Reverend Katherine is here to help guide us in ceremony planning and all the questions that will shape it into a celebration of YOU.
You just got engaged. Every other picture on your Pinterest is color schemes or a checklist or a timeline for expensive details that mostly go along with the big party that you're about to throw.
But in my experience, as both a wedding officiant and a right-in-the-midst-of-it bride, there's not much guidance for thinking about the ceremony itself. What even is a wedding? What's it for? And how do you go about planning the part of your wedding where you actually get married?
If you're a member of a religious community, this part may be straightforward. The religious officiant will tell you what goes into a service, and you just have to decide to assent to those things. But if your traditions are more in-flux or if you want a much more personal ceremony, you may have some work to do.
Having guided a lot of couples — not to mention my fiancée — through the process of planning a wedding, here are my top seven questions to get you going on a personalized wedding ceremony that reflects your relationship…
What does marriage mean to you?
Brainstorm with your partner what words come up when you think of marriage. Delve into each idea you come up with. What does partnership entail? How do you balance being an autonomous person with being part of a team? What does it mean to act like a soulmate or a beloved or a spouse or a partner?
Exploring your images of marriage together will help you think about what it is you hope to vow to one another.
For lots of couples, the immediate answer to, “Why engagement?” is “Because it seemed like the next thing you do.” Figure out what the next layer down is and use that to help guide the feel of your ceremony. “Because our relationship is now financially secure enough to support a big party” will lead you to a different place than, “Because our love has felt permanent to me forever and I want to name that and mark it in a big way” or even, “Because I know commitment is really hard and I want a public declaration so that we have a community to support us in it.”
What does marriage mean to those who matter to you?
If you and your partner drew a blank on the first two questions, try this. Seek out married couples you know, both newlyweds and old timers. Ask them what they love about being married and what they struggle with.
If you're feeling brave, talk to some folks whose marriages have ended, too. Ask them how they envisioned their marriages, what didn't measure up, and what they learned from the experience.
Take notes on what these folks say and how it makes you feel — words, sentences, pictures, whatever works. Reflect on your notes with your partner. Talk about what you want to emulate and ways you'd like to set a counterexample.
Is marriage what you want?
Amid engagement rings and announcements and talking about themes, it can be really difficult to allow yourselves to ask this question. Among all the couples I know whose marriages have continued and those whose marriages have ended, none has told me “I wish we had spent less time talking about what we really wanted together.” So give yourselves permission to ask this question, gently but clearly.
This is also a good time to mention pre-marital counseling. At about $100 a session, speaking with someone who can help you and your partner build a strong foundation of communication skills is a good investment for all couples (and likely the cheapest part of your wedding planning).
If marriage isn't for you, now's the time to figure that out. You can still have a big party! Or consider a commitment ceremony that doesn't pretend permanence but reflects the relationship you do envision.
What does a wedding look like to those we love?
You've decided marriage is for you — yay! If part of your reason for a wedding is the community of support you want to build, then it's helpful to take those people's hopes into account. And it's helpful to consider the cultural influences that shape your vision of a wedding.
You might start by asking those closest to you what they think is essential and why. I can't promise that this conversation won't lead to a relative saying something mean or catty or prejudiced. But it might also help you understand something really lovely about them.
Maybe your dad insists on giving you away because feels like he's grown distant from you and wants to participate in this important moment of your life. In that case, you can incorporate him (and maybe others) into the ceremony in a way that honors his love while eschewing the patriarchal yuck. Maybe your mom really wants a traditional blessing in order to honor your late grandmother, but you don't want to pray to someone you don't believe in. Knowing your loved ones' kinder motivations will help you choose and remake traditions to honor their love while maintaining your integrity.
What might a wedding look like for us?
Once you've considered the traditions that have shaped you, which ones you'd like to claim, and which you'd like to leave aside, you can think about the things unique to your partnership. Think about moments when you and your partner have felt something sacred. How might you bring others into that moment? Think about the cultural influences that shape the language you use with one another. If your endearments are peppered with MineCraft references or West Wing quotes, it can be fun and true to reflect that personality in your ceremony. From a full-length reading to a phrase tucked into your vows, there are lots of ways to reflect your back story.
Music is also important to consider here. I talk to many people who have a zillion ideas for first dances and entrance songs for their receptions, but no thoughts at all on the ceremony. If there are songs that mean a lot to you and your partner, consider including music in the service, whether as your processional/recessional, a hymn/sing-along, or just a quiet moment for you two to stand and gaze at one another.
Who can help?
This can be overwhelming. If communicating about feelings in words doesn't come naturally to you and your partner, you may want to enlist the help of a trusted friend who can facilitate your conversation — ideally without weighing in on it.
This is also where a good wedding officiant can be really helpful. Any justice of the peace or officiant friend can get you legally married. But they may not always be able to help you balance family traditions with individual convictions. And it can be really helpful to have a voice of calm authority in the room when you're really nervous about something really important.
And yes, you can absolutely pull from wedding scripts on the internet. But sometimes the result will be a little bit jumbled — an Apache blessing with Doctor Who vows that sounded pretty, when neither you nor your partner is Native American or Whovian. An experienced wedding officiant can help you pull together elements you love into a unified ceremony with meaningful rituals, carefully considered words, and a strong emotional arc from beginning to end.
Here's our archive of ceremony advice to continue your process!