Couples are increasingly choosing to have a friend or family member officiate their wedding ceremonies instead of a religious leader or civil servant. According to a recent study from Pew Research Center, 23 percent of U.S. adults describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or nothing in particular. And millennials, those born from 1981 to 1996, are far less religiously observant than the older cohorts. As these millennial marry and the power of organized religion dwindles, this trend will no doubt continue to grow.
Take a deep breath. You’ve got this. Here are some tips and things I’ve learned after officiating weddings in Thailand, California, New Hampshire and New York.
1. Get ordained. Start by getting ordained by the Universal Life Church Monastery. You don’t need to order or pay for any official documents; just filling out the website form is enough. The day of the wedding, you’ll sign the marriage license as “Reverend” under the “Official Title” section, and list your denomination as “Universal Life.” You are responsible for mailing in the signed license following the ceremony. (Mail it certified just to be on the safe side.)
2. Step into your role and take charge. As officiant, you might end up taking responsibility for more than the service — everything from making sure the best man has the rings, to cuing musicians, setting up any ritual items, cuing the ushers and double-checking that the marriage license is present and ready to be filled out. The bride and groom already have a ton of details to remember, and they’ll appreciate your spearheading the action with a sense of command.
3. Write the liturgy. Find out whether the couple wants you to help write the liturgy — the script for the ceremony itself — or whether they want to do it themselves. The word “liturgy” translates as “work of the people,” so it should reflect the two people standing in front of you, whether that means it should be silly and lighthearted or serious and literary. Reach out to already-married friends to skim various ceremony examples from over the years. The Knot’s website or a quick Google search, can be a great place to start for sample ceremony scripts.
4. Email the couple’s friends and family members for inspiration. If you’re being asked to officiate, you probably know the couple well, but that’s only one view of them. Ask others who are close to them for funny anecdotes, nostalgic tidbits and inspiration. Officiating a wedding can mean a lot of pressure to say something wise and meaningful about marriage, but I found that just getting a few stories from folks who are dear to the couple made it so much easier. A few conversation starters: How do you know the couple? What are your favorite memories of them? What do they love about each other? What are their favorite qualities (and pet peeves) about each other? What, in your eyes, makes them click? What do they as a couple bring to the world?
5. Interview the couple individually a few weeks before the wedding. Before officiating, I always meet with the couple — or speak with them individually over the phone — a few weeks before the service and ask them some similar questions privately, which I then incorporate into the ceremony. These conversations can reveal particularly sweet and intimate details about their relationship.
6. Encourage the couple to write their own vows. Many couples prefer to write their own vows. Feel free to share examples with them from different faith traditions as a starting point. Make sure you have an extra printed copy in your folder, too, on the day of the service.
7. Write your reflection. Back in the day, church-types called this a sermon. You can think of it as an opportunity to gather all those nostalgic thoughts people shared with you and present them lovingly to the couple as a capstone of their celebration. Make sure to print this, and the entirety of the service, out on old-fashioned paper, rather than relying on technology. At a friend’s recent wedding in Sonoma, Calif., the 102-degree June heat made the officiant’s iPhone shut down. Luckily, it was just the rehearsal, and by ceremony time, he had made a printed copy. Don’t get caught unprepared in the literal heat of the moment.
8. Have fun and keep it real. The couple chose you to bless their union because they love you. No doubt you’ll do a phenomenal job. And have no fear: Everyone’s sipping champagne anyway, so that pre-ceremony cocktail hour will make everything you say that much funnier.