One of the great joys of being a pastor is when a couple comes to me to ask if I will officiate at their wedding.
Sometimes it's someone I've known for years and watched grow up. Other times, I receive a call from a couple who has heard that I will officiate a wedding where the couple has a diverse or no religious identity. While some clergy refuse weddings like these, I feel that standing with a couple at their wedding is a chance to lift up the presence of God's love, regardless of belief.
But in the midst of the joy, there is always that awkward moment when I'm asked [or not], "how much do you charge?" The very question seems vulgar given the sacred nature of the task at hand. But weddings have become as much a business as they are a sacrament.
Sometimes I answer the question by telling them I don't have a set price but that I charge what they are paying the photographer. The room gets quiet until I back down and say¸ "I was just kidding!"
I think people want to do the right thing, but no one is quite sure what that is. So after years of being both honored and stiffed, here is a simple guide:
Dos of Hiring a Pastor:
• Know what you want from your pastor. Some pastors require pre-marital counseling while others do not. You should have an idea of what you want/expect before you start talking with potential pastors.
• Consider the time and travel/lodging commitments, as well as childcare needs of the pastor when considering what to pay. These things add up quickly.
• If you get married in a church, find out if the pastor's fee is automatically included in the price, and what it is. You do not want to make assumptions about whether or how much the pastor will be paid.
• Don't feel embarrassed asking the pastor about money, even if you have known him/her for a long time.
• Don't assume the minister is bringing the wedding license. This is usually the responsibility of the bride and groom, especially in out-of-state weddings.
• Don't take the cost of dinner out of the pastor's pay if they stay for the reception. Pastors play an important role and invest considerable time in your wedding and should be embraced as participants for more than just the ceremony.
It Takes Time
What you might not know is that officiating a wedding takes a lot of time, it is hard work, and yes, it is stressful. For me, an average wedding requires a minimum of twenty hours. This includes hearing and responding to the request, having a conversation or two on the phone, and then scheduling an initial meeting where I meet the couple and hear their stories and hopes for the future. In these conversations we navigate family challenges and lift up life goals. After two or three of these meetings, it's off to the rehearsal where there are often intense negotiations with the wedding planner.
Then there's the actual crafting of the service - the writing of a message that will ground the experience of the wedding. After the ceremony is over, I have to chase down the couple and witnesses to sign the marriage license and then, as a rule, I stay for the reception. I leave with the marriage certificate and don't really sleep until I have it safely in the mail and follow up with a phone call to the respective clerk's office a few days later.
Here is the deal: no matter how much you spend on a wedding, it does not count legally if a qualified officiant doesn't preside over it. Depending on the state, an officiant can be fined and even go to jail for making an error on a wedding license. And for good reason. If I mess up the marriage license, a marriage could be in legal limbo. You wouldn't want to be surprised to find out that you weren't legally married five years down the line when you go to divide assets in a divorce!
Etiquette suggestions aside, I know that many people just want to know "How much should I be paying?" While I can't directly answer that, I can share with my guide:
If you're in love without any money and your reception is going to be a picnic on the side of the road, the pastor may be willing to do your wedding pro-bono. However, this should be made clear early on in the process and not a surprise at the end of the service.
If you're having a wedding where you just want someone to show up and perform the ceremony, sign the wedding certificate and submit it: $250 and up.
If you meet with the pastor, even if just once and they attend the rehearsal in addition to the day-of responsibilities: $500 and up
If the pastor meets with you several times in advance of your wedding: $750-1000 and up
This is what you don't want to have happen: You don't want the pastor to leave having invested more in time and money planning, driving/flying, lodging, etc. than they received from you in payment. And there is nothing worse than looking at a table and thinking, "They paid more money for this one flower arrangement than they did me."
Most importantly, remember that reasonable compensation will vary. Factors such as cost of living, time invested, travel, and childcare needs should all be considered when determining how much to pay your pastor.