An Unofficial Guide to Officiating a Wedding of “Nones”

Friday, January 23, 2015 - 5:14am
Photo by Joy Moody

An Unofficial Guide to Officiating a Wedding of “Nones”

I stood in front of about 200 expectant people. Their ear-to-ear grins seemed to warm the giant, damp barn. The rain came down outside, playing dumb to our big plans.

The music began — an instrumental piece composed by Nelson, the groom, for his bride, Katinka. Everyone turned to see them walk in. A giant, floppy golden retriever bound in instead — the official farm dog who had been chasing babies and eating dropped appetizers all weekend. Laughter echoed off the rafters.

Then Katinka, six months pregnant and radiant in a white, silk dress, and Nelson, handsome as ever, came strutting from different corners of the barn to meet in the middle. They joined hands and approached me. Katinka and I could have done a belly bump (I was just a couple of months behind her.) Instead we got down to the business of getting these two kind souls married off.

The scene was, in some ways, as old as time. Two young lovers, dressed beautifully, take vows in front of their family and friends. Celebration ensues. Drinks flow. Sublimely bad intergenerational dancing commences.

But look a bit closer and this scene is so thoroughly modern. The bride is pregnant and no one bats an eyelash. Even weirder, perhaps, the celebrant, ordained by the online-only Universal Life Church, is pregnant. And wearing a turquoise dress. With cowgirl boots.

The wedding ceremony has been thoroughly remade in the last decade by a generation of young people who don’t identify with a particular religious tradition. We crave ritual, but can’t abide by moralizing. We believe in the power of making promises in front of beloved witnesses. We delight in the idea that — in a time of obsolescence and disconnection — a ceremony like this weaves us into the larger, ancient tapestry of our two families. We obviously love a good party, but we don’t want to be married by a relative stranger.

My brother presided over my wedding. I presided over his. My dad married my best friend to her husband. I married Katinka and Nelson, and before that, my collaborator and bestie, Vanessa, to her partner, Aaron. In fact, of the dozens of weddings I’ve been to in the last five years — I’m of that glorious and expensive age when save-the-date mailings just keep on coming — I can only think of two where an official religious figure presided over the actual ceremony. More often, it’s a best friend, an admired uncle, a dear mentor.

For many of us who are tapped to officiate 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 (this resource was actually the most helpful one I found.) 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.

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).

Be specific. 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.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



I'm saddened by this trend in weddings. We do crave ritual, and I think very few people who are tapped to officiate the wedding of a loved one truly know how to meaningfully create it. That in and of itself is an issue: ritual, by definition, is something done repeatedly. When it is invented anew each time at a wedding, it sort of ceases to be ritual. My church required pre-marital counseling, and that shed another light on why I appreciate religious professionals doing weddings: It made me realize that there was so much more that went into our marriage than our wedding day. Spending time with a minister who not only was an expert on ritual but who also helped us look at our marriage, not just our wedding, was extremely meaningful.


I can understand why for individuals who were born (and lived) within the "circle" (whatever that circle is; Catholic, Jewish, heterosexual), anything that goes out of it might seem like a loss. I really do understand that because I think there is comfort in timeless consistency within the tribe. But for those of us that were born outside the "circle" and have felt as outsiders all of our lives, the opening of ideas and the reinventing of traditions to include who we are, it pretty affirming and wonderful. I do however respect the feeling of sadness you talked about.
My only hope is that, instead of loosing enriching rituals and traditions, that we are broadening the door so that more of us can be a part of them.

Julie, thank you for your well-written, respectful words. I'm a Baptist minister and applaud the creating of new, beautiful traditions that honor who God created the couple to be. I represent an interfaith and post-denominational affiliation of clergy who strive to serve the public. We craft ceremonies for each unique couple and prepare for the rest of their lives. Again, thank you for standing in the gap and encouraging all.

As a minister of Centers for Spiritual Living It has been my peaseure to officiate at hundreds of mariage ceremonies over the years. I write every ceremony for the articular couple. They are non religious, but deeply spiriitual, speaking of the path two souls take to find one another, the relevance of synchronicity and the wholeness osf each person It is always a joy and very persoanl.

Timely piece given my partner and I are considering asking a good friend to officiate our wedding, and I have recently been asked to do so for two good friends of ours. There's something beautiful about involving those who have loved and supported your relationship for years in the ceremony, especially the officiating. Thank you for this piece!


