The Wedding Series – The Officiant

He — or She — Will Pronounce You Husband and Wife

In planning one’s wedding with all the details and pre-wedding flurry it’s easy to lose site of the main event: the actual ceremony in which the bride and groom say, “I do.” It’s the instant in which two people confirm the course of their lives together. Therefore, one of the major and earliest decisions you need to make — in addition to the venue and date and time of the wedding ceremony — is your choice of officiant. This is the key member of your wedding party who will orchestrate your ceremony from the words, “We are gathered together,” to “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” It’s important to note that an officiant’s calendar can fill up as rapidly as a venue’s, so booking a year in advance is not unusual.

If you have someone in mind you must check on her availability first so that you can coordinate the dates with those of the venues you are considering. Otherwise, if you are planning a destination wedding or don’t have any religious affiliation ask the wedding coordinators at the venues if they can arrange for an officiant or recommend someone locally. And, don’t forget to ask your friends who have married recently if they would recommend their officiants.

The choice of an officiant should not be taken lightly. You want someone who understands what you and your intended want and will work with you to make this moment match your dreams.

Who Can Legally Officiate At a Wedding Ceremony? 

Once you have decided whether you will marry in a house of worship or a secular venue, plan to have a mixed wedding that requires two officiants and nailed down other details, you can narrow your choice of officiant. You might choose a clergyperson or other religious leader or a civil servant with whom you or your family is close, or you might have a friend, relative or colleague who is certified or licensed to perform marriages. Just make sure that if you invite an officiant from another county or state to marry you that he is legally able to do so where you are exchanging vows. If the ceremony venue is at a house of worship ask the clergyperson in charge if you may invite another officiant to participate.

U.S. marriage laws differ from state to state, so it’s best to check the laws in your state. Two interesting facts I learned are (1) in New York the legal requirements differ between New York City and the rest of the state and (2) in California just about anyone can become an officiant for a day.

Generally, however, members of the clergy in most religions are qualified to marry a couple. That includes pastors, ministers, priests, rabbis, cantors and aʼimmah, for some examples. On the secular side, this includes judges, justices of the peace and Ethical Culture leaders. In some states, such as New York, eligible officiants also include mayors of cities or villages, court or county justices, former mayors and city clerks in municipalities of more than a million residents, and so on. Note that some states require additional certification or licensing of members of the clergy. Again, check the law in your respective state and local government to determine who is legally permitted to perform your marriage rites.

Can the Captain of a Ship Perform Marriages?

Although many couples believe that the captains of ships can marry them, and it is certainly a romantic idea, this can only happen in the U.S. if the captain also possesses separate credentials, such as the aforementioned, that allows him to perform marriages. If you want a shipboard wedding confirm that the captain is qualified; otherwise arrange separately to have a bona fide officiant sail away with you.

What Should You Discuss With The Officiant?

The following items should be discussed and agreed upon with your officiant:

