Tales from behind the altar: The many roles of a wedding officiant

March 18 2015 | Guest post by Hannah Hill
In front of the officiant
"A little armwrestling in front of the officiant while filling in the papers." Photo by Nadejda Alimova

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.

  1. That's really interesting to hear and yet saddening. Especially " 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"
    I guess that just seems like such a foreign idea to me as our officiant has been our counsellor and confidant for years and we have spent a lot of time with her making sure that we are prepared for marriage and what it will entail (what other more formal officiants might call pre-marital counselling). When she arrives at the wedding, she will be greeted by many people and hopefully she will stay for the reception.
    It sounds like you do a wonderful job though and though it seems as though you don't have much contact with the couple, you write as though you definitely experience job satisfaction which is wonderful.

    • AV,

      Thanks so much for your feedback! In a way, it really is sad. Yet, I think its important to see how couples look at ministers differently. Some simply need that momentary mediator while others long, much like you, for a more intimate relationship. I do occasionally officiate a wedding where counseling is done, or we meet several times before and I stay for the reception but these are rare.

      The relationship with my couples often continues after the wedding. Some have become good friends, others I check in with on social media and all my couples get follow up emails and check ins. Many couples never respond again while others stay within my online community and check in occasionally. Regardless, I make sure they know I'm present and willing to be present long after the certificate has been signed!

    • Many couples who share neither a faith nor a religion will employ officiants with whom they are not personally familiar — instead of hiring a Justice of the Peace, for example. It's not so unusual as you might think. Just as the florist doesn't remain for the reception, neither do such officiants, since they are not friends and they are not family. They are employees hired for the ceremony, and are no longer employed by the couple when the ceremony has concluded.

  2. @Hannah Hill – feel like coming to Carthage MS in September? Or know someone who's down with secular weddings in the south?

    • So precious of you to ask! I'm willing to travel if those expenses are covered. However, usually that would make for a very expensive officiant!! If you're looking for something liberal start with your local Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church. These ministers are often super liberal and may not even consider themselves Christian depending on the person and will be priced quite reasonably.

    • Katie,
      There are so many options- I bet within the UK you may be able to find something really unique. Have you looked into officiants that might be pagan in nature? Universalist? Depending on your own spiritual flavor there are tons to choose from. In many ways, the UK is the melting pot of religion and spiritualism!

      Hannah

      • The thing with the UK is that the laws regarding who can officiate a wedding are much more restrictive. I often envy the US weddings I see on this site where the couple have married in their backyard and have a close friend as an officiant – neither of these things are an easy option in the UK! I'd be interested to hear from UK folk who were able to have a more offbeat officiant.

        • Hi Zooey, fellow Brit here.

          We are looking into having a humanist celebrant and have shortlisted three people from the British Humanist Association website. As the government has refused to recognise humanist ceremonies as legal, we will do the short legal bit at the registry office the day before and then get the ceremony we want on the day. Hope this helps to show there are options 🙂

          • Thanks, it is! I guess separating out the getting legalled bit from the actual ceremony is the way to go. I hope you have a wonderful wedding!

          • Just a wee clarification, in Scotland a humanist celebrant can conduct a legal ceremony, but I believe you are right about the rest of the UK. Like all 'religious' ceremonies in Scotland, humanist marriage ceremonies may take place anywhere.

  3. Hannah, could I perhaps start an email conversation with you about how to *plan* one of these wonderful events with an off-beat couple (unless there's a blog somewhere)? I'm credentialed to perform a friend's wedding in May, and so far I haven't been able to start anything because I'm having trouble getting input from the bride and groom. Catch: he's Dao, she's agnostic, and their families are expecting the "normal" BBW. And I'm supposed to help them be authentic to themselves without ticking off the families?

    Oh. Dear. Um, help?!

    • I would suggest offering the bride and groom two options: 1) the 70/30 Rule or 2) the 100% rule. The 70/30 rule means someone is 70% happy and the other is only 30% happy but at least someone is getting mostly what they want. It's up to the couple to decide who's going to be happy (them or parents, etc). The 100% rule is going for gold and making one person happy. Everyone else will be pissed. This rule doesn't usually work when parents are paying for the wedding but when employed I usually have a quite happy couple.

      Good luck!

    • If you are planning to write (or help write) the ceremony, I recommend giving the couple 3 or more "sample" ceremonies (culled from the Internet or books). Ask them each to read over them and give you some written feedback. Do they like the length of one, but the informality of another? Do they like traditions, or quirky readings from friends? Do they want music throughout, or just at the beginning, or not at all? Questions of faith and belief will come in eventually (and the couple will have to make some tentative agreements about that regardless as they begin a life together), but you can still get some insight into the tone they want before they reach conclusions about the bigger picture.

  4. I'm surprised that you don't even get an invitation to the reception. That made me kind of sad, actually. My husband and I invited our celebrant and his wife to the reception afterwards as a thank you for their service at our wedding. Likewise, I've noticed that the officiants for my cousins' weddings have made appearances at the reception (even if they're not burning the midnight oil partying). I realize everyone does things a little bit differently. It just seems a little strange to me that you wouldn't be given a chance to hang around a little longer.

    • I do often get invitations- it just depends on the bride and groom. Again, the story above is more about the "norm" as opposed to what happens every time. It's also true that the introvert in me doesn't always like attending such events and so couples know before hand that I will not be staying- I'm sure to let them know so they don't miss me at the event.

      Occasionally though, when I've had a chance to get to know the couple and I feel comfortable that I will not burden their budget with my presence I will stay and chat for a while. It just really depends. Very kind to think of that btw. I'm sure the officiant loved being made to feel "apart of" in more ways than one!

  5. Hi Hannah, and thanks so much for this:
    Beautifully articulate, and brave to mention the interrogation one receives from more conservative guests and family members–one of my least favorite parts of what we do. I like the way you choose to frame these inquiries as "misplaced discontent," as they often feel a bit patronizing and dismissive. These stated cultural divisions point up the need for grace and understanding, and underscore that we are needed to stand with couples not only as deflectors of cultural and religious discontent, but family dysfunction and interference as well. This has been an especially important role with many of my same-sex couples, where that "discontent" and dysfunction can be extremely hurtful and damaging. Your insights and words are heartening and much appreciated. Keep Calm and Marry On!

    • My own upbringing was ultra conservative – when I got married my father, who is a minister, was not allowed to perform the wedding or "give me away." It was a really hard thing for him and tough for me to make the decision to make my own self happy with the choices I made in my own ceremony. It was totally worth it. I would do it again.

      That being said, I find that my job is often to make sure the bride and groom don't have to feel that disappointment. I'm there to mediate but I'm also there to deflect. It is THEIR day.

      Being in the state of Georgia, I have not yet been afforded the priviledge of officiating a same sex wedding. I'm sure it will be vastly different than that which I've already performed and I'm looking forward to the unique challenges it will hold. #KeepCalmAndMarryOn indeed!

  6. I just wanted to say that I found this sentence quite profound, "I am needed to help guide the spoken words of things already understood, but too huge to say without help".

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