How to Officiate a Wedding

Emma Cleary Photography

Emma Cleary Photography

Originally published on my lifestyle blog

Kristie and I aren’t just wedding videographers — in addition to our day jobs, I've officiated nearly a half dozen weddings over the past couple of years, and each one has been very different! One thing that's always the same is the honor of being so intimately involved in a dear friend's celebration. (Really, there's nothing like it.)

Luckily, the general steps and preparation are usually the same, too. In case you've been asked to perform a friend or family member's ceremony, I thought I'd share a list of things that might be helpful!

There's a lot of information here, but being asked to officiate a wedding is a huge compliment and a huge responsibility. It's something I take really seriously.

First, the legal stuff...

Getting ordained

This is obviously important. Unless the couple has stated clearly that they have other plans to make their union legal, it's up to you. Lots of states offer one-day ordinations allowing you to perform a wedding ceremony on one previously stated day (that's what our officiant, one of my BFFs Steve, did).

If you think more weddings might be in your future, consider a two-year ordination. I'm ordained through the Universal Life Church. It's fairly low cost (I think I spent $30), which could make for a nice wedding gift if you don't want the couple to reimburse you.

(Note: Prior to officiating Mike and Chiara's wedding, pictured here, I purchased the New York City package since NYC requires additional paperwork. Always check with the county in which your couple is marrying for their specific laws and requirements.)

Whether you decide to go with a one-day ordination or two-year, do it as early in advance of the wedding as possible.

Oh, and bring all your ordination documents with you to the wedding! Local laws differ, but I believe you must have them on hand if anyone requests to see them.

Filling out the license

This part tends to be a little stressful for me – almost more so than the ceremony itself! You really don't want to mess up filling out the license.

  • I usually ask my couple to pick up their license prior to the ceremony themselves (they usually live closer to where the wedding is taking place).

  • Try to fill out as much of it as you can before the ceremony, preferably with a less stressed out person looking over your shoulder. Have the bride(s) and groom(s) fill out their own information sections to minimize the risk of mistakes.

  • It helps to have the date and time of the ceremony, as well as the complete address of the venue, written down somewhere else prior to filling out the form so you won't have to scramble for this info. 

  • You have a new title thanks to getting ordained, likely "Minister." Pay attention to when you have to use that on the form.

  • Have at least one witness from the ceremony on hand to fill out the witness info. (Note: This can be a really nice way to honor someone beloved to the couple.)

  • Double and triple check everything before mailing the license, or having the couple mail it. The city clerk has to receive it within 10 days. Once the city clerk records the marriage, the union is legal and binding!

  • You and the couple will usually receive copies of the marriage license from the city clerk. Double check with the county in which they're marrying to see what their modus operandi is.

Okay, now let's get to the fun stuff...

Writing the ceremony

This is fun because it's a completely different process with every couple. Some want to orchestrate the entire ceremony themselves and just have you read it, and others want to be surprised on the big day by what you've written! Communication between you and the couple is so important. Here are a few questions I typically ask about the ceremony...

  • How long would they like the ceremony to last? (A popular answer lately has been 15-20 minutes.)

  • Are they planning to write and exchange their own vows?

  • Is there anyone they want to honor by having them come up and give a special reading, or perform a musical piece?

  • If children are involved, does the new step-parent want to have special vows to give to the child? (This one's always a tearjerker!)

  • During the exchange of rings, do they want it to be traditional, or customized for their relationship? (Something like, I, John, promise to only grow out my mustache once a year...)

  • Are any special rituals going to be incorporated? (Chiara and Mike chose to do the traditional Jewish breaking of the glass to conclude their ceremony.)

Even if you've known the couple for a long time, relationships always look different to the people inside them. Meet with the couple together (or have a phone call or Facetime if you live further away) to discuss their ceremony, and then communicate with them individually to find out what it is they love about their partner, and why they're excited to marry them. Collect inside jokes and the sweet tiny things that make their relationship special, and weave these into your ceremony. If you're closer to one partner than the other, write about what it was like to witness their relationship unfold from the early days. Reminisce. Be kind, honest, and funny (appropriately so). Don't let yourself cry too much – but try to include something that will make everyone else cry. 

