I am an officiant in the state of Georgia. Recently a bride asked me, “What do you do when you arrive at the venue?” and I had a time explaining it. So, this piece is about what a minister/officiant does before, during, and after a ceremony. I thought perhaps this might help couples understand how it works from my perspective.
I don’t know if it’s true for every officiant but, from the moment I walk into a wedding, I take on many different titles…
My first title, often, is babysitter.
The vast majority of weddings that I officiate are small and cozy, and thus small children — flower girls and ring bearers — are often milling around, while parents, aunts, and uncles are preparing. I will often find myself talking to wee kids. I tend to occupy them for a few moments at least until a parent, realizing their child is quiet, comes looking for them. They see me…
“Oh, hi!” I say, “I’m the minister.” There is usually some relief and a little perplexity. There’s a tattooed, female minister, sitting on the bottom of a flight of stairs, talking to a three-year-old about how itchy her dress is. Weird, but okay. Better than them running wild.
This role quickly changes as grandparents arrive and my title quickly becomes that of “The Inquisitioned.”
Which faith am I from? How many of these have I done? Do I know where the bathrooms are? Do I have an education for this? Most of these are innocent enough and kindly but, occasionally, I am the source of misplaced discontent. “I didn’t know women could wear collars,” said one. While another (slightly intoxicated) said, “Well, you’re better than the pagan priest they originally wanted, I guess.”
When this happens my job changes again…
For I am now the referee that is meant to handle such penalties with grace.
They are not personal attacks, they are cultural misgivings, and I am there to demonstrate why a pregnant woman in a collar with tattoos is as good a choice as any. I deflect discontent from the couple getting married, and handle fouls with grace.
Then in comes the couple, and I shift from referee to running back.
If they haven’t done a rehearsal (and many don’t) this will be the first time we’ve met in person and my role is now that of the best friend they didn’t know they had.
“How are you doing,” I will ask or “Just don’t puke,” or “How much have you had to drink?” are all standard questions. I’ll ask for the wedding certificate and payment (because all too often these are forgotten in the joys of the ceremony) and ensure them that they won’t be left with awkward gaps in the service. “I got your back, and will guide you through it,” I’ll say, and they’ll look relieved.
I ask, “Who has the rings?” and someone will often point to the best man. More often than not the rings will end up in my pocket because, you know, safety. It is the reason why I always wear a jacket or pants with pockets.
Then my role shifts again to traffic director.
One partner is often standing beside me at this point, and the rest of the wedding party isn’t sure where to stand, or the mother of the bride can’t remember where she’s supposed to sit, or the flower girl is already trying to dispense her heavy basket of petals. So, I point out a spot to best man, or remind the groom that I got this, or pick out a seat for the bride’s mom, and direct the little girl to the back of the rows of seats, before heading back to my spot as if I knew the plan all along. When, really, I’m making it up as I go.
Nothing in the world is comforting like someone who knows what they’re doing. So, I become a traffic director to ease the tensions in the room while I wait for the music to begin.
And then it happens. The procession begins and my role of babysitter, Inquisitioned, referee, best friend, and traffic director all fade away and the real reason I’m here unfolds before us.
I mediate all kinds of commitment.
This is what I do. Sometimes, that commitment is mediated between audience, God, and couple. Often, it is just between the couple and audience. And other times it just the couple — standing in front of an audience making a commitment to themselves. Either way, I am needed to help guide the spoken words of things already understood, but too huge to say without help. I mediate, and it is the single best role I will ever have.
I’ve mediated the religious, the spiritual, the atheist, and the pagan. I have hand-fasted, read Hebrew, and read Vedic poems. I have read Christian scripture, led meditation before services with couples, and have ardently removed any mention of God, and remained steadfastly present regardless of their needs. It is my job to mediate their needs; it is not their job to revolve around mine.
Me? I like me some God. Yet, I realize that every human capable of love is worthy of committed love and nearly every committed love in our culture needs a mediator. So there I am, quite literally standing in the gap of an unmarried couple regardless of sex, gender, faith, or politics, and I mediate. I hand them rings, hold tissues, guide them to say “I do,” ask them questions, and remind them that it won’t always be easy. Then I ask them to remove me from the gap, to create their own space, and kiss.
Just like that, my job is over.
There is often 30 seconds where we take a wedding-day selfie (one of my favorite little things I do) and I remind them to call me if they need anything; they don’t have to do it alone. With a rush they are met with parents and friends and they are moved away from me. I find a quiet place to sit and take out my blue pen and sign their wedding certificate. I catch a bridesmaid or a parent and ask them to confirm that the Wedding Certificate IS signed in case the couple asks. I will hand her vows, empty wedding ring boxes, and used tissues that they may want to save. They take them, and quickly leave for pictures, and I’m left alone again.
I pack up my things, perhaps stick my tongue out at a flower girl or stray cousin on my way out, and leave without so much as a “goodbye.” Most don’t want it, don’t need it, or are too busy to be bothered.
That’s okay. I’ve run out of roles to fill anyway. As I walk out to my car I think to myself, “Not too shabby,” but I’m already critiquing my words and how I might do it better next time.