I’m getting married this summer! My fiancé and I aren’t particularly religious (we sometimes go to church on Christmas Eve), so we’re planning on having the ceremony outdoors at our reception venue. My aunt’s best friend’s daughter is a minister, so my aunt wants me to ask her to officiate. That sounds like as good a plan as any to me, but I have a lot of questions. Am I supposed to pay her (and how much)? How do we figure out what she’s going to say during the ceremony? Is there a polite way to ask her not to talk too much about God? Am I supposed to invite her to the reception, and is she supposed to get a plus one?
Puzzled by pastors,
First of all, congratulations and blessings in this exciting, stressful, and sacred time in your life! Preparing for marriage is often the first major challenge a couple faces together, and one which can set the tone for how the two of you will deal with families, stressors, and joint decision-making in the years to come. My unsolicited advice to you and your fiancé (before we get to the solicited advice) is to give careful attention to becoming, and staying, a team. In some families, this will be easy. Other families try to play engaged couples against each other – “Why isn’t she letting you invite our gajillion family friends?” “Could you please convince him that he and all the groomsmen need to wear kilts?” Be sure to communicate with each other, come to decisions you can both live with, and communicate them as a united front (“We’d rather have the groomsmen wear tuxes, Aunt Madge.”) When your big day rolls around, please know that something – something you’ve never thought of – is going to go wrong. When that happens, take a deep breath, roll with it, and try to laugh. Someday it’ll be a great story, and the more able you are to take mishaps in stride, the stronger your relationship will be.
But that’s not what you asked about, Bride-to-Be. So let’s talk about officiants. First of all, give some thought to whether you really want a minister to officiate your wedding at all. It sounds from your letter like you might be more comfortable with a Justice of the Peace. If you do want a minister to officiate, you should be careful to find the right fit, not just to go with the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend. Get on the phone with her and talk with her about what you’re hoping for, and how she approaches weddings. If you do decide to go with a minister in general, or this minister in particular, here are some thoughts about dealing with your wedding officiant:
- Money: Yes, you are supposed to pay your officiant. There are a few exceptions; for instance, in many churches, officiating members’ weddings is part of the pastor’s job, so there is no officiant fee for members (don’t join a church for that reason, though). Clergy typically waive fees if they officiate for immediate family or very close friends. Neither of those are your situation, Bride-to-be, so ask your officiant what her fee is. Some clergy are uncomfortable stating a fee and say something vague like “Whatever you feel comfortable with.” (Clergy: stop doing that, it makes things awkward for everyone.) If she does this, remember that she is a highly trained and qualified professional with a graduate degree, who is giving up a good chunk of her weekend time and putting 10-20 hours of work into shaping a meaningful ceremony for you and your beloved. I know weddings are expensive, but please pay her fairly for her time and expertise. If your officiant is coming from out of town, you should cover her travel and lodging expenses, as well.
- Festivities: Having consulted some wedding etiquette books, Askie notes that it is considered proper etiquette to invite your officiant and her significant other (if she has one) to the rehearsal dinner and the reception. That said, clergy know that weddings are expensive, and we are typically more flexible on these matters than etiquette experts, so if you’re not inviting us, we usually won’t be offended. Either way, be very clear so we don’t have a miscommunication. If you do invite your officiant, many clergy will decline your invitation with thanks, wish you and your family a lovely evening, and go home. (Your “amazing wedding with all our loved ones” is our “working this Saturday,” so while we’re thrilled to be part of your joy, we don’t plan to stay until last call.) If you want your officiant to pray before the meal at the reception, please do communicate with her about that well in advance so she can plan accordingly. And seat her with the guests; Askie has heard a few horrifying stories of officiants arriving at receptions to discover that they are receiving a vendor meal in a back room.
- Premarital Counseling: You didn’t ask about this, but let’s talk about it here anyway. Premarital counseling can be very helpful as you and your fiancé enter this new phase of your relationship. Some clergy require it, some merely recommend it. Some include it in their fee, others charge extra for it. For premarital counseling and all other meetings with your officiant, please show up on time, call if you’re running late, and give plenty of notice if you need to reschedule. Oh, and every officiant, regardless of her personal stance on sexual morality, knows that most engaged couples are sexually active, so don’t try to be cagey or deceptive about that. She can handle it.
- The Ceremony: How do you decide what words the officiant is going to say? Can she leave out all that stuff about God and Jesus? It depends, and maybe not. Ceremony planning varies from one religious tradition to another, and from one clergywoman to another. Your officiant may be constrained to use the ceremony provided by her denomination, with very limited leeway to edit or revise. On the other end of the spectrum, she might be totally free to craft a personalized ceremony for you and your fiancé. Many clergy have denominational or personal commitments to include prayer and scripture, although others have a more flexible approach. Most have heard a request they weren’t able to accommodate on principle (“No, you can’t perform a pagan wine blessing ceremony on our Communion altar.”) As for religious language, some clergy have a strong commitment to using traditional religious language, some might be able to find language about the Holy that feels like a good compromise, others might be very comfortable switching to language that reflects the values you hold dear. Figure out what you want, and ask your prospective officiant whether she would be interested. If she isn’t comfortable providing the kind of ceremony you’re envisioning, thank her for her time and find someone who is a better fit… She won’t be offended, and everyone will be a lot happier in the end.
- Vendor Trouble: Oh, the horror stories Askie could tell you about rogue vendors and their conflicts with officiants… You aren’t having a church wedding, so there’s no risk that your florist will fill the baptismal font with flowers. But if you have a wedding planner, talk with your officiant about the planner’s role and vice versa so they don’t step on each other’s toes. All too often, wedding planners treat the officiant as some sort of live prop: “You stand over there, I’ll tell you what to do.” That doesn’t work for most clergy officiants – especially in our own churches, but also at other venues. We expect to be treated as professionals by other vendors, and are happy to return the courtesy. While we might not know a whole lot about chiavari chairs or hydrangeas, we do know a thing or three about conducting a smooth and meaningful wedding ceremony. Askie’s personal approach: I run the rehearsal, giving guidance to the wedding planner about what is “my” domain and what is “hers.” During the ceremony, I ask the wedding planner to be stationed at the back, helping the wedding party to prepare and process. Once they’re at the front of the aisle, they are in my hands and her work is done until the ceremony is over. Your officiant’s approach might be different, though, so check in with her. Talk about photography as well: what guidelines does your officiant have about the use of flash? How close can the photographer get, and how much can they move around? An intrusive photographer can be distracting and disruptive to the sense of sacred space as two people pledge to join their lives together, and we clergy feel a responsibility to maintain the dignity of the occasion so that you and your loved ones can be fully present and attentive, honoring the commitment the two of you are making to each other.
Whether your wedding is conducted by a local clergy or a friend-of-a-friend, a Justice of the Peace or a Pastafarian you hire off the internet, I hope it is a really beautiful wedding, Bride-to-Be. Even more than that, I hope it is a really beautiful marriage.