Not every relative or friend has what it takes to perform a meaningful, engaging ceremony.

By Blythe Copeland
April 17, 2020
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Inviting a close friend or family member to perform your marriage ceremony can add an incomparable personal element to your vows—if, of course, you ask the right person. The wrong officiant can leave you unhappy with your script, stressed on your wedding day, or scrambling for a last-minute replacement. Avoid any day-of drama by screening your potential officiants for these must-have traits, according to experts Reverend Laura Cannon of Ceremony Officiants and Charlie Kay of the Universal Life Church.

They're dependable.

For Cannon, the number one trait to look for in an officiant is reliability—and that doesn't just mean showing up for your ceremony on time. "You want to choose someone you know is going to follow through with doing the hard work of preparing and delivering the ceremony you want, and not back out at the last minute or halfheartedly throw together a script just to check it off their list," she says. "We get calls almost every week from couples who were going to use a friend or family member, and then they bail, leaving them scrambling to find a professional to do the job on short notice. If you think there's any chance the person you're considering is going to flake on you, then you should definitely consider someone else."

They'll do what you want.

If you're asking someone who knows you and your partner to officiate, it's most likely because you want your ceremony to be customized and personal—which means you need to ask someone who will pay attention to your requests and put their own ideas second. "A good officiant is a good listener," says Kay. "The ceremony they preside over is probably the most significant moment in the lives of the couple being joined. We always advise our ministers to meet with the couple before the wedding and learn what they want their special day to look like, and what the officiant can do to make the ceremony even more magical and meaningful for them."

If you ask an especially stubborn friend or family member, you may end up in the unfortunate situation of butting heads over how you want the ceremony to look or sound, causing friction that can last long after your sparkler sendoff. "Telling your close friend or relative, 'I don't care what you think, just do what we want' can be very awkward, and a strong difference in opinion can put all of you in the unenviable position of needing to 'fire' them as your officiant," says Cannon. "If you care about your wedding ceremony and have opinions about what you want to be said or how it feels to you and your guests, then you should hire a professional officiant."

They're not afraid of speaking in front of groups.

Though your officiant doesn't have to be a professional performer, you should make sure you ask someone who is comfortable with public speaking; since you and your partner are already likely to feel a little nervous, you don't want an officiant who will freeze in the moment. "Generally we think everyone could bring something special and unique to the big task of officiating a wedding," says Kay, "but we'd perhaps suggest that those who suffer from severe stage fright offer to help the couple in some other way, rather than risk derailing the ceremony for everyone when anxiety strikes."

Someone who goes the other direction—losing track of the text when flustered, or starting to improvise—can be just as upsetting. "The anxiety of being in front of a large group of people can make someone go 'off script' or crack nervous jokes, which can be disastrous," says Cannon. "Avoid anyone who clowns around a lot or makes irreverent jokes on a regular basis, unless that's what you want to happen during your ceremony." Her suggestions: elementary school teachers—"They're not afraid to speak in front of people, know how to project their voice, and are used to delivering a message that is decided by someone else"—or yoga teachers, who have similar public speaking skills, but also know how to "hold space for a large group of people, and are likely understand the spiritual aspect of leading a ceremony."

They're calm.

As the de facto leader of the most important part of your wedding day, your officiant should be calm under pressure, kind, and patient, say both experts. "Weddings are big productions involving a lot of moving pieces and people. Grooms, brides, and wedding planners all have a million decisions to make and questions to answer ahead of their big day," says Kay. "Officiants are encouraged to remain calm, polite, and understanding throughout the chaotic planning process." No matter how funny your college roommate is, or how well your childhood best friend knows you as a couple, if she or he tends toward stress when tensions are high, you're better off asking someone else. "Ideally, you want someone who is kind, patient, and resilient," says Cannon, "and someone who is capable of handling an emotionally charged situation without forcing things to be a certain way or falling apart when things don't go as planned."

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