You might not be a person “of the cloth,” but if I can do it, you can do it. Welcome to wedding season!
You already know I love love. But here’s one thing you might not know about me: I’ve been honored to officiate three weddings for dear friends. There’s a certain magic to being a guest and witness to the love between two people—but being the one to actually tell their love story in front of family and friends, and preside over their legal commitment to one another? That’s transcendent.
Here’s another thing you might not know about me: I’m terrified of public speaking. Like clammy-hands, knocking-knees, roaring-in-my-ears kind of terrified of public speaking. I’m obviously not a pastor, rabbi, imam, or other kind of ordained religious leader, and I can barely get through a birthday toast without breaking a sweat. So how did I—of all people—wind up officiating three weddings?
Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s fairly likely a friend or family member might bestow that honor upon you too at some point. A recent study from Pew Research Center found that 23% of American adults describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or not religiously identified. What that shakes out to is a significant uptick in the amount of civilians (as opposed to religious leaders) presiding over marriage ceremonies.
That’s great news for so many reasons. It’s given couples permission to personalize their spiritual, legal, and public commitments in the same way that they’ve been personalizing their cakes and favors. It’s created a wave of inclusive and creative weddings for all kinds of couples outside of the rules of traditional houses of worship. And it’s given people like me another beautiful, impactful way to participate in the legal union of two people whom I love dearly.
One of the best parts of officiating is helping to create these personalized, individualistic experiences for the couple and their guests. The first wedding I officiated was for my childhood friend James and his wife Judith, which took place in the vaulted room of a quirky St. Louis museum—a perfect setting for sharing the quirky story of how I met Judith, which involved finding the two of them on the roof of my New York City apartment. Since that meet-cute, I was hooked on their love for each other and their love of travel—stories we shared with all of their guests during the ceremony.
Personal anecdotes and common interests as allegories for married life found their way into wedding #2 as well, for my food-loving cousin Leslie to her food-fanatic husband Dan in a beautiful Japanese tea garden. And the most recent wedding I performed, which was on a rooftop in Williamsburg for my friend Jaime and her husband Sam, who have an undying love for Bruce Springsteen. It goes without saying that wedding #3 had its fair share of Boss quotes.
Though I quite literally spend most of my waking hours thinking about LOVE (it’s my business, after all!), learning how to officiate a wedding took work. I spent hours consulting with the couples ahead of time, learning about what kind of ceremonies they wanted. Mutual friends gave me feedback and edits. I asked other ordained friends for their tips and advice. It’s a collaborative process.
And now, I’m here to save you some of that work. After officiating three weddings, here are some of my hard-won lessons to make your ceremonial journey as smooth as possible.
Step number one: Research the laws in the state where you’ll be performing the marriage—different states require different kinds of ordinations (and some states like Virginia don’t allow online ordination). In some states like New York, you’ll have to get ordained and register with the marriage bureau in order to perform legal ceremonies.
Research is just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll have to actually get ordained next. Universal Life Church is popular as ever, but the American Fellowship Church and the Church of Spiritual Humanism (free!) are both options as well. Make sure you leave enough lead time to receive your ordination, and register with the state as well (if that step is necessary).
Find a time to sit down with the couple, and listen to their wishes and needs for the ceremony. Interview them about memorable moments, and draw out themes that can serve as meaningful threads to personalize the ceremony.
You’ll also need to establish a framework and run of show together. Do they have any readings they’d like to include? Any rituals they’d like to perform? Any people they’d like to formally remember? You’ll have to build that into the ceremony as you write it, because you’re responsible for making it happen.
This is a good time to set expectations about length of ceremony, tone, and whether the couple would like to review what you’ve written ahead of time or not.
I may have a personal fear of public speaking, but no matter how seasoned you are in front of a crowd, you’ll need to practice. Run through the ceremony, hold a mic in your hands to see how it feels, and think about little details like whether the couple will be holding hands throughout the ceremony or not.
If you’ll need to lift or pass something or hold rings, practice that too. While you’re at it, memorize your part. It makes a real difference to be able to look up and connect with the couple and the audience during this special moment, instead of burying yourself in a piece of paper.
Speaking of which—if you haven’t come up with a nice folder or binder for your ceremony papers, now is the time to do it, even if you’ll be standing at a lectern.
You’ve written, you’ve practiced, and the big day is here. On wedding day, you have two big jobs: perform the ceremony, and make sure that the marriage license is witnessed and signed. Remember that the couple is going to be living in the moment when they’re up there, so you are the leader.
Chat with coordinators (if applicable), make sure that everyone is in the right spots, and otherwise act as the central nerve system for this loving operation. When it comes to the ceremony, you’re in charge!
While you’re speaking, remember to SLOW DOWN and project so the people in the back can hear you. And don’t forget to relax! You’re all human, and you will no doubt encounter some unexpected surprises like tears, sneezes, stumbles over words, or a ring that’s hard to get on. Don’t be afraid to pass a tissue, start over a sentence, or laugh a little.
Congratulations! You’ve just married two people. That’s a big accomplishment, but your job isn’t over yet. Raise that toast and enjoy that buffet, but after the reception winds down, you’ll be responsible for submitting that witnessed and signed wedding license.
Every wedding license comes with its own instructions, but most likely you’ll need to mail it back to the marriage bureau within a certain window after the ceremony date in order for the couple to receive their marriage certificate.
No matter what happens, just remember you’re giving the lucky couple a gift that’s better than anything on your registry: LOVE.
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