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Some Options for Officiating a Wedding

Dear Hairpin! 

Two close friends of mine are engaged, and they’ve asked me to perform the ceremony. Yay! Yikes! They are a smart, creative, uber-cool lesbian couple, and I feel honored that they want me to play such an important role in their wedding. I also feel nervous! Most of the weddings I’ve attended have been pretty traditional, and, never having done this before, I’m not really sure about the particulars of the task at hand.   

Aside from figuring out the online licensing thing that will allow me to perform the ceremony, and the most basic of wedding ceremony things that happen, I feel a little at sea in terms of what I should do to help make their wedding super-special. They’re getting married in fall. So far all I know is they aren’t religious but do want some acknowledgment of spirituality.   

Aside from talking to them about what they want and then doing whatever they tell me, what does a super-awesome officiant do? Have you been to any weddings where the officiant did a lovely job? How so? And what does one wear for this!? 


Hello right back at you! Hooray! Mazel tov to your friends and congratulations to you – you are going to be awesome at officiating this ceremony, I know it already.

Here is how you become a wedding officiant! Perhaps you are already a mayor or a judge or a ship captain (really!). If not, you should become ordained on line. Here’s what I did — I went to the Universal Life Church website because I remembered that Chris-in-the-Morning-Stevens from “Northern Exposure” became a minister through an ad in the back of Rolling Stone, and then I got ordained! It took about thirty seconds. You even get to choose your title! 

Boom! Now you can perform weddings. However, you need to find out the rules of whichever city or town where the wedding is going to be. For example, in NYC you need to get a bunch of paperwork to bring to the City Clerk’s office. The ULC website will provide you with this necessary paperwork. Then, you get your ordination certificate and your special letters and you bring them to the City Clerk’s office, and you get a number and then you watch all these other couples get married and maybe you look at twitter on your phone for a while. Then, when they call your number, you present your paperwork and pay a small fee and KABOOM, you are now legal to preside over marriages in New York City. They bring this gigantic leatherbound book out of the back and it feels very Harry Potter and you sign your name and your title. And then you start receiving special credit card offers addressed to you as “Reverend Bex” (well, that’s me — insert your own name there), because clergy need credit cards, too.

Okay, now you are legit! But now you have to do the slightly more difficult part, which is drafting the ceremony. Here is what I like to do. Firstly: find out if your couple has any religious or cultural rituals that they want to include. Do they want to break a glass? Jump a broom? Do a handfasting thing? Do they want to include any Buddhist poetry? Will there be any readings or songs in the ceremony?

A basic secular ceremony can be as lavish or as concise as the couple desires. Basically, you just need to say: “Do you?” and they say “I do” and then once you sign the wedding license, they are married. However, most people would like a little more customization. I start my weddings by speaking about the couple — how they met, any wonderful anecdotes about when they knew they were in love, any funny stories they want to share with their guests. That sort of thing. Then, it’s on to the business. A pretty basic ceremony includes a vow exchange, a ring exchange, and some discussion about what marriage means. Our friends at The Knot offer a whole lot of possible things to include in the ceremony. Talk to your couple about what they liked at other weddings they attended. Is there a moment when you ask the assembled guests to vow to support the couple? Will your couple write their own vows? Is there any family/historical/cultural significance to their rings? Here are some more sample ceremonies.

I like to send the couple some examples of ceremonies and ask they to pick and choose what they want to include. Then we get together (usually over wine!) and create an outline of their ceremony. Then, we go over language selection — do they want you to use the word god? I only use the words “The Universe” because I am not a god person, and I do a lot of interfaith/secular-ish weddings. I also speak Hebrew, so that comes in handy for making the grandparents happy, but that is just me. So! You draft your outline and you make sure to include moments where you can really personalize the ceremony, perhaps with stories or insights about your friends. Make sure the couple signs off on this outline. It is fun to meet with your friends (have some more wine and cheese) a few times to go over everything as they spend more time thinking about their wedding. Do not be surprised if two days before the wedding they announce that they want to delete a section or add something or read vows that they’ve written themselves. Go with the flow, since you are there to make them happy.