I think many people will relate to this, Courtney and I appreciate your considerations for officiants. Having a dear friend marry us was incredibly meaningful for us and also those in attendance. We had many people remark that it was the most intimate and personal ceremony they had ever been to. Not having a standard ritual to follow required authenticity, creativity and deep consideration. Certainly these qualities can be expressed in more traditional rituals as well. There are many ways to recognize sanctity in an event; some traditional, some not.

I especially appreciate your reminder that officiating is essentially holding a space. Even when attending a wedding, I find it refreshing to step out of my self-oriented world and devote my full attention to what is happening between and for the couple. Yes, this is very important for an officiant to be mindful of, but it is something that everyone in attendance can pay attention to as well. This is just one small example and opportunity for us to take responsibility for the environment we all create together.

Lest this begin to sound like too much hard work, I'll add that it is equally important (in my book) to let go and have a grand time when it's time to celebrate.

ceremony- lose yourself to the union, reception- lose yourself to the groove

Maybe not for everyone, but this has been my approach!

Your readers should know there is a whole community of officiants trained in ceremony and ritual and dedicated to offering personal, customized ceremonies. We believe everyone, regardless of belief systems, values, or gender orientation, have the right to meaningful ritual and ceremony. We are called Life-cycle Celebrants and are certified to do all kinds of ceremonies. See

I am a retired Pastor and you have described beautifully the state of where we are in our culture when it comes to a one of the most important life events in our lives. I don't know how many times couples would come to me to marry them and they really had no clue about the religious or spiritual meaning of marriage and I sensed that they really didn't care. But I would not marry couples who refused to go through a minimum of 3 weeks of pre-marriage counseling. That would eliminate some couples from choosing me as an officiant, but most found it to be a good way to start.

As a minister with Centers for Spiritual Living, an international New Thought organization, and co-author "Heartfelt Memorial Services" my co-author and I have followed that same train of thought where uniqueness and originality become part of the ritual. In addition, he and I are getting married on May 2! We will combine traditional and non-traditional to suit our tastes and personalities. One of my best friends will officiate. Our Wedding Party will be a casual blast with dancing and laughter. We are creating our own Ode to Joy!

I am part ofa"tribe"...we are Certified Life Cycle Celebrants. We are trained in the art if storytelling and ritual and co create ceremonies that are personal and incorporate àny and all elements the couple values. For many of us, this is our primary chosen work. You can learn more about this wonderful community at Celebrant Foundation & Institute.

I'm really, really glad couples feel empowered to create their own kind of ceremony and ask someone close to them officiate because, as the author says, "We don’t want to be married by a relative stranger."
I don't want to marry strangers either! :) And I want more couples to know they have the option of a ceremony every bit as personal, meaningful and contemporary officiated by a caring, connected, well-trained professional!

I find myself feeling defensive when I read this piece because I am a progressive Presbyterian minister who loves to do weddings. Not all clergy are tone-deaf moralizers! There are many of us out here who also believe in doing wedding ceremonies that are personal, spiritual and crafted to the couple getting married. AND who are very skilled with ritual. There's an art and craft to creating a profound and moving ritual and Uncle Bob, as beloved as he is, may not be the one to do it!

Well, you are not alone, Rachel. I'm also a PCUSA minister and love the time spent with a couple crafting a meaningful wedding ceremony. I have always gotten positive feedback and I've married a diverse number of couples who were both in and outside 'the church.' I find it unfortunate that, for whatever reason (being lumped with the religious right, assumed to be preachy, wary of God language) that many couples now would not think of me in their pursuit of a meaningful ritual that honors their particular perspective and their spirituality.

I, too, am a Presbyterian pastor, and I find some of the assumptions in this article disturbing. We do most (if not all) of the suggestions/tips she offers to officiants as a matter of course. Even if I don't know the couple well, I seek to get to know them so that their wedding service will be personal and intimate. And, as others have noted, we are trained and practiced at creating meaningful (even unique) ritual. I'm not sure what the author means by "moralizing", but what I appreciate about a "religious" service is the intentionality with which it connects what is happening in the particular couple's life with a much larger story, that their marriage is part of the broader community and will be shaped by and shape that community as well. Perhaps couples would rather believe their love is truly "unique", but for me, understanding marriage as something bigger than just two people gives both the marriage and the wedding much more significance. I hope the author will reconsider (or perhaps even discuss with clergy) some of her presumptions about what a "religious" service entails and means.

Since the topic points to "ways to be ordained," note that and are two different organizations. My personal observation is that the folks at (Seattle WA, founded sometime in the 21st century) hijacked/stole a good idea and name from (Modesto CA, founded 1959). I am ordained with the (Modesto) Universal Life Church, a humbler, quieter organization than its pretenders found on line.

