4 Surprising Things I Learned Writing My First Wedding Ceremony


Just have to craft a moment the couple will remember forever, #NBD.

by Stephanie Kaloi, Content Manager

Officiating Friend's Wedding

As you guys might already know, I officiated a really amazing wedding this past May. Everything was excellent: the couple was perfect, their daughter was astounding, and the photographers consistently rock the world of everyone they come in contact with. Every involved party was more than on top of their game…except me. Once I sat down and tried to come up with something I wanted to say, I realized quite quickly that I would need some help.

I’m a wedding photographer, so I spend a lot of time at weddings. I’ve listened to many officiants, and I had a general idea of what does and doesn’t work. The trouble is that most of my weddings have at least thirty guests and often times many, many more. The officiants I usually hear a) are professionals who officiate all the time and b) are speaking to a lot more people than I would be. There were eight people total at Kait and Bobby’s wedding (and two of them were my husband and son, who ended up playing DJ). That’s not that many.

I tend to consult two sources when I need more information: books and the Internet. I already knew what books I wanted to pull my source material from (enter bell hooks and Harry Potter), but I had no idea what kind of stuff I should keep in mind for officiating a tiny wedding. As it turns out, the Internet doesn’t really know, either. I knew I wanted something non-traditional, and most of everything I found online was geared toward more traditional celebrations OR went really far in the opposite direction (and came off as a little flippant). I really wanted the ceremony to be sincere, modern, and for the weight of what was happening to be felt. I actually ended up reading more articles that are written for couples who are crafting their own vows (like this one), because I found that the same reason I had for wanting the ceremony to be a certain way are similar to why couples want their ceremonies tailored to them.

I ended up making most of it up as I went, and I’m writing this so you don’t have to. Here’s a little bit of what I learned:

IF YOU WRITE IT, IT WILL BE HEARD

To be blunt, I wanted the ceremony script to be a tiny bit pro-woman. Not in a big way. I didn’t want to make proclamations about men and women being equal (and I didn’t have to: Kait and Bobby already live this). Something I’ve noticed at the many weddings I’ve photographed is that the male is almost always, no matter what the couple does and doesn’t believe, asked to state his vows first. I spent a night trying to dig around to find out why and didn’t come away with much more than “it’s tradition” and “that’s what happened at our wedding.” So I might be wrong, but I ended up chalking this up to the age-old idea that the person with the penis is the one who’s in charge… and I promptly ordered the ceremony I wrote to have Kait speak her vows first. I don’t think this is super groundbreaking, and I don’t even know if anyone else noticed, but I liked it.

CEREMONIES ARE WILDLY FAST

I thought I was prepared for the rapidity with which ceremonies fly by because I shoot them so frequently, but HOLY MOLY you guys. When you’re the one who is up there speaking, it’s stunning how quickly it all happens. I had been emailing with Kait and Bobby a few times about the ceremony, and knew in general what each of them planned to say, but when I practiced everything with my husband the night before the wedding it clocked in at around fifteen minutes. When we stood up in that front yard and actually did the thing, it felt like… five. I was worried about being too verbose (as I tend to be), but in retrospect I’ve wondered if I should have said more (probably not).

YOU CAN NEVER PRACTICE TOO MUCH

If I could change one major thing about the ceremony that I performed, I would go back in time and get myself to practice in front of people I know. Not people I know super well and am comfortable with, but acquaintances that I’m on friendly terms with. We have working relationships with our neighbors in the apartments on either side of ours, and they would have been perfect. By working, I mean that we don’t all really hang out (though one of them did climb a mountain with my husband), but we do things like collect packages if they aren’t home, check on animals as needed, and have conversations over railings and through plants.

The reason I would go back and change this is that public speaking isn’t my thing. Even knowing I was only speaking to a handful of people—including my husband, son, two photographers I’ve met a zillion times, and a couple I’ve been friends with online for years—I was still wildly nervous. I was worried my voice would shake or my hands would tremble (though no one would have noticed if they had). I didn’t know if what I wrote and planned to say was actually good and appropriate, or if my husband was just like, “This is awesome!” to be nice (though he is typically quite sincere). In short, I was nervous, and practicing with people I am familiar with would have been a good idea.