And now, the fun and also hard part! Since you have all the puzzle pieces, now you have to personalize everything you’re going to say. Does the couple want a ceremony with fancy language? With common vernacular? If your sample language is too fussy, rewrite it in words you feel comfortable speaking to a large (or small) crowd. Tweak all the language so you feel like your ceremony really reflects the couple. Don’t be afraid to take a moment within all this solemnity to make people laugh. Then — practice! Read your ceremony in your best “I am Presiding Over A Marriage” voice to your cat. You don’t have to memorize it, but if you’re going to read the ceremony it is nice to put it into a book or a pretty folder.

Does your couple want to do a rehearsal? It is up to you to lead this, although if there is a wedding planner, that person will also be really helpful in saying “You stand here and you stand here and this is the signal for you to give them the rings and here is the order we are going to process in” and all that stuff. You basically do a quick rundown so the couple knows what they’re doing. Are they repeating their vows after you or are they reading their own? Which little brother is holding on to the rings and what is his cue to present them? Which friend is going to sing a song and how do they know when to take the mic? That sort of stuff.

Wedding time! What will you wear? Ask the couple if they have a color scheme. (“My colors are blush and bashful.”) If there is a wedding party, what will those people wear? Your couple will probably tell you to wear whatever. I usually wear a black dress and I try to make it Minister-appropriate (eg no cleavage). But that is a discussion for you and your couple. Wear comfortable shoes since you will be standing a lot! You are not the flashy one — you are doing a job. Unless your couple wants you to be flashy. Heck, I’ve been to weddings where the officiant was in costume. It is totally all about what the couple wants for their big day. Find out if they want any sort of cultural or religious signifiers — for example, I wear my Bat Mitzvah tallis when I do jewier weddings, and I have a prayer shawl from the ULC I do for more xtiany weddings. Most often, I don’t wear anything special. But I did wear a hot pink yarmulke once upon the couple’s request. It’s up to them, and to you!

And so! The best weddings are the ones where the officiant knows the couple really well and carefully constructs a ceremony that reflects the people getting married. Personalize your ceremony with anecdotes and insights about your friends. Make it all about them, whatever that means to you. Do you know that they both really love Elvis Costello? Maybe you insert a meaningful Elvis Costello lyric that will make them smile. Talk about how honored you are to participate in such a wonderful lifestep for your friends. You know your friends and you know what they’re into and what sort of stuff they dislike, so just do your best to write a ceremony that will make them happy. Most importantly, when you talk about love and commitment, you need to mean it. You need to mean everything. Your friends’ wedding is very important to them and you want to make sure they know that you are taking this very seriously, even if you’re blending humor into the serious bits.

And since you are the officiant, it is up to you to ordain this wedding however you see fit. I like to do “By the powers vested in me by the STATE OF NEW YORK” (and I shout that part really loud) whenever I’m doing a same sex marriage, because GO NEW YORK. I don’t do a priestly benediction but sometimes I’ll include a Buddhist prayer about love or that sort of thing. Make it personal, make it meaningful, make it matter to you and to the couple. You’re going to be perfect, I just know it.

Oh — and if something doesn’t go perfectly — maybe the wind knocks over your unity candle or someone falls into the pool — just totally go with it. It’s okay to take a moment with the couple and say something sotto voce or make a big joke when the wind blows your dress up over your head. Remember, the important thing here is that you’re joining your two friends in holy matrimony and this ceremony is all about how much they love each other. If you stumble or stutter, no one cares. The big thing all the guests will remember is when you pronounce your newly-married friends as MARRIED.

And then, it is your responsibility to make sure your couple and their witnesses sign the license, and then you need to send the license to the city or town clerk’s office. When your couple applies for their license (at least 24 hours in advance), the clerk will usually include an envelope so you can mail everything back (within 48 hours). Once that license is processed, your couple will receive a copy in the mail so they are all sorts of legal and legit.

Have so much fun! You’re going to kick some serious wedding ass!

Bex Schwartz would love to officiate your wedding! Last summer, she co-produced Pop Up Chapel, a celebration of marriage equality in which 24 same sex couples received free dream weddings in Central Park.

Photo via Flickr


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