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?