I will be the first to say that the photographs I have of my wedding day are incredibly dear to me. They are a memorial to the commitment my husband and I made, a lasting reminder of the vows we took before God, and because of that, it would be reductive of me to say that the photographer wasn't necessary.

The priest guided my husband and I as we made our vows before God, but the photographer gave us a visual reminder of them. It's a blessing to be able to have both.

So how do I resolve this tension? I think there are some simple steps clergy and photographers can both take so that the gifts they offer to a couple go hand in hand. First, have a conversation. I make a point of speaking with photographers before the ceremony to explain where the couple will stand and where the congregation will sit. Guiding photographers away from locations where their presence may be distracting gives them the information they need to do their jobs artistically and unobtrusively.

As for the larger spiritual issues, some of those can be raised in premarital counseling sessions, so couples can grow in their awareness of why they want to be married and why they want to have a priest perform the ceremony. It may emerge that the couple doesn't believe in God, that they were just going through the motions of having a church wedding. In that case, I might guide them to a justice of the peace so they can craft a day that's more reflective of their values.

Yet it might also emerge that a couple feels a church community wouldn't accept them or that they have a deep spirituality but an intensive work schedule that keeps them busy on Sunday mornings. That is where priests can show that we're not just holdovers from bygone years with intriguing professional attire. If we do our jobs well, we can imagine new models for Church that can create transformation in the lives of newcomers and lifelong Christians alike. And we can show that churches welcome all people, including click-click-clicking photographers and couples on their wedding day.