  • Availability: The first item to determine is whether your prospective officiant will be available on the date(s) you have in mind. You will have a bit more coordinating to do if there are to be two officiants because of an interfaith wedding.
  • Venue: The officiant should be informed about and comfortable with the ceremony venue and be able to get there easily. If you are having a destination wedding, be sure the officiant is available for as long as necessary.
  • Fees & Expenses: Discuss fees and expenses up front so there are no surprises or misunderstandings later on. Basic fees vary among independent officiants depending on the region, season and day of the week and can run as much as $500 in the big cities. There usually is an additional fee to attend the rehearsal; sometimes it’s as much as the ceremony fee, which can double the cost of your officiant. Read carefully any agreements that you are asked to sign. Ask if the fee includes travel expenses; if not the bride and groom should cover those costs separately, as well as any lodging that is necessary for an officiant who is not local. For a clergyperson who is affiliated with a house of worship if there is any fee at all it will likely be small; in this case the proper protocol is to make a donation to the house of worship following the wedding; the amount again should be in line with the region, season and day of the wedding.
  • Tips & Gifts: Tips are optional and are appreciated for exceptional service; the amount depends on the size of the fee as well as the region, but 15-20% is safe. Similarly, if you or your family are well acquainted or close to your officiant you might wish to give her a modest token gift in addition to the fee and any tip. The nature of your relationship should guide you as to the size and type of tip and/or gift, which you may present at the rehearsal dinner or party or send it along after the wedding, even upon return from your honey- or mini-moon.
  • Certificates, Laws, Customs & Licenses: Ask to see your officiant’s certificate or license that permits her to perform marriages to ensure that it is current; make a copy for your wedding files. Your officiant should advise you on state and local requirements, such as blood tests, waiting periods, where to get your marriage license, which documents you need to bring to the ceremony and what if anything the officiant is responsible to do on your behalf regarding the filing of paperwork. If applicable, he will also advise you of any customary religious requirements.
  • Style of Wedding – Describe in detail the type of ceremony you want and make sure you and the officiant are on the same page. Officiants wish to please, so make clear any special touches that you are planning, especially if they are out of the mainstream. If applicable, make sure your officiant is experienced and comfortable with children and pets in the wedding ceremony.
  • Vows – Advise whether you wish to have a traditional ceremony in which the officiant leads the couple through their vows, or if you prefer to take a larger role and write your own vows. Secular ceremonies usually have more leeway in this area than religious ones. In any case, the officiant needs to know what her level of participation should be so that the ceremony moves along smoothly.
  • Ring Exchange – The officiant should be clued in on how you plan to get the rings to the altar and who will have them handy when they are needed.
  • Rehearsal & Rehearsal Dinner – Generally the officiant directs the wedding rehearsal. Yet, some officiants prefer not to be involved with the rehearsal for one reason or another, so settle this point at the start. As the officiant will direct your ceremony, in my view not participating in the rehearsal is akin to a principal actor in a play failing to show up for the dress rehearsal. The officiant should provide guidance at the rehearsal with the bride and groom’s wishes in mind. It follows, of course, that you invite your officiant and his or her spouse, partner or significant other to your rehearsal party. An experienced and dedicated officiant usually enjoys the rehearsal party as it gives her a chance to get to know the bride and groom from a personal perspective, which can enrich the ceremony.
  • Recessional – For a smooth recessional the officiant should know who you want to include and in which order if it will deviate from the norm. Usually, the officiant participates in the recessional, walking after the last of the wedding party and before the parents. If the officiant must make an announcement or two (regarding the receiving line, or which exit to use or instructions concerning the reception, etc.) he will wait until the bride and groom have made it down the aisle, make the announcement and then join the recessional in progress.
  • Reception – As a member of the wedding party, the officiant should be invited to stay for the reception, especially if it immediately follows the ceremony. You might wish to have your officiant say a blessing before everyone partakes of the food and drink. Keep in mind that because your officiant most likely is invited to many receptions, she might not wish to drink or dine at each one, but may enjoy staying only through the cocktail hour to mingling with the bride and groom, parents and members of the wedding party for awhile.

Some of the above items will be tested and previewed at the rehearsal, but it is wise to discuss them with your officiant at the initial meeting and settle them early on.

Reasons an Officiant Might Decline to Officiate

Couples can sometimes face challenges to marrying within their same or interfaith religions, as some churches have strict rules about who can marry. For example, the Roman Catholic and Jewish religions maintain elaborate strictures, which can vary somewhat in enforcement among parishes or movements. That said, religious freedom historically has had the upper hand, allowing ministers to decide when and for whom they will officiate.

The recent Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality, allowing LGBT couples to marry legally in any state in the nation, has brought great joy and freedom, but also opened the door to debate whether clergy may decline to marry a gay or lesbian couple because of the clergyperson’s religious beliefs. Generally, the First Amendment allows a religious officiant to decline to marry a couple if their union violates his or her beliefs. Civil servants on the other hand cannot refuse to marry a couple, although both North Carolina and Ohio have experienced push-back on this issue.

Despite this hindrance, there are many choices, at least in big cities, for same-sex or gay-friendly officiants; they can help you navigate obtaining your marriage license should there be any obstacles in that regard. And, as previously stated, in California you can ask a gay friend or relative to become an officiant for a day. In any case, I would not want anyone who was opposed to my marriage to officiate at my wedding. Therefore, if you feel an injustice has been done by all means pursue a remedy if you wish. I would, however, advise doing so after your wedding if possible in order to avoid any distractions during this wonderful time of your life.

Until next time,


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