It’s Not about You

My husband knows that I love (love, love, love) to speak about anything I’m knowledgeable about (and quite a lot that I’m not), so the first thing he said to me after I told him was, “Cool! You know you have to make this about them, right?” I was all offended for a hot minute, sputtering on about how of course it would about them because helllloooooo they’re the ones getting married, and then I realized my first three drafts were… kind of all about me. So I Skyped with Kait and Bobby, and then emailed them a whole bunch of questions so I could learn as much as possible about their relationship. Spoiler: this totally helped.

So while it sounds obvious, as an officiant you should absolutely make sure you add personal details to the ceremony body itself—the nitty gritty of the relationship. Kait and Bobby were friends before they were ever in love, and the two of them kept circling around the word family when they spoke about the progression of their relationship. They kept speaking about how they were family before they were ever anything else. I made sure to include these references, along with a shout-out to their daughter, Scarlet.

Have you officiated a friend’s ceremony? What tips would you add for the non-professional wedding officiant?

Stephanie Kaloi

Stephanie is a photographer, writer, and Ravenclaw living in California with her husband, their seven year old metalhead son, and a crew of beasts. She is super into reading, road trips, and adopting animals on a whim. Forewarning: all correspondence will probably include a lot of punctuation and smiley faces.

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  • CMT

    “To be blunt, I wanted the ceremony script to be a tiny bit pro-woman.”

    Same here! I married my two best friends last summer, and while they mostly wrote the ceremony themselves (that they copied from something they found online), I did get to do my part to subvert the patriarchy at the end. I ended the ceremony with “You may kiss the groom” and everybody loved it.

    • My family friend-officiant made a very concerted effort to equalize our ceremony, for which I was grateful because I was too scatterbrained to think of if when it came down to scripting the ceremony. He alternated the order a few times for intent, vows, rings etc, so that my husband wasn’t the first one to answer everything. He ended the ceremony with “you may kiss eachother”. Which I loved!

  • Lauren from NH

    When we had our friend officiant take a first wack at writing the ceremony address it was a bit too much about him, which I fault partially on the nature of the beast like Stephanie said, and that we maybe didn’t give him enough guidance. That said he had some great ideas and I am actually pretty good with words when I take my time so I did a little googling, thought up a rather clever and personal joke and the rest just flowed. We are still tightening it up, but previous APW advice on finding a theme or message helped us a lot in giving the ceremony direction.

    On part of our ceremony that I am very happy with that I will share here is our creation of a ritual to replace exchanging rings. When we got engaged we both got rings so doing rings again felt redundant to us. The various sand, candle, tree planting, handfasting, wine drinking, broom jumping rituals didn’t resonate with us but we were worried creating something new would feel somehow fake or silly. How to represent our partnership? We were thinking too hard, the answer was simple. I am going to pin on his boutonniere and he is going to slip on my corsage. This will be the accompanying message from our officiant.

    “We end this ceremony, not with a time tested tradition, but instead with a small gesture. In many ways Lauren and T’s marriage does not begin today. Their marriage has been humbly, painstakingly, and passionately built day by day over the last six odd years. Today like so many days before, and so many days to come, they rose and got ready to face the world together. In similar fashion, as a gesture of true partnership and deep affection, they will now add the final touches to each other’s dress in preparation for what should be a smashing party and a profoundly beautiful life together.”

    • kate

      i LOVE that last bit and the gesture – such a wonderful reimagining of the various “unity ceremonies”, which is a piece of the ceremony we also struggled with.

      i would also echo your advice that finding a message/theme or just narrowing in on the tone is really important – a couple dinners with our “friendficiant” where we talked about how we wanted things to feel/sound together and what readings we were considering using really helped him feel more comfortable and like he had more ownership over the parts he is writing. we don’t have our final product yet, but i’m really excited to see how it comes together!