I love this trend of customizing, sculpting and personalizing the events of our lives. For a great past period, we seemed to have been drawn to letting others design our work, lives and celebrations for us. What if we were more accountable for creating these for ourselves?We step bolding into owning our lives and into our true beings by creating what is meaningful to us. May we pull only from the traditions that inspire us and create more from that point - to add greater meaning and value to our moments. After all, it's our lives.

What wonderful guidance for any occasion, even meeting the day.
Thanks for pointing to our need for ritual and blessing.

As parents/caregivers we easily recognize this role and need with our children. Often lots of joys and losses even before lunch even arrives. This giving voice, discerning the names and context of an event with someone(s) can make all the difference in the world.

Courtney's reflections will be helpful to many. As one who attends many weddings, some done by my former clergy husband, I want to say that equating "religious" and "moralizing" makes little sense. The power of religious tradition and ritual does not have to be right-wing and moralistic. This assumption weakens the column. I hope Courtney will reconsider this merging of ideas.

Great and timely article, which brings back fond memories as I had the honor of marrying the daughter of one of our dearest friends.
When I said yes I added three conditions, two at the outset and one early in the process. The first was that they spend as much time crafting the ceremony as I knew that they would spend on the party… the dress, the food, the cake, the seating arrangements, the band, the music, the flowers. I had some familiarity with the pomp and circumstance as my three children are all married. The second requirement was that working with me, they owned the ceremony, every facet and word of it, including writing their own vows.
Early in the process as I was doing my own preparation to guide them, I realized that a critical element to any relationship is the ability to forgive. So, I asked them several times throughout the 6 or 7 months to take some time, reflect on their past, identify an incident and ask for forgiveness. The premise was, certainly you will make mistakes, hurt one another in the years ahead. If you practice forgiveness now, maybe it will be easier when it matters the most.
If anyone who reads this is looking for an excellent Christian-based book on marriage, I highly recommend, "The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God" by Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller.
We met often; the bride and groom made a true commitment to the ceremony and I was blessed.

No one needs an officiant! Over 35 years ago I exchanged vows directly with my current husband. Our friends and family gathered with us in a Quaker meeting for worship were our witnesses. It was one of the happiest hours of my life, surpassed only be being witness in the Quaker weddings of my two daughters. A marriage is between two people in the presence of God. THis is not to diss ordained officiants (Presbyterian or otherwise)just to say, they are not essential to this passage. PS: Self-uniting weddings, even for non-Quakers,are legal in 35 states though special licenses are sometimes necessary.

Two years I participated in a number of courses thought the National Celebrant Foundation. Civil Celebrants are people who are trained by the institute to officiate at, compose and perform the highest quality personalized ceremonies for couples, individuals and organizations. There are celebrants all over the country,
I have officiated at a large number of weddings, memorial services and adoption ceremonies.....and have loved carefully crafting ceremonies that honor the people and the occasion,

I have to admit that I am torn on this trend to have people become officiants by getting an on-line license. On the one hand, I see the great value in having a dear friend lead a bride and groom through this ritual of joining themselves in marriage. I also agree that ritual is important in our lives and I applaud people who are mature enough to know that if they aren't religious, they don't have to go through a religious ceremony just because that's the way it was done. On the other hand, I went to two weddings last summer where each officiant got their license on line and it showed. Neither of them put the thought or affection into the ceremony that Ms. Martin did. Each of them actually seemed to act like this was just a game and one of them forgot to put anything into the ceremony about exhanging the rings. This one in particular seemed to want to officiate so that he could be center stage.

In addition, I am an ordained minister and I am trained to officiate. Though I am ordained in the Christian tradition, I don't mind doing non-religious ceremonies and/or non-Christian ceremonies and I don't insist on pre-marital counseling though I do recommend it. I know that I am supposed to be calm and supportive. I know what the resources are to personalize a wedding and I know how to find other resources when necessary. I put time and effort into earning a degree and a license that allows me to do this and I think that that has value as well.

If everyone who gets their license on line puts the time and care and affection into planning something beautiful for people they love that Ms. Martin did, I don't really have a problem with it. But I hope that when people consider becoming an officiant for their friends that they take it seriously because this is a precious moment in any couple's lives and it only happens once.

Joy. I share some of your reservations. I dislike the " get ordained on line in five minutes" practice. I think it's disrespectful to those who have put in years if seminary training , I have appreciated the work of the National Celebrant Foundation. Their courses are substantial, and their certification process is very worthwhile and credible,
The State of New Jersey has now included " certified celebrants" among those who can legitimately officiate at weddings. They are now working in other states to have trained celebrants acknowledged.
I think this is one