The ‘I Do’ Doers
Newly engaged couples often spend countless hours obsessing over what type of hors d’oeuvres to serve, what music the DJ should play and whether to have roses or lilies. Oddly enough, the officiant – the person who leads the wedding ceremony and legally unites you with your fiancé in matrimony – usually gets far less thought. Many couples just go with whoever is easiest to acquire, but there are a few important factors to consider when selecting the appropriate person to perform this necessary and symbolic service for your wedding.
At its most basic, the job of the officiant is to witness you freely say “I do” in the presence of two other witnesses. The officiant and the witnesses then sign the license to finalize your commitment, and the officiant usually sends the license to the state for recording.
Depending on the state in which your wedding takes place, officiants have traditionally come from a variety of governmental offices, such as a judge, a justice of the peace, a notary or a county clerk, or from among the leaders of a religious organization, such as a minister, priest, rabbi, imam, shaman, pastor, priestess, medicine man, etc. However, modern couples now have a new option available to them.
“Most couples prefer to be wed by an individual with whom they have a personal connection, as it makes for a sentimental ceremony,” says Maria McBride, an expert on entertaining and wedding style director for Brides Magazine. “For couples who don’t have a long-standing relationship with a traditional officiant, (in some states) it is now possible for them to be legally wed by a friend or family member.”
In order for a friend or family member to perform this service, they actually do need to be ordained as a minister, but that process is made easy by the Universal Life Church, explains McBride, a non-denominational ministry that offers free online registration to people who may only want to perform one special ceremony. Check with your state for the specific guidelines, but with this opportunity, couples can choose to be married by the friend who introduced them, a parent who has modeled an ideal marriage, an important teacher or mentor or even by a stranger – but one who isn’t definitively linked to government or religion.
Whether you go the traditional route or not, once you’ve made your selection, it’s time to have a series of heart-to-heart conversations with your officiant to discuss the actual ceremony.
“Most traditional officiants are accustomed to preparing their comments without restrictions, so it’s important to take the time to get to know them and make clear what sort of ceremony is important to you,” says McBride. “Selecting a close friend or family member to celebrate your wedding may be an easier way to control the message, but remember that once the master of ceremonies has the stage, they control the script.”
According to Sydney Barbara Metrick, Ph.D., a non-denominational Universal Life Minister and author of “I Do: A Guide to Creating Your Own Unique Wedding Ceremony” (Celestial Arts, 2001), two very important questions to ask your officiant are if they have a religious or spiritual agenda of their own that they feel it is necessary to adhere to, and if they are open to working with you to develop a ceremony that represents who you are as a couple. If you like the answers, you should then ask for copies of ceremonies that the officiant has done previously and ask for your favorites to be read out loud.
“Many people have never been married before so they may not know what they want until they see or hear it,” says Metrick. “When you have your officiant read out loud, you also start to get a sense of how they are as a performer – remember that they are predominantly the person who is speaking during the ceremony. Listen to their voice, the way they talk, the words they use and how they use them.”
Metrick also says it is perfectly acceptable to ask your officiant how many weddings they have performed in the past, and to request references from other happy couples. In addition, many officiants offer services such as pre-marital counseling, picking ceremony readings, assisting with the music selection and even coordinating the processional, so don’t be afraid to ask.
If you are engaging a traditional officiant, you should also inquire about fees and preferred methods of payment. The best man or groom typically pays for the services after the wedding is performed, says McBride. Family members or close friends are most likely performing the ceremony as a gift, she adds, but it is considerate to send a thank-you gift – perhaps a beautifully framed image from the ceremony.
No matter what your inclination is when it comes to choosing an officiant, take a break from designing invitations and mapping seating charts, and spend a little time thinking about the person who, in many ways, makes your wedding day possible.
“Without a ceremony, a wedding is just a very expensive party,” says Metrick.