      • Lauren from NH

        It is tricky to know where to start! At first we were kind of bumbling around. We copied something over for as a format we wanted to modify but it took a while for us to start to connect with it. Looking for readings helped. Not to be negative but identifying messages I wasn’t as fond of, like readings that indicated any kind of rules for a good marriage was helpful in revealing what I did like and why I liked it. It can be hard to know what you want to publicly say about your marriage and your beliefs, it’s so PERSONAL.

        • kate

          totally! we did basically the same thing – find a format we liked and then fill in with our own words & readings, but figuring out what we wanted to say was a lot more difficult than i thought it would be and we struggled with finding existing messages/wording that worked for us. we really needed to do that work before our officiant could take off successfully on this part though.

    • Kate

      That’s so beautiful. Love it!!!

      • Lauren from NH

        Thank you :)

        Since we were going rather secular and modern (neither bad things) I wanted something to re-ground the feeling of the ceremony. Part of this idea started because I wanted to give my bouquet to my mom at the end of the aisle as a gesture of honoring her. Then I realized flowers are rather traditional with no ickiness/complicated meanings. BINGO! I’ve only got my mom and he’s only got his dad so we are going to mirror the gesture and he is going to give his dad a sort of greens and flower garland at the end of the aisle. Figuring out a meaningful object was hard, but figuring out a meaningful gesture was easy.

    • Beautiful Lauren!

  • kate

    one thing i would add from our experience so far is:
    you don’t HAVE to do any of the typical ceremonial pieces (e.g. unity rituals). while structure can be helpful just to organize your thoughts, guests are still going to recognize it as a marriage ceremony when two people say their vows to each other (whatever form that takes), so the rest doesn’t really matter unless it’s meaningful to the couple.

    and, captain obvious, but don’t forget to educate yourself on what’s required for it to be legal (if that’s part of the couple’s plan).

    • MABie

      We are really struggling with the idea of a unity ritual. When we’ve seen them done at the weddings we’ve attended, they’ve always been a little awkward. (I attended one wedding with a ring warming ceremony when I was in my early 20s, but the concept wasn’t really explained, so I was just like, ‘OMG, why are you giving me these? They are really important! You shouldn’t be passing them around!’ And now, several years later, I see it on APW, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I understand.’)

      Also, most of the unity ceremonies seem to involve the couple’s families in some way, and neither of us are particularly close to our families, so that doesn’t ring true.

      We saw one thing we kind of liked, but we can’t figure out if we want to do it or not. We don’t really have much time to decide, though, so…

      • Ashlah

        We chose not to do a unity ceremony. Like you, they just felt awkward to us, mostly because we couldn’t find any that really spoke to us. Two we briefly considered were a unity cocktail or a tree planting ceremony. But we went without, and our ceremony didn’t feel lacking in any way.

        • MABie

          Thanks for the encouragement. :) We’re definitely leaning against it at this point. My fiancee briefly toyed with the tree thing too, but it seemed like it would be a little hard to pull off. I am kind of a spaz, and I imagine I’d be freaking out about my dress getting dirty…

          • Ashlah

            Ha, I was afraid we’d kill it, as we do most plants.

      • kate

        we haven’t totally figured out the logistics of this yet, but we really liked the idea from an elopement ceremony posted here earlier this year, so we’re attempting to co-opt it for our NON-elopement: we’re going to pour each other a drink as the last part of our vows (which include words on taking care of one another to tie in with the gesture) and then before we kiss/are presented as married, the officiant is saying a little toast-ish few words about the community also caring for/supporting us and we all take our drinks together.
        (guests will be seated at their tables already and they’ll be encouraged to pick up a drink before sitting down, so this could be a little clunky for guests if you don’t have that option)

        i think, also, if you don’t find something that feels meaningful, just skip it! just saying your vows is unity ritual enough really.

