It used to be easier. Your family belonged to a church or synagogue; you got married at that church or synagogue. The same man who baptized you or did your bat-mitzvah performed the ceremony. Today though, thankfully, it’s a little more complicated.
Why thankfully? Because more and more couples have the freedom to explore and plan wedding ceremonies that match their beliefs and are meaningful to them, as opposed to meaningful to their parents, or not meaningful at all.
One piece of this though is that if you aren’t getting married in a house of worship, you may find yourself needing an officiator, someone to perform the ceremony. I’ve been doing some research, including having a long conversation with the Reverend Frank W. Anderson, a pastor with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and I’ve come up with ten top tips for hiring and working with officiants.
1. Check legal requirements
Different states have different rules about who is and isn’t authorized to perform a wedding. Be especially careful if you live on the border between two states. My sister-in-law was surprised to learn a year after the fact that she and her husband weren’t actually married since the rabbi who performed the wedding was licensed in D.C., where they lived, but not in Virginia, where the wedding took place. Christine Bonardi, an attorney in Boston who practices family law, suggests that you check your city or town clerk’s office, or the Secretary of State’s office to make sure everything is legit.
2. Get referrals and recommendations
This may sound familiar, and with good reason, no matter what the vendor, this is really the number one tip. It’s the reason OneWed lets couples rate vendors. If you’re not getting married in a house of worship, the venue may have suggestions of clergy they’ve worked with in the past. Talk to your friends as well, especially if they’ve found a spiritual home, you may be able to talk to their minister, or ask their minister for ideas.
3. Clergy are not like other vendors
When I started talking to Frank about “hiring a minister” he quickly let me know that ministers weren’t like other vendors. “Hiring” implies a relationship where one person is in charge. You hire the caterer, and tell him or her what you want the food to be. The minister is the leader of the ceremony from the minute you ask him to be a part of it. As the minister sees it, he represents more than the legal authority to marry, he represents the authority of god.
4. Still, they need to be professionals
We at OneWed have now been told two stories about photographers having to fill in for no-show ministers. Whether you’re arranging to work with a minister, photographer, or musician, you need to make sure the person is a professional. Ask questions about back-up plans in case of family emergency, how the person will get to the ceremony, etc.
5. Be respectful of the religion
Different religions have different rules. Some houses of worship won’t let their clergy perform weddings for people who aren’t members. Some clergy won’t perform interfaith ceremonies. Rabbis have certain restrictions on which days of the year they can perform a wedding. These rules aren’t personal, and they probably aren’t bendable. There’s nothing wrong with “shopping around” and making sure you find an officiator you agree with, but if you don’t want a religious ceremony, don’t hire a member of the clergy.
6. Get to know the officiator
Clergy members are people, too. Some are funny, some serious, some nice, some, well, not so nice. If you’re going to invite someone to perform your wedding, you should make sure that you’re comfortable with the person both spiritually and personally. If you feel too nervous to ask questions, this probably isn’t the right person for you.
7. Give it some thought
Any life-changing event, like a wedding, is a great time to think about your spiritual place in the world. Many ministers and rabbis see themselves not just as there to perform a wedding for you, but to act as an ambassador for their faith, or for faith in general. You may feel a little uncomfortable discussing weighty issues of god, religion and faith, but this is a really good time to do it. Also give some thought to what you really want out of a wedding ceremony.
8. Invite the clergy member to your reception, but be clear on expectations
It’s polite to invite the clergy member to your reception, but don’t be offended if he or she can’t make it. If the pastor does a wedding every Saturday night, and always attends to the reception, that leaves very little family time. If you expect the clergy member to perform a before or after meal blessing, or to stay for photographs, make sure to discuss that with him or her before the day of the wedding. If a rabbi is involved in your wedding, he or she may only be willing to stay for the reception if the food provided is kosher.
9. Yes, there is money involved
If you’re working with someone who performs weddings for a living, he or she will be upfront about the costs. Make sure to ask if your rehearsal is included in the costs. If you’re working with your childhood pastor, or another clergy member, asking about money can be uncomfortable. Frank says he tells couples to pay him an amount they think his services are worth, and he’s gotten as little as $50 and as much as $1,000. If you’re faced with this decision, think about the amount of time the minister has put into your ceremony. A typical ceremony will take a thoughtful minister 12-15 hours worth of work. If you’re working with the clergy at your house of worship, there may not be a charge for the wedding. In this case, it would be customary to either make a donation to the church or synagogue in the minister or rabbi’s name, or to present the minister or rabbi with a personally written thank-you note, and money to be donated to the charity of his choice.
10. Give yourself a break
We’ve all seen the episode of Friends where Joey is set to perform Monica and Chandler’s wedding. Having a friend get ordained online and perform your wedding may seem like a great idea, but it also adds to your responsibilities. If you arrange to have a friend perform your ceremony, you and your friend will have to design the ceremony yourself, with very little experience. You wouldn’t consider hiring a caterer who didn’t know how to cook, why is your ceremony, the most important part of the wedding, any different?
Thanks again to the Reverend Frank W. Anderson for his perspective.