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An Officiant For Your Wedding — An Insider’s Guide

Author’s note: The terms “officiant” and “minister” are used interchangeably in this article.

Where to look. For couples who are members of a particular church or synagogue, choosing an officiant for your wedding is usually not an issue—the officiant “comes” with the church. But if you are an interfaith couple, or are not members of an organized religious institution but still want a spiritual orientation to your ceremony, you may not know how or where to find a suitable officiant. (Interestingly, even the most contemporary wedding planning books and web sites do not usually include information about this.)

Non-denominational ministers are found in various ways. As with any other service, a personal referral is best. If you’ve recently been to a wedding ceremony you particularly liked, get the name of the officiant. Or ask friends or colleagues for their recommendation. If a personal referral is not available, the following are good sources: your local Yellow Pages (typically under the heading “Churches-Non-Denominational” or “Wedding Chapels, Ceremonies and Locations”); wedding planning web sites (Google is a good search engine); special wedding guides or supplements of your local newspaper (usually published in January and June; check your local paper for dates); wedding magazines or newsletters distributed free to bridal and tuxedo shoppes, wedding sites, caterers, and other wedding vendors; wedding guides and directories available in bookstores; and wedding fairs in your area. In addition, meditation, yoga, and other centers of spiritual practice might also be referral sources.

The officiant’s credentials. California’s marriage law states that, in addition to various judicial and administrative officials, the following persons are authorized to perform wedding ceremonies: “any priest, minister, or rabbi of any religious denomination of the age of 18 or over.” Included under this broad umbrella are the ministers of many non-traditional churches and spiritual centers, which gives couples a wide range of backgrounds and orientations from which to choose when seeking to marry outside of an established church or synagogue. An officiant does not need to have completed formal seminary or religious training to be legally empowered to perform wedding ceremonies. Call your local county courthouse if you are not sure whether the ordaining institution of a particular officiant meets state requirements.

Unlike a priest, minister or rabbi employed by the congregation of a denominational church, non-denominational ministers are usually self-employed. They set their own fees and can offer a range of services depending on clients’ needs.

What the officiant does. Typical services provided by the officiant are: in-person, phone, and email consultation prior to the wedding; writing and performing the wedding ceremony; attending and helping supervise the wedding rehearsal (if needed); and signing and filing the wedding license with the county. Additional services may include pre-nuptial counseling (many officiants in the Bay Area are also licensed marriage, family and child counselors), souvenir copies of the ceremony text, or other post-nuptial follow-up. Typical fee range for the Bay Area is $300-600. Some officiants may do a flexible or sliding fee scale. Most will offer an initial consultation at no charge.

Interviewing the officiant. When you meet with a prospective officiant, do treat it as a job interview, because it is! You and your partner are the “employers” conducting the interview. But also be prepared to answer questions from the officiant. A conscientious officiant will want to know something about the two of you and your relationship, and your hopes and concerns about marriage and your future life together.

Expectations. What are the basics you can expect from the wedding officiant? The same general guidelines that apply to your other wedding service providers apply here. The officiant should be willing to: answer all your questions; specify fees and services in writing; provide a sample of his or her work (in most cases, this will be in the form of a sample written ceremony, although some may provide samples on line or on videotape); provide names of former clients for references; offer a free initial consultation; and be available for phone or electronic consultation between meetings. (Some officiants may charge an additional fee for this.)

But, beyond the above considerations or the particular credentials and experience an officiant might possess, the choice of an officiant ultimately is a very personal one, based on “chemistry,” personal style, and other intangibles.

Looking at the intangibles. Some of the intangibles you might want to look at are: Do you feel comfortable talking with this person? Does he or she seem genuinely interested in who each of you are and in hearing your thoughts and ideas for your wedding? Is there a comfortable match between your personal styles; e.g., formal versus informal; traditional versus alternative; spiritual versus secular? Do you like the sound of her or his voice (an often-overlooked but crucial question)? Do you feel confident that this person can handle touchy family issues with tact and discretion? Discuss these and other intangibles with your partner before and after you meet with a prospective officiant.

Making the decision. Do give yourselves the time to make the choice that feels right for you. After your initial meeting with a candidate, if you have further questions, feel free to follow-up with a phone call. I recommend that couples interview two or three candidates before deciding, and to make your choice no later than three months prior to your wedding (some officiants may require more notice than that, depending on their calendar). Most officiants expect you to “shop around” before deciding and will hold your wedding date open for a specified period to allow you the time you need. As a courtesy to each officiant, after you’ve made your choice, do notify the other candidates of your decision.

After choosing your officiant. Depending on how early in the process you hired your officiant, there may be an extended period of time between your initial consultation and your first planning meeting. Stay in touch. It helps to schedule brief phone or email check-ins if more than a month or two will elapse between meetings.

Creating the ceremony with your officiant. Once upon a time, the wedding couple didn’t have to think about the text of their wedding ceremony—the officiant took care of that. Nowadays, increasing numbers of couples are choosing to work with their officiant in the creation of a more personalized wedding ceremony. In this process, a sample ceremony, provided by the officiant or selected from another source, is used as a starting point from which the officiant, together with the couple, creates the customized text. Ideas for the customized text may come from wedding books and web sites, officiants’ samples, other weddings you’ve attended, and/or your own imaginations. Creating a personalized wedding ceremony should be a process of consultation and collaboration. A good officiant will want your input, questions and frank comments on ideas for the text and special rituals.

But perhaps you will choose not to have a major role in the creation of your ceremony text. Communication with your officiant is still important! Don’t be shy in expressing any concerns, questions or needs you may have. A skilled officiant will welcome hearing them and will know how to guide the process so that your ceremony will look, sound, and feel “like you” to you and your partner.

Reflections of an officiant. Based on my own experiences, I have come to liken the officiant’s role to that of a midwife. Like the midwife, the officiant enters into the lives of two people at a landmark moment to preside over a very intimate and joyful event, but one that is not without stress. Because of the nature and timing of the event, rapport and trust must be established easily and quickly. Before this event, you and your officiant were probably strangers to each other, and after this event, you may never see each other again. But in between, a bond forms between you that imparts a special warmth and grace to the special ceremony that marks the birth of a new life together for you and your partner .