Here's a rough draft of a typical ceremony's outline:

  • Hello/thank you (Please be seated, thank you for coming, honoring beloved family members who have passed away)

  • Introduction (How the couple met, how the proposal happened, how you know them)

  • Reading 1

  • Reading 2

  • Partner 1 vow

  • Partner 2 vow

  • Exchange of rings

  • Conclusion (What marriage means, next part of journey/adventure together)

  • Pronunciation

Then go to the reception and drink lots and lots of wine!!

Give yourself enough time to draft the ceremony once or twice. Go over it again and again. Read it out loud to determine the ideal pacing, and make sure it matches the timing that the couple is looking for. 

Emma Cleary Photography

Emma Cleary Photography

Print the entire ceremony out in a big font (that you'll be able to read through tears) and keep it in a nice folder that won't distract too much in the wedding photos. If the couple is reading their own vows, keep them in the folder too on separate paper and hand them to the partner when it's their turn. (You don't want them to have to hold a piece of paper while walking down the aisle.) Keep the license in this folder as well, and remember to pull the couple and the witness aside in a quiet space right after the ceremony to get everything signed before the party starts. Oh, and tuck a Kleenex or two in there too. You never know which of the three of you might need it!

Remember, one of the best parts about having a friend or family member officiate your wedding is that you can customize it to exactly what you want! Craft the ceremony to reflect the couple. Be open to leaving out what doesn't resonate with them, and emphasizing what does. Communicate with the couple again and again through the ceremony-writing process.

Getting dressed

It was fun to work with Chiara to pick out what I'd wear to officiate her and Mike's wedding. I knew there were bold colors in her venue, but I hadn't seen it in person, so I relied on her recommendations to pick out something that didn't clash too much. (Pictures matter!) 

Basically, the rule I rely on is not to detract or distract whatsoever from what the bride(s) and groom(s) are wearing. I know I don't have to tell you this, but this is not your wedding. If you have doubts about your outfit, check with the couple beforehand (but like, beforehand enough so that you don't add to their pre-wedding stress). 

Since my gender expression skews more traditionally female and I'm comfortable wearing dresses, I almost always utilize Rent the Runway for my officiant outfits. (Real quick, here's how it works: You rent a designer dress for a few days for a fraction of its purchase price. They send you a second size for free in case the first one doesn't fit. All you have to do is pop the dress back in the pre-paid envelope and send it back when you're done.) 

I like planning to complement the wedding colors the couple has chosen. (When in doubt, grey is always a safe bet.) Choose something that matches the formality level of the wedding. Take fabrics into mind depending on the season and whether the ceremony will be held outside.

Rehearsing

As officiant, it's your duty to take the reins during the ceremony portion of the rehearsal. Have a schedule written out beforehand that you're prepared to distribute to anyone who wants it – the couple, their attendants, anyone doing a reading, the wedding planner.

Here's an example of a rough schedule I printed at the top of one of my recent ceremonies, which lasted 20 minutes:

5:30 p.m. Ceremony start: Introduction & thank-you
5:35 p.m. Reading 1
5:40 p.m. Reading 2
5:45 p.m. Exchange of vows
5:50 p.m. Conclusion
6:00 p.m. Cocktail hour starts

The wedding planner, if their venue offers one or if the couple hired one, will help you with the rehearsal. Confirm with them or someone from the venue whether you'll be using a standing microphone, handheld microphone, clip-on microphone, or just your outdoor voice when conducting the ceremony. Make sure you know beforehand exactly how all the tech works.

Be prepared to answer questions from the couple and their wedding party (like when the license will be signed, who is reading what and when, etc.), and to remind everyone in the processional that they'll have to walk more slowly than they think they will!

Officiating

Speak slowly. Enunciate. Take deep breaths. Cry a tiny bit if you have to, but remain in control. Take your time. Remember: Nobody is looking at you. They're all focused on the happy couple! 

*Images of Chiara and Mike's NYC wedding used with permission by Emma Cleary Photography.