How to Officiate a Wedding: Tips for a Meaningful Ceremony

So you've been asked to officiate a wedding. Now what? We've got the tips you need to make the day memorable.

Published March 29, 2023
person officiating a wedding

It's a Friday night, you may be a few drinks in, and your old childhood friend asks you the dreaded question, "Can you officiate my wedding for me?" Put on the spot, you absolutely can't say no (or at least, the fear of letting your friend down tells you that you can't.) So, now you're a few months out of leading a wedding for the first time, and you've got no idea what to do. Thankfully, officiating a wedding isn't rocket science, and so long as you follow this guide, you'll preside over a ceremony to be remembered.

How to Become a Wedding Officiant

In the United States, there are two main ways you can become a wedding officiant. The first is by being an ordained religious official, and the second is by getting your officiant's license. According to ordained Student Ministry Pastor Matthew Cooper, "There are some specific [states] where you have to be certified and go through the [licensing] process" in addition to being ordained.

Get Ordained

A popular ordination pick for many people is The Universal Life Church, which touts you can "become a minister within seconds." Celebrities like Conan O'Brien and Paul McCartney have used Universal Life Church to become ordained specifically to officiate a wedding.

Check the Requirements in Your State

Every state has different requirements for who has the legal right to officiate weddings, and every licensing or ordination process can take variable lengths of time. Because there's a myriad of places online that offer fast licensing/ordination services, you should do significant research on any organizations you pick.

For example, Virginia requires that you register with the county clerk's office after completing your ordination to be able to legally marry someone.

What Are Your Friends Really Asking You to Do?

If your best friend is bright-eyed and a few pints in and proclaims to you that they want you to marry them and their fiancé, what are they really asking you to do? Being a wedding officiant can be as little as reading a few scripted lines and signing a document or two and as much as meeting with your couple over multiple occasions and giving a personalized, 30-minute speech.

Time Commitment and Responsibilities

Being an officiant isn't as simple as doing an online ordination 15 minutes before the ceremony. When you sign on to be a wedding officiant, there are multiple tasks you'll be asked to accomplish:

  • Communicate with the couple over the location, time, and what style of ceremony they want.
  • Collect the necessary paperwork to lead the ceremony.
  • Plan the different ceremony steps (opening words, vows, exchanging of rings, etc.) and discuss them with the couple.
  • Attend the rehearsal to go over the ceremony in-person.
  • Show up to the wedding venue ahead of schedule.
  • Preside over the entire ceremony.

Major Things to Avoid When Officiating for the First Time

groomsman checking watch

Everyone is rooting for you to do an awesome job at officiating, but you have to give yourself a fighting chance by putting in the work and avoiding these rookie mistakes.

Not Double Checking the Legal Requirements in Your State

We can't suggest this enough, but you absolutely need to check your state's laws to make sure you've crossed your t's and dotted your i's. This includes making sure your ordination paperwork has been fully processed before the ceremony.

Listening to Anyone Other Than the People Getting Married

Well-meaning parents, best friends, and distant relatives can want to jump in with their ideas about how they think the wedding should go. As Pastor Cooper attests, "I defer to the bride and groom. It's not anyone's wedding other than the [couple's]." Make sure you're being polite but firm with any family members or friends who give you direction. You can thank them for their suggestions, but remind them that you're there to follow the couple's wishes.

Showing Up Without Practicing

Even seasoned professionals need a little practice. Whether it's your first or your 50th wedding, you should compile your speeches ahead of time, and do a trial run or two of the ceremony. It'll give you the chance to work out the kinks. You'll be so familiar with the material that you'll be prepared to moderate any unexpected faux pas.

Not Showing Up Ahead of Schedule

If you're officiating a wedding, then showing up to the wedding early is an absolute must. Without you, there's literally no ceremony, so you don't want to hold up all the other events (photographs, reception, dances, etc.) because you got caught in traffic thinking "its only 20 minutes away so if I leave 45 minutes before it starts, I can definitely make it in time."

Tips for Making a Wedding Unique From Behind the Podium

wedding ceremony

The best part of being asked to officiate a friend or family member's wedding is getting the chance to get creative and collaborate to manifest the ceremony of their dreams. As with anything you're starting for the first time, you might need some inspiration for how people actually do that.

Ask the Couple if They Have Any Requests

In Pastor Cooper's experience, asking the soon-to-be-wedded what their preferences are is a great way to start. "I want the couple to have a wedding that fits them. So if they're like, "Hey, I want it to be kind of unique," that's fine." They might want you to come in with a specific outfit, use a particular nickname for each other, or read a cute passage from their favorite book to open the ceremony. Let the couple be a huge resource for customizable ideas.

Start With an Outline

Work from an outline to plan the ceremony and all the various parts. You can start with a traditional ceremony outline, and then work with the couple to decide which parts they want included, what they don't want, and when/where to add anything else they'd like to have in their ceremony.

Personalize a Basic Script

As you plan for the important parts of the ceremony, you can start with a script for the declaration of intent, vows, and ring exchange, and then work with the couple to personalize them.

Make the Ceremony Feel Personalized

If you don't know the couple that intimately and don't have the time to accumulate years of inside jokes, try this simple exercise from Pastor Cooper. "So what I do is ask them questions that they have to answer independently of each other. Once they send them back to me, I work those answers into the ceremony."

It's a quick way to give you some guidance about what references to make or jokes to tee up. And it's not too high an effort that the couple won't feel inclined to participate with you.

Open or Close With a Beloved Passage

Opening and closing a wedding can be the hardest part. The middle is basically laid out for you with the "do you take this person to be your lawfully wedded partner" thing. If your nerves are ratcheting up over how you can segue from the bride walking down the aisle into your role, you can take command using someone else's words.

Ask the couple about a passage from a book, speech, or even song that connects to them on an emotional level. Thank the audience for coming and let them know that you'd like to start with an important passage from (name of couple). Now you've broken the tension and calmed your nerves. And you can use the words in that paragraph as inspiration for jumping off into the next section.

Collaborate With Family and Friends

If you've got a tight-knit wedding audience, then one way you can incorporate them is by collaborating. Ask best friends, old college buddies, and great aunts for stories about each of the people getting married. You'll be shocked at just how much you can use from their stories to craft a really personalized and funny, speech.

Remember It's Not About You

Ultimately, the day is about the couple. You're there as a facilitator, and they're the stars of the show. So keep any remarks and anecdotes about the couple and not about you.

Officiating Is Supposed to Be Fun

Think of officiating a wedding like being asked to MC a stand up night or DJ at a nightclub. You're there to make the crowd feel welcomed, the stars of the night feel at ease, and help everyone go home a little happier than when they walked in. So long as you do the necessary prep work and practice your lines, the wedding will go off without a hitch.

How to Officiate a Wedding: Tips for a Meaningful Ceremony