        • MABie

          I love this idea! We are doing a pre-ceremony cocktail hour (and a post-ceremony one, too…we like to drink), so this could work for us. It’s definitely a fun spin on the “community vow” idea.

          • kate

            pre-ceremony cocktail hour, you almost have to do it now! :)
            we adjusted this line a little bit to make it relevant to us, but loved it from the original ceremony as the last line of our community vow/toast part: “may you begin your marriage as you began your relationship: with a strong drink before dinnertime. ” (which was very relevant for us since i insisted a first date be drinks only…..and then it ended up going on for something like 5 hours and completely skipped dinner, oops…)

          • MABie

            LOL, our first date was SUSHI. Definitely wouldn’t work!!!

  • anonymous

    I have been working on my own wedding ceremony. I am part of a heterosexual couple. We have some LGBTQ friends who will be in attendance at the wedding but not many. We have never been super involved in the LGBTQ community but have been very supportive of our friends who identify as LGBTQ. I was extremely touched by Justice Kennedy’s decision and would like to include it as a reading in our ceremony. Would this be appropriating it? Or inappropriately comparing my unchallenged heterosexual relationship to the amazing victory of marriage equality in this country? My intention is to express support and joy at the decision and convey the hope that we are as fulfilled by marriage and respect it as much as the LGBTQ people who worked so hard to achieve marriage equality for themselves.

    • Lauren from NH

      People have been using excerpts from the Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health decision for years, in the States and around the world even. It’s not appropriating to read from a judicial decision that upheld marriage as a right for all people. Also I think what some many people like about the Goodridge decision is not just that it is pro marriage equality but that it so well defines secular marriage.

      • EF

        I used this. I also wasn’t worried about appropriation because I’ve been so involved in the fight…but also because I just don’t think this is really appropriation. Maybe see what works for each ceremony, though. Having a legal reading, read by a bridesmaid who’s in law school, for a person who is a lawyer…it just made sense.

    • eating words

      I can’t speak for every LGBTQ person, but I think you can absolutely do this in a positive way. As @laurenfromnh:disqus said, the decision speaks to the power of marriage, and in that light, it applies to everyone getting hitched! If you frame it as a gesture of solidarity, rather than appropriating any challenges that you haven’t experienced, then you should be good. What parts of it were you thinking of reading?

    • Elizabeth

      If you’re comfortable asking some of your LGBTQ friends about it, go ahead and have that conversation. It could be a good one.

      On a personal level as someone who’s queer, I think it would be completely fine — after all the crux of the decision is that marriage is for all people, not just straight people, so including parts says to me that you want your marriage to be part of a tradition for all people, not just straight people, which seems absolutely lovely.

    • Anonymous for this

      I think it is so awesome that you are thinking about this and asking that question. My partner and I have thought a lot about what would or would not be appropriative for our upcoming wedding ceremony too.

      I have to disagree with the other posters here regarding the decision to have Obergefell in your wedding ceremony; I DO think it would be appropriative, and I would be uncomfortable if I was a guest at your wedding and I heard it.

      I am half of a same-sex couple about to get married in a Southern state where we’ve had 33 days of marriage equality so far — woohoo! That day, we stood next to some friends who have been together for decades, and we watched them finally be able to get married — at 65 years old. The judge read the final paragraph of Obergefell in their wedding ceremony. It was incredibly moving. It was amazing to see them finally get to do that after weathering so much of this life together.

      It would definitely not sit right with me if any of our friends in opposite-sex relationships used this at their wedding ceremony right now. If I heard it, my first thought would be, “That wasn’t about you. You’ve always been a part of this, and you don’t get to claim this victory for yourself because it sounds beautiful.”

      Because the thing is, Kennedy’s opinion WAS touching. It WAS meaningful. It WAS beautiful. But ultimately, it’s not just about how wonderful marriage is. It’s about the right of same-sex couples to marry, and to have their marriages recognized across the board. It’s about people like Jim Obergefell, who was forced to fly to Maryland when his partner was about to die, marry him on the tarmac, and turn around and go back to Ohio — and then have the state refuse to put his name on the death certificate when Arthur died shortly thereafter.

