To create the right kind of wedding you have to select the right officiant--or officiants--but you need to have a clear understanding about what to expect in your work together.
Over time, I've gotten many frantic calls from couples that were in some way disappointed by the officiant they'd originally selected. Either the person had to back out at the last minute, or did not have the correct credentials for performing a legal wedding; or the couple simply felt they were not getting the services they expected. Other times, a couple may be happily leaning toward a more alternative officiant, only to have their parents jump in and insist on a traditional clergy person.
So I wanted to share some thoughts on how to select the right officiant.
1. Find someone you feel truly comfortable with. Seek someone who makes you feel so at ease on so many levels that you can relax on your wedding day, knowing you will be taken care of. You want the person who facilitates and guides this important milestone in your life to be someone you both feel confident about; someone who makes no judgments about your union and whose only concern is providing you a ceremonial experience that is all you want it to be. It would be wonderful to work with a wedding officiant who is caring and willing to get to know you.
2. Look within your own faith or spiritual community. In many cities, weddings happen more and more at the wedding venue, and less and less in a house of worship, but you can still call upon a religious officiant. Perhaps you have in mind a family minister, rabbi, or clergy member from your faith origin. If so, just make sure you understand the parameters. If you select a traditional clergy person, you can't assume they can adapt the service to your needs. Find out exactly how flexible they can be, especially when it comes to interfaith and same sex unions.
3. Consider an alternative officiant. There are many less traditional officiants available to serve modern couples, including Unitarian and Humanist ministers, open-minded rabbis, and former Catholic priests who still offer the sacrament of marriage. There is also a new genre of professional officiants, celebrants, and interfaith ministers who are trained to create personalized ceremony for couples of all backgrounds. Many are hip, open minded, and willing work closely with you to create the kind of ceremony you truly want. They are often willing to co-officiate with other clergy, and even your friends or relatives. For a simple civil ceremony, you might prefer a retired judge or justice of the peace. Or perhaps you were hoping to have your best friend ordained to preside over your ceremony--just make sure that kind of ordination is legal in your state.
4. Be clear about what is in the ceremony. I believe the couple should have input into the language, readings, and rituals in the ceremony, and should have final approval of the wedding script. Not every officiant works that way but at the very least you should be assured that there will be no surprises or unwanted preaching. One bride had a clergy person who unexpectedly launched into a tirade of religious political commentary in between her vows. "I found him offensive," she says, "and could barely focus on the ceremony. It was so distracting."
5. Ask for the kind of ceremony language you want. Unless you have opted for a very traditional religious ceremony with an officiant who must follow a certain religious protocol and language, you do not have to settle for a ceremony that is completely controlled by someone else. Even if you two decide to go the traditional route, you may be able to ask for adjustments to any language you cannot live with. One bride couldn't bear the idea of being pronounced "man and wife" and asked her clergy person to make sure he said "husband and wife"; another asked her minister to replace the phrase "till death do you part" because "it was too negative sounding." Even in traditional settings, look for the most open-minded clergy people and ask to see the ceremony before the big day. Doesn't hurt to ask.
6. That said, be clear on the officiant's ground rules. If an officiant is representing a specific faith and is not able or willing to adapt a ceremony, you must respect that. Unless he or she specifically agrees, you cannot expect that person to represent anything other than their own faith. For example, you wouldn't expect a Christian minister to include a Hebrew prayer, or a Hindu Priest to include aspects of a Persian ceremony, but it is possible open-minded clergy people will be willing to co-officiate with one another. Be clear, from the very start, what the officiant can and can't do. This includes whether the officiant can even take on an interfaith or same sex wedding, if this is the case.
7. Make sure your officiant can sign your license. Every state has different procedures for clergy. In New York City, for example, an officiant must be registered with the City Clerk's Office--even a justice of the peace or a judge from another town--for at least 24 hours before they can sign the license. Some religious traditions offer a spiritual ceremony but expect the couple to be legally married at the Clerk's office. Don't assume, always ask, if the officiant is fully prepared to make the ceremony legal in your state.
8. Put things in writing. Weddings are stressful. Couples are new at asking these questions and conversations may not be remembered in full. This is why it is extremely important to have a clear agreement with the officiant, so you know exactly what to expect. By the same token, officiants should provide clear information on what they will and will not do. Not every officiant works with a contract or officiating agreement, but you should ask for one. If not, send an e-mail recalling all the points discussed in the first meeting so that it is on paper for all to see.
9. Respect. Weddings are a consumer-driven business and couples are in the position to pick and choose from many options, but be respectful to officiants. The officiant is not just a vendor, and selecting your officiant is not the same as selecting flowers or a signature cocktail. While it may include a business agreement, it is also a very sacred agreement. The officiant is the facilitator of the most important aspect of your wedding--the ceremony--and you will share an intimate moment in time. I see the relationship between the couple and the officiant as more of a partnership and believe both should treat the process and the relationship respectfully.