Q: Some dear friends have asked me to be a secular officiant at their wedding this summer. I’ve never done this before and was honored to be asked. I’ve gotten the legal stuff taken care of, and they say they’ll take the lead on writing the ceremony, but I wondered whether you all had any thoughts on the duties and responsibilities of (decidedly amateur) officiants. I’ve never even been to a wedding with a friend-officiant, though they’re getting more common these days, so I’m not exactly sure what my role is supposed to be. Have any of you done this before? If so, is there anything you wish you’d done differently? If you had a friend officiate, is there anything you wish you’d told them beforehand? Any thoughts on how a friend-officiant differs from a professional, if at all?
A: You’re absolutely right in that asking friends (or family) to officiate is becoming more and more common these days. We asked my maid of honor’s dad, Ray, to officiate specifically because we didn’t want to go to a complete stranger, seeing as neither of us have strong church/secular ties. So from the side of the people getting married, here are my tips. Communication is absolutely key in any friendor relationship, and don’t be fooled into thinking that the officiant isn’t a vendor. At the end of the day, they’re providing a service (and a damn important one) for you on the day of your wedding.
Soon-to-be-married people: tell your officiant what you want. Or, ask what they need from you! Our first step with Ray was a sit-down conversation where we stated our top priorities—writing most of the ceremony ourselves, for instance—and then asked and answered as many questions we could collectively think of. A good rule of thumb: if at any point you find yourself emailing information about the ceremony to your coordinator, your officiant more than likely needs that information too. As for the officiant side of things, I’m going to hand this question off to APW Contributor Elisabeth, friend-officiant for several weddings.
Some couples have wanted a sounding board to bounce ideas off of as they write their ceremonies, and some friends have needed a lot of writing and outline help to put words to their vision. But regardless of how much I was involved in the creation of the ceremony, what I found critical (and difficult!) was my role as General Ceremony Tone-Setter. See, if you’re the one standing up there, guests will be looking expectantly at you and taking your cues for what the overall mood is going to be. At one of the weddings I officiated, it poured just before the outdoor ceremony was supposed to start, and we all crammed into the tent, and I could see that folks were worried, maybe thinking that the couple was feeling sad and bad. So when I welcomed everyone, I quipped that the couple looked gorgeous and they would forever look better than the skies on their wedding day, and there was enough laughter at my silly joke that everyone relaxed a bit. Even though your precise words or your outfit may not linger, how you say what you say, and how you manage the emotion and energy of the room will contribute to how they remember the ceremony.
That goes for the rehearsal, too. I found it really helpful to walk through the rehearsal with the couple beforehand, to get a sense of what they needed from me. Is there a wedding stage manager who’s going to run the rehearsal and tell you when to start speaking? Or is the couple looking to you to run the rehearsal (which is inevitably an anxious, excited event where no one is listening terribly well)? If it’s the latter, I went incredibly slowly, repeated messy parts, practiced the walk in and out at least twice, and was the most generally cheerful Julie the Cruise Ship Director version of myself.
And another thing: Write it down, write it all down! Even if you think it doesn’t matter. Assume that no one else is going to remember anything, so it’s up to you. Write down the housekeeping notes, like whether the couple wants to ask people to turn off cell phones, and where the bathrooms are. People like to know! If it’s important to the couple that attendants stand in certain places, write down how you’re going to remember that (e.g., red petticoat comes before blue petticoat). Meet the readers and make a plan for where they’re going to sit, in case you need to look meaningfully at them to remind them to hit the podium. And if the couple has an ancient coin that they want the littlest bridesmaid to toss to figure out who walks in first, write down who’s heads and tails, because neither you nor the six-year-old, and certainly not the couple, are going to remember.
Team Practical, did you have a friend or non-professional officiate your wedding? What were their responsibilities? And if you’ve officiated friends’ or families’ weddings, what responsibilities did you assume as the ceremonial ringleader?