      It’s not about respecting marriage; it’s about the RIGHT to do it at all. And that’s why I feel like it isn’t appropriate for a straight wedding, at least not yet.

      Anyway, I know that a lot of people would (and will) disagree with me, probably strongly, but I just wanted to share my thoughts on it! I think it speaks volumes about you as a person that you are even asking this question, so kudos to you. Even though you say you haven’t been involved in the LGBT community, you’re a really strong ally if you’re being so thoughtful about this. And I am just one opinion, so you definitely don’t need to take it as gospel.

      • Lauren from NH

        Reading that specific paragraph, actually I would agree with you that it is perhaps not appropriate due to the predominant reference to the struggle and persecution of LGBT people like you said. Were I in your shoes, were interracial marriage the current fight, I would feel very weird about people sharing in our narrative of victory through hardship, the ecstasy of love conquering all, when they themselves had not shared in our struggles.

        • MABie

          Beautifully put, Lauren!

      • Eenie

        Do you have an alternative suggestion for someone in a heterosexual marriage ceremony to express joy and support for the hard work that was recognized as a result of that decision? Not that it’s up to you to figure it out, but what would feel appropriate?

        • MABie

          I once saw a wedding in which the couple held a moment of silence for people who did not have marriage rights. I thought that was really powerful. If you wanted to do something along those lines — maybe like a moment of gratitude that everyone now has the right to marry? — I think that would be really nice.

          I think it’s important to note, though, that LGBT people are going to continue to be excluded from the rights and privileges you enjoy in your marriage. For example, second-parent adoption is still a gray area for those of us in states where same-sex marriage wasn’t legal before Obergefell. That is not going to be a gray area for you. The marriage that you are in contains more rights and privileges than our marriages.

          Ultimately, I think that’s what bothers me about the use of Obergefell in straight weddings; claiming the struggles of the LGBT community — especially in a way that indicates that they are over, when they clearly are not, even in the context of marriage — is just icky.

          • Eenie

            I didn’t mean to imply the fight was over. Especially not once you move outside the realm of marriage.

            I was thinking about about the moment of silence and like how you phrased it. A moment of gratitude.

    • Essssss

      I agree that it’s a good thing to talk with your friends about directly. We have LGBTQ family members and were originally planning to include a statement acknowledging the privilege of marriage and looking forward to the day when all have the right. Now that marriage equality was upheld, we’re thinking about what the right thing is to say. It’s worth celebrating and acknowledging, and will be meaningful to our family! AND, there is still so much work to do beyond marriage equality. We just want to avoid the message of “oh, it’s all OK now,” since marriage equality was upheld in the supreme court.

      One alternative to reading from Obergefell that we’ve considered… After the decision came out, McSweeney’s published the justice’s opinions in haiku by Daniela Lapidou (http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/the-scotus-marriage-decision-in-haiku) . Here’s the one on the majority decision:

      Kennedy’s majority decision:

      Hark! Love is love, and
      love is love is love is love.
      It is so ordered.

    • NoCleverName

      I have a straight friend who is planning on doing this at her wedding, and as someone who is bisexual I find it really distasteful and see it as appropriation and a performance of liberalism. If you want to include support for LGBT rights at your wedding, a good idea would be a link to donate to charities that help LGBT causes (I’d recommend going one that helps homeless LGBT youth). Frankly, marriage equality isn’t about you or other straight couples. You didn’t work to earn this victory. You haven’t had to fight to overcome discrimination. If you want to be an ally, donate time or money. Call out homophobia when you see it every day. Take action. Don’t think that co-opting our victories as part of your straight wedding ceremony is anything other than a meaningless gesture. It doesn’t help us. Be an ally in a meaningful way or at least don’t try to make our progress about you. I will say that I wish my friend were as thoughtful as you though in terms of asking about it because I know that when this reading occurs at her wedding at the end of the month, it’s going to offend a lot of people.

