If you have a friend or family member
who wants to get an instant ordination online to serve as your Sonoma County wedding officiant, here are some things you'll need to know...
by Rev. Terri Daniel, MA, CT
I was ordained as a Humanist Minister in 1995, through a detailed process that involved a year of education and approval by a certification board. Twenty years later, after earning a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies and a master’s in Pastoral Care , I was ordained as an interfaith minister by The Institute of Holistic Theology. I have studied world religions for decades, and have also been trained in shamanism and in various forms of ritual and ceremony from cultures and traditions worldwide. In addition, I have 30 years of experience as a public speaker and event planner. Armed with those tools, I’ve performed hundreds of weddings and other rites of passage over the years.
I’m writing this article to help couples who choose an untrained, inexperienced friend or family member to serve as the officiant for their wedding. Through an organization called The Universal Life Church (ULC), anybody can become “ordained” online, for free, in about two minutes, and this legally allows them to perform the ceremony and sign the license. I have no objection to this (I actually agree with the ULC’s ordination philosophy), but I do get irritated when I receive emails like this one:
”My best buddy is getting married and thinks it would be really cool if I performed the ceremony. I’ve already gotten ordained via the Universal Life Church online, and now all I need to know is how to do a ceremony. Can you give me some tips?”
I find these inquiries presumptuous and annoying, not someone the inquirer wants to use my sample ceremony (it’s available on my website for anyone to use), but because this total stranger assumes I have the time to train him/her in the art of wedding officiating. The fact is, creating and performing ceremonies requires a specific set of skills, talents and instincts that can’t be learned in a brief email exchange.
I used to ignore these emails, heading straight for the delete key. But eventually I realized this presented an opportunity to enlighten someone about the depth of an officiant’s responsibility and the spectrum of technical, organizational and social skills a good officiant should have. So I drafted the following Tips for Wedding Officiants to use as my automatic reply to letters like the one quoted above.
Ten Tips for Would-Be Sonoma County Wedding Officiants
1. Know how to fill out the license properly
Licenses are not self-explanatory, nor are they standardized. Every county has a different one, and most counties are very particular about format. They might send a license back to you for corrections if you’ve used an abbreviation instead of a full word, or if you’ve written the date numerically (12 -1- 16) instead of “December 1, 2016.” Some counties require the signatures of two witnesses, some only require one, and some don’t need signatures at all, just the witnesses’ printed names. Every county has its unique quirks. And always keep a photocopy of every license you sign and submit. If there’s ever a question about the legality of the ceremony, you might be called upon to verify it.
2. Know How Work With the Issuing Agency
Be familiar with the agencies that issue licenses. You may need to follow up if there are any problems. Licenses can get lost in the mail, or can be returned for improper signatures or data errors. The officiant is legally responsible for this, and sometimes even has to pay a fee for corrections (this actually happened to me once, and the fee was $74).
3. Have a Way With Words
In order to create a meaningful ceremony that flows well, has meaning, sounds romantic and holds the attention of the audience, you need to be a decent writer. This is also true if you’re creating any sort of marketing materials such as flyers or a website for your officiant services.
4. Be Familiar With Diverse Wedding Traditions, Etiquettes and Styles
Even if you’re doing a completely non-traditional wedding, there will always be traditional elements. Most wedding symbolism -- such as a bride walking down the aisle or the bride and groom feeding wedding cake to each other -- is rooted in ancient practices, and you’ll have a lot more to offer if you’re familiar with those traditions. Also, many weddings involve couples from different cultures, and they may ask you to include something from their own traditions. I once did a wedding for a Japanese bride and a Nigerian groom, and worked with them to incorporate elements from both cultures into the ceremony.
5. Be a Good Public Speaker with a Dazzling Personality
If you’re not completely at ease in front of an audience, then wedding officiating is not for you. You must possess unflappable confidence, natural wit, a sense of humor, a relaxed style, and an ability to roll with the punches and think on your feet. These qualities are mandatory. The more charming and entertaining you are, the better.
6. Have Some Expertise in People Management Event Production
Unless a professional coordinator has been hired, you’ll often be called upon to take charge of organizational tasks such as getting bridal party aligned for the processional, coordinating cues with the D.J., solving logistical problems, and mediating in minor family squabbles. Be prepared for anything.
7. It Helps to Have Counseling Skills
You will often be expected to advise the couple about ceremony symbolism, family politics, religious questions and other personal or psychological issues. You don’t have to be a licensed counselor, but you should have the skills to listen, instruct and advise couples in a non-judgmental, professional manner.
8. Be a Social Butterfly
Social skills are critical for success in any business, but for a wedding officiant, the ability to schmooze effectively is vital. When you arrive at a wedding you will need to introduce yourself to people, so you should be outgoing, gracious and charming. You will often find yourself waiting around with the guests while the bride finishes getting ready, and it can be awkward if you’re not comfortable talking to strangers.
9. Know Popular Culture
Keep informed about wedding trends and styles so that you can recommend music, décor, readings, vendors and creative wedding programs for your couples. You’ll be called upon occasionally to function as a wedding planner, so you’ll need to have plenty of information and referrals on hand for things like affordable wedding gowns, the best D.J. in town, caterers, photographers, dance bands and such things.
10. Take This Gig Seriously
Ceremony and ritual is has more power than you might imagine. Any action taken in ceremony -- such as wedding vows, initiation into a tradition, stating an intention or making a commitment of any kind -- has real meaning, and should be treated with reverence and respect. If you are getting ordained online as an “officiant for a day,” do your homework. Research wedding traditions, practice your lines, hone your writing, work closely with the couple to create a meaningful ceremony, and do whatever it takes to make it count.
by Rev. Terri Daniel