How to Perform and Officiate a Wedding Ceremony

officiating a wedding

PHOTO BY KT MERRY

Having a close family member or friend officiate your wedding is becoming a growing trend among couples. It's particularly appealing to those who are not affiliated with a religious institution or prefer a secular ceremony. But the job also comes with a lot of responsibilities and some tricky rules (not the kind you can break).

What Is a Wedding Officiant?

A wedding officiant is the leader of the wedding ceremony. They work with the couple to prepare materials for the ceremony and perform the marriage on the day-of.

According to expert Natasha Anakotta, an officiant can expect to spend "anywhere from six months to a full year before the ceremony" preparing and officiating each wedding. "This allows enough time for ordering credentials and official documents, completing minister registration, working with the couple on the ceremony creation, practicing, and working out the logistics and details," Anakotta says. 

Meet the Expert

Natasha Anakotta is the Outreach & Operations Manager at American Marriage Ministries (AMM).

The upsides of getting a loved one or family acquaintance to officiate your wedding are plentiful: It's more intimate and personal than having a stranger officiate, it's less expensive than hiring somebody, and it's a very special way to include them in your big day. Read on for a complete guide to officiating, from getting ordained to writing the actual ceremony.

How to Officiate a Wedding
Bailey Mariner/Brides

9 Months Before the Wedding

Review the Registration Process

As soon as the date of the wedding is set, you'll want to meet with the couple to discuss their ceremony expectations and review any registration requirements. "If you have to register with the local government before performing a marriage, you’ll need to make sure you have copies of your credentials and fill out any necessary applications to complete the registration process. Plan ahead so you have extra time to allow for processing the paperwork or any delays," Anakotta says.

Get Ordained

If you're not already ordained, then you'll need to do so. There are many online programs where you can go through a fairly simple application process. The Universal Life Church, for example, has ordained more than 20 million people (including Lady Gaga, Conan O'Brien, and Paul McCartney) of all faiths, with wedding ordination packages. You can also get ordained online through American Fellowship ChurchRose Ministries, and Universal Ministries.

"The cost to become a notary public or ordained minister will vary depending on where you live or who you choose to get ordained with," Anakotta says. "Becoming a notary public typically requires paying application fees, bonds, and a background check."

Determine If You Need to Register With the Court

Once you've been ordained, the next step in the process is to make sure all the paperwork and other legal checkboxes, if any, are checked off. Some regions require that the officiant file credentials with the local court and others do not. For example, in California, it is not necessary to register, but in New York City, not only do officiants have to register, they have to appear in person at the City Clerk's office to do so.

Discuss the Couple's Overall Vision for the Ceremony

Sit down and walk through the ceremony outline with the couple, as each will want something different. With religious ceremonies, there's a reasonably set pattern and format, but with secular weddings, the couples sometimes want to throw out the entire playbook. It's key to talk to them upfront so you can understand their vision for the ceremony.

Once you've figured out all of the deadlines, write them down. Mark up a calendar to outline when you need to have your documents by, when fees need to be paid, and when you need to have the couple's marriage license turned in.

6 Months Before the Wedding

Write the Ceremony

As not only the officiant but, presumably, a close friend or relative of the couple, you're in a unique position to craft a personal and poignant wedding ceremony. Now that you've got a clear understanding of what the couple is going for, you can start writing an introduction and putting together the text that will surround the readings, exchange of vows, exchange of rings, and the pronouncement of marriage. Just don't get too carried away with the reminiscing that you forget about the legal requirements. In Seattle, for example, a marriage is not recognized legally unless the couple declares during the ceremony that they take each other to be spouses.

As you write the ceremony, infuse it with sweet stories about the couple and heartfelt sentiments. Jokes can be great, too, but don't take it too far. Additionally, don't hesitate to reach out to the bridesmaids and groomsmen—chances are they'll have "how they met" or proposal stories to share.

Discuss What You Should Wear

All eyes will be on the couple—and also on the officiant who will be standing with them. "Plan on discussing what you’ll wear so there are no surprises or complaints. Even if the couple says, 'dress any way you want,' you need to think about your attire in the context of the role you are playing as the wedding ceremony officiant—not just a wedding guest," Anakotta says. While you don't want to clash with the wedding party, you also don't want to appear overdressed (or underdressed), compared to the rest of the people in the ceremony photos. For all these reasons, make sure to have a frank discussion with the couple about the dress code.

3 Months Before the Wedding

Practice Your Public Speaking

Before the ceremony rehearsal arrives, take time to practice reading through your script. Make notes about where to pause for effect (or even consider re-formatting the document with line breaks to encourage yourself to slow down) and practice saying words that might get stuck on your tongue. This is a great way to get used to what you'll be saying to minimize how emotional you may be on the wedding day—you'll be more familiar with the lines, so hopefully, you won't get too choked up. Read through the script in front of a mirror to practice making eye contact with the couple and the audience. In addition, make sure the couple practices their lines and vows in advance, too.

1 Month Before the Wedding

Finalize the Ceremony With the Couple

Even if you write the ceremony, it's up to the couple to finalize the plan. Though some couples want to be somewhat surprised during the ceremony, it's always a good idea to have them take a look at your introduction (since it sets the tone) and any statements you might make about the meaning of marriage and their relationship. If they don't care about being surprised, have them read the whole thing. Be receptive and accommodate any changes they request (after all, it is their ceremony).

Rehearse the Ceremony

The dress rehearsal is not the time to do the first dry run of the ceremony, especially if this is your first time officiating a wedding. From knowing where to stand to pacing it just right, these are just a few of the important details to take into consideration. "Go over the logistics together," Anakotta says. "This includes ceremony timing and cues with the DJ/musicians and asking if the couple would prefer an unplugged ceremony—in which case, you’ll need to ask guests to put away or turn off their phones at the start of the ceremony."

The Day Before the Wedding

Attend the Wedding Rehearsal and Practice the Entire Ceremony

Now's the time to triple-check that you've got all your bases covered. "If you’re performing any other special unity ceremonies, you’ll want to make sure that you have everything set up and ready to go," Anakotta says. "For example, if the couple wants a unity candle ceremony, you’ll need to have matches, a lighter, and a table prepared. Also be sure to ask who will be in possession of the rings (the best man? the ring bearer?), so that there’s no confusion when it comes to the handoff and exchange of the rings during the ceremony."

Review the Marriage License Together

"Go over the marriage license together, and make sure it will be filed with the state according to the instructions provided. This is usually a task that the officiant can complete, but if it’s the couple’s responsibility to return the license—make sure they follow through," Anakotta says. Remember that nothing is official until the marriage license is signed and approved. Only then will you be able to obtain your marriage certificate.

The Day of the Wedding

Perform the Ceremony

When the big day arrives, it's action time. Make sure you have your ceremony script on hand, along with a few extra copies just in case. You'll also want to bring along copies of the couple's vows as a backup, as well as any readings that take place during the ceremony. If anyone forgets these critical documents, chances are they're going to look to you for guidance. Stay calm and confident as you guide the ceremony. You were chosen with love and care because you are special to the couple—you've got this.

Sign the Marriage Certificate

Once your duties are complete, you'll need to sign the marriage certificate. The couple, along with two witnesses, also need to sign the marriage license. You will then need to file the marriage certificate with the county clerk, recorder, or registrar (who you submit it to depends on your county). It's the final step and seals the deal in order to make it official.

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