  • Crysta Swarts

    My advice as a friend-officiant is to be ready for anything. I officiated the wedding of a college friend and her husband, which included three bridesmaids, three groomsmen, the groom’s four-year-old daughter, many many family members, and lots of friends coming from out of town (including me). The couple had written the ceremony themselves and we practiced together a few times before the actual rehearsal, so that part was easy. What was a challenge for me, emotionally, and that I wasn’t expecting, was being a part of the wedding party…but not really. I was there early for the rehearsal but wasn’t originally invited to the dinner afterwards – my friend’s mother noticed the omission and insisted I come along. At the dinner, the couple gave their gifts to their attendants and parents, but I sat empty-handed. (Not being ungrateful here – it just felt awkward.) During the photo shoot, I had to specifically ask the bride if we could get a picture together, and one with her groom, as I wasn’t listed in any of the pictures. She was more than happy to oblige, of course – and it’s a beautiful photo that I cherish.

    This is hard to talk about because being an officiant can be as big or as little a deal as any individual couple wants, and I don’t want to sound unappreciative for the beautiful experience I had in their day. My advice, in the end, is knowing what the couple wants and is expecting, and being ready for that yourself. We hadn’t talked about any of it, and I came from out of town expecting to be a part of the wedding party, when they weren’t expecting that at all. If I had known, I could have asked them for other ways I could be involved, or help out, or take care of their parents, or anything. Be open to what the job actually is, not just what you’ve imagined!

    • Eenie

      Aw man! That kind of sucks. I think we’re asking the friend that was responsible for introducing us to officiate. We’re not having a wedding party so I don’t think we’ll end up with a similar situation to yours. I think since it’s still un-traditional to have a friend officiate, there isn’t as much guidance on how to treat a friend officiant. But I’ve never heard of the officiant not being invited to the rehearsal dinner. That whole situation reeks of rudeness and mismatched expectations.

    • CMT

      I had a similar experience. I ended up officiating my best friends’ wedding because years earlier they we had talked about how they both wanted me as their maid of honor/best man. Officiating was a way to be there for both of them. But when time came to do bridal party pictures, nobody came and got me. I don’t know if it was a mistake or not, but it did hurt my feelings.

      • I hear you. The one regrettable thing about giving DH’s brother officiate is that he’s missing from from out wedding party photos. It didn’t dawn on us until after.

        • Jenn

          The exact same thing happened to us with one of my brothers. I have plenty of photos with my husband and my brother who was a groomsman, but none of him with my brother the officiant. I wish I had noticed and spoke up!

    • kate

      yeah, echoing below that sucks and could have been avoided by some better communication. it seems like your friends were maybe just a little (a lot) oblivious, though the whole thing does come off as really rude to me.
      anyway, this was a good reminder to me that we should discuss with our friend officiant exactly what to expect – which for us DOES include participating in everything the wedding party is a part of and then some. we wouldn’t have asked him to officiate if we didn’t feel like he should be that big a part of the day, personally.

  • LydiaB

    We had my father officiate with a ceremony we wrote and we really struggled figuring out how to start! We basically attacked it by splitting it into sections ie “welcome” “why we are here” “community vows” and so on and then writing adjectives about how we wanted each part to feel ie “warm, calm, sincere” “serious, honest, inclusive” ” celebratory, joyous, momentous”, it really helped to get the words flowing when we all knew the tone we were aiming for and had that target the entire time we were writing and gave us a reference at the end to see if we had achieved that or if it needed more fiddling!

  • MarshallKohl

    Thanks for the tips !

  • MarshallKohl

    Great tips, thanks for sharing. I am currently helping my younger cousin with planning her exotic wedding ceremony (thesevenagency.com/destination/bali/package/elephant-wedding), I gotta show her this article :)