For many of us who are tapped to officiate a wedding for a couple of dear friends, it is our first experience designing a ritual, not to mention one so important. We take to the trusty Internet for answers, but find little. We can’t look to previous generations for wisdom, as most of them were either married by a religious figure by choice or obliged by their parents. To help fill in the gap, here are a few of the practices I’ve picked up along the way or created whole cloth.
Before you officiate a wedding, consider having both partners write you a letter in advance
This letter can address a range of questions: Why do you want to get married? Why do you want to get married to this person, in particular? What is your relationship to marriage, more generally? What marriages have you witnessed and learned from in your own family?
This is great for a couple of reasons: first and foremost, the assignment to write the letter disrupts what can otherwise become a very transactional planning process. In the lead up, the to do list — chockfull of expensive, stressful choices — can sometimes begin to feel like it is the marriage. Writing the letter reminds both partners that the marriage is the marriage, and it’s the most important thing (not whether Aunt Joy is going to bring her boyfriend who you’ve never actually met).
So the letter serves the couple, but it also serves the officiant. You can draw on the letter when you write your remarks, confident that you’ll be able to weave in some special details about how the pair sees and describes one another and/or some sense of the partnerships they’ve witnessed that most inspire them (a huge honor to those present).
As you write your ceremony script, be specific. If you're going to officiate a wedding, you must provide telling details.
This is the stuff of good writing and a wedding ceremony, it turns out, is no exception. Particularly at larger weddings, there will be people in the audience that don’t actually know the couple as well as they’d like to. Really help them understand the magic of these two humans and their connection through anecdotes — not “they were so in love” but “they are known to ride the subway while sharing one pair of headphones, left bud in his ear, right bud in hers, heads leaned together as they listen to some obscure hip hop album from the mid 90s.”
Beyond the words you choose, the most important thing you can do: be a calming, grounded force on the day of the wedding. So many details threaten to de-center the real work of the day — to be present, to be grateful, to express love, such a rare and vulnerable thing, in front of a community. Be the rock.
If you’re nervous, pretend you’re not.
Nobody needs your nerves. Bring the Dad, who’s acting difficult because he doesn’t have the words for what he’s feeling, a little whiskey and encourage him to zip his lip. Tell the anxious mother she looks stunning. Pretend it’s not raining — or call attention to its inarguable beauty. Focus on your friends. Show up to the rare weight of that moment when they stand in front of you. Take a deep breath. Feel how they’ve honored you. Speak from that place of awe.
I began thinking (read: stressing) about the ceremony months before it happened. I collected lots of material (more on that next), then wrote and rewrote many drafts. I turned ideas over in my head and tried different angles on the ideas I wanted to convey. As with any piece of writing, the material evolves and improves significantly the more you work on it. This is especially true for a new type of oration that you've never done before.
Collect unique stories.
This is by far the most important one — get a ton of material specific to the couple. Talk to them about how they met, what they like about one another, funny memories. Talk to their friends. Try and meet their families and get a sense for where they came from. I had never met the bride's family, so I flew to their home in Seattle and had a wonderful time getting to know her hometown and upbringing.
The key here is to get specific, humorous stories about your friends. The uncomfortable truth is that, unless you're a poet, it's hard to talk about the Meaning of Love in a way that resonates with 180 people. (If the couple wanted musings on the eternal power of love, they would have asked their rabbi to officiate a wedding.) As a friend of the couple, your wheelhouse is going to be describing them in an entertaining way: What makes your friends so special? What are their most distinctive qualities that you can gently tease? Did they meet in a particularly humorous way? Does he have an annoying habit that only she can tolerate, that you can gently tease him about?
Tactically, I chose to gather a lot of anecdotes, then try different themes to weave them together. I ended up talking about how Opposites Attract, and telling 3-4 stories per person contrasting their different qualities. You should of course pick a theme that resonates with your couple, but a series of funny stories can really anchor a ceremony.
Talk to the couple.
Ask them questions about their preferences: length of ceremony, seriousness, religion, specific traditions to incorporate, family members to recognize, etc. Beyond specifics, try and understand the mood and feeling they want: a serious and important tribute to timeless love, or a quirky and informal gathering of friends.
One big thing to ask them: How surprised do they want to be? Some couples want veto power on every line of the ceremony; Others want to direct the broad strokes but hear the details for the first time at the ceremony.
Regardless of their desire for surprise, you should make sure to ask about risqué jokes or references. Once I had a draft I was happy with, I picked out the jokes most likely to make the couple uncomfortable and got line-item approval.
Know your audience.
This was the best piece of advice I was given: Remember who you're talking to here. For most weddings, it's a moment for the couple, and their parents. Yes there are friends and extended relatives there, but you're not playing to the whole crowd. It's tempting to try and impress your college friends with a winking reference to that one Spring Break trip from college. Don't.
Keep it short.
This is more as a wedding guest than officiant, but the #1 ceremony sin is going on too long. Ask the couple how long of a ceremony they want and shoot for that, and when in doubt: err short and cut your mediocre material. Closely related:
Have an editor.
Have a trusted friend read the ceremony draft and give feedback. Bonus points if they are a good writer or professional wordsmith. They should primarily be looking out for structure, length and timing: Did the transitions between sections make sense? Was anything redundant? Did a certain part drag or feel boring? If a section isn't working, cut it. If a joke is too hard to land, drop it. Do this a few times over, as you iterate on drafts.
This is just general public speaking advice, but remember that the delivery is a huge part of the package. Once you have a near-final draft, practice the shit out of it. Get your comedic timing down. Perform for friends and gauge their reaction. Talk twice as slowly as you think you need to.
One extra thing I did was try and simulate the nervousness I knew I'd feel. I'm not an experienced public speaker, so I knew that going from rehearsing by myself straight to the real deal in front of 150 guests was going to terrify me. So I took the interim step of rehearsing in front of my girlfriend's parents: They were a new audience (and my girlfriend's parents!) so were slightly intimidating, so I was able to practice while nervous. That helped me ramp up the performance anxiety towards the real day.
Relax: You're the home team.
For most weddings, everyone in attendance is a close friend of the couple, elated to be witnessing their marriage, and there to share in the celebration. They're not looking to critique your word choice, point out logical flaws, or jump on you for mistakes. So relax, enjoy the moment. If something doesn't go according to plan (and it never does), crack a joke and roll with it.
Enjoy! If you're choosing to officiate a wedding, it's a huge amount of work, but it's an amazing opportunity to be a part of very special moment in a couple's life.