Bethesda Lutheran Church has been pretty quiet in terms of couples saying vows in front of its altar. The church hasn’t hosted a wedding in eight months.

It’s been a while since Grace Baptist Church hosted a wedding as well – three years.

Wedding Wire, a wedding planning website, reported that only 25% of more than 18,000 U.S. weddings were held in a religious institution in 2018. Customs related to race or religion were included in only 17% of all wedding ceremonies.

For churches and venues in the Alexandria area, this also seems to be true.

Jerry Lanes has been pastor of Bethesda for almost seven years and he said the church averages less than one wedding a year.

In the past, more nuptials were held at Bethesda, but the dramatic decline is probably because the congregation is of mainly older people, Lanes said.

“We get a lot of calls from people (out of town) looking to find a central location,” he said. “We do have a policy that allows non-member weddings.”

He said most couples these days looking to get married are more interested in having one venue for the entire day, for the wedding and reception. This is canceling out the church part of weddings.

He’s never had to turn anybody away due to church or religious policy. “We try to be flexible and try to accommodate people,” he said.

Laurie Youngers is in her 18th year as director of music and liturgy at The Church of St. Mary. She helps couples pick the music and scripture that will be read during the wedding ceremony.

Youngers said the church will have hosted 12 weddings by the end of this year. The first year she started her position, the church had 45 weddings, she said.

For couples looking to get married at the church, they must first meet a few times with Father Steve Binsfeld and experienced couples who have been married for years, participating in marriage preparation education. The couple also must adhere to the church’s song list or liturgy when selecting music for the ceremony.

She said the church is pretty upfront about what to expect for a wedding.

“It looks like a regular Sunday mass, just adding the marriage,” Youngers said. “It does need to be sacred because you’re in a sacred space, and most couples understand that.”

Modern adjustments

For couples not seeking to get married at religious institutions, there is no shortage of options. Possible wedding sites include barns, beaches, rooftops, hotels, wineries and breweries, parks, golf courses, historic venues, boats and banquet halls.

In Alexandria, popular options include Gathered Oaks, Carlos Creek Winery, Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center and Broadway Ballroom.

For Gathered Oaks, the booking numbers are a bit different from local churches. They have 64 weddings booked for 2019, said Tessa Larson, who is in charge of sales and marketing at the venue. It is only Gathered Oaks' third year of operation and the number of bookings has been increasing each year.

"The indoor space has beautiful timber framing and barnwood accents. (There's) lots of natural light and lake views. The backyard is gorgeous," Larson said. The outdoor ceremony space faces west toward Lake Charley, so sunsets over the water are regularly a part of events.

At Carlos Creek Winery, 21 weddings have already been held, and another 30 are booked for the remaining months of 2019.

Paige Meier, director of events for Carlos Creek, said the winery is a great place to have a wedding because the bride and groom are left with little planning. “It’s inclusive for everything you would need to throw your on-site party,” she said.

Meier said wedding guests can stay busy on-site. The grounds include 22 Northmen Brewing Co., yard games such as bocce ball, corn hole and giant chess, live music every weekend and Valkyrie Wood-Fired Pizza.

“It’s really easy for a destination wedding,” she said. “It really provides a fun environment for your guests and wedding party.”

Mike Davies married his wife Avery at Carlos Creek on Saturday, July 27. For them, it was an ideal location – smack dab between their friends’ and families’ cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and Plymouth. Plus, Mike’s mother, Cindy Finke, had been to Carlos Creek before and liked it.

The couple never considered holding their wedding in a church. The winery was the only venue they physically toured.

“The staff really got to know us,” Avery said.

They both agreed the grounds were beautiful and the venue as a whole was wonderful. The nursing room and gender-neutral bathroom in the event center, plus the shaded areas in the outdoor ceremony space, won Avery over.

“It’s pretty free range,” Mike said. “You can grab a beer and walk around.”

Finke's first marriage in 1982 was in a church because she and her then-husband were raised Catholic. She was married a second time in 2014 at a winery.

Seeing her son get married at a winery was not a point of contention. After their confirmation, Finke said she let her children go their own religious direction.

Neither Mike nor Avery consider themselves religious. They have yet to decide what religion, if any, they are going to teach their future children.

“(Our parents) definitely didn’t push us to have our wedding at a church,” Mike said. “We wanted it to be true to us.”

“I’ve made my peace with it. They can make their own choice,” Finke said. “They’ve allowed themselves to be themselves.”

Avery said the main goal of the wedding was to be laid back and fun.

“We didn’t want to force anything,” Mike said.