More couples pick friends to preside at weddings

Correction: The version of this article that appeared in the Sept. 17 Metro section incorrectly said that Carrie Ross-Gingerich and her husband, Matt, did Core Energetics therapy as part of their premarital preparations. They had several sessions of standard talk therapy. This version has been updated.

September 16, 2011

As Julie Butcher Pezzino and Andrew Butcher sat in an oceanside garden in tiny Southwest Harbor, Maine, the Sunday before Labor Day, watching two friends get married, the scene was beautiful, moving and very familiar.

Practically everyone from their tight little American University crew was there. And as in their own ceremony, the officiant wasn’t some distant member of the clergy; it was another member of the crew.

The college friends have made the rounds, presiding at each others’ weddings, four times so far, with another wedding scheduled for December.

“We are a tightknit group, and we are kind of hippies,” said Pezzino, 30, who works to promote urban agriculture for a nonprofit in Pittsburgh, as does her husband. “We don’t want to be confined to what some religion says you have to do.”

Their decision to forgo the more traditional route is a slightly extreme example of a once-quirky trend that is becoming more mainstream. A study last year by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com showed that 31 percent of their users who married in 2010 used a family member or friend as the officiant, up from 29 percent in 2009, the first year of the survey.

Although the majority of brides and grooms still use members of the clergy and other professionals, including judges (61 percent last year, according to the study), the shift toward nontraditional officiants seems to be further evidence of another, broader trend: the movement of Americans away from organized religion.

Recent studies show that most Americans aren’t a regular part of an institutional faith community, and many people say they don’t know a member of the clergy well enough to want to be hitched by them.

“I can’t remember the last time I was at a wedding that wasn’t officiated by a friend,” said Jim Kurdek, the groom from the Southwest Harbor wedding.

While at American University in the early 2000s, Kurdek and his friends shared houses, road trips and music festivals and jokingly named the internal e-mail list they still use “coolkids.” But after graduation, hanging out gradually gave way to engagements, and then weddings.

Kurdek and Sara Mills-Knapp had been living together for seven years when a question pressed: Why get married?

Their friend, Carrie Ross-Gingerich, and her husband, Matt, had worked hard on their own decision to wed, including having several sessions of talk therapy. The two couples had even shared the same room years earlier when they were all working in Costa Rica and had limited air-conditioning.

“Carrie is a spiritual person, and she and [her husband] had worked hard on their relationship,” said Mills-Knapp, who lives with her husband in New York and just got a master’s degree in sustainability management. “That resonated with us, someone who had really thought through what it meant to be married and have that kind of commitment.”

It seemed natural to Kurdek and Mills-Knapp when they chose Carrie Ross-Gingerich to officiate at their wedding this month.

While people who choose secular officiants might not want a cleric in their faces when they exchange vows, many often still want a traditional experience: exchanges of rings, a request for community support and even explicitly religious rituals slightly reformatted.

A spokesman for the nonprofit Universal Life Church Monastery, the largest of multiple groups that produce insta-certification for officiants, said the organization uses the lingo of organized religion, even though its mission statement stresses total freedom of religious belief or lack of it. The group says it “ordains” 700 “ministers” each day.

Members of the American University crew shared a love of jam bands, including Phish and Moe, as well as a passion for environmentalism and nature. Their wedding ceremonies often reflected those interests.

Some of them talked about vigorously scrubbing the word “God” from their rituals; instead readings came from environmental poet Wendell Berry or novels, such as “Einstein’s Dreams,” which explores human beings’ relationship to time passing.

Most of them also came from families with interfaith marriages, and some followed suit.

Andrew Butcher was raised Jewish, while his wife, Julie Butcher Pezzino, grew up in a big Catholic family until college, when she told her parents she felt most spiritual and contemplative in nature, not church. For their wedding, Butcher and Pezinno broke a glass and had a huppah (or canopy), both Jewish traditions, but they also created a table of ritual items, including sand from the Cape Cod beach where she summered as a child and a brick from their home in Pittsburgh.

When it came time to choose who within their circle of friends would officiate, there were certain sensitivities to consider. They wanted the right mix of casual and authoritative. They didn’t want to offend anyone. And they definitely didn’t want a crier.

Their buddy, Timothy Sini, a prosecutor, fit the bill and officiated at their 2009 wedding.

“We didn’t have to worry he’d be so caught up in the emotion that he’d be blubbering,” Pezzino said. “He argues cases for a living, so he has amazing oratory skills.”

When the friends gather again in December for the next wedding, Pezzino’s husband will officiate.

“It feels like we have a religion of friendship and community, and that’s the thing tying it all together,” Pezzino said.

She laughed when asked why her husband was picked to officiate. “It’s funny to think of him having spiritual authority,” she said.

“The kind of authority that’s emanated in these weddings is confidence, love and knowledge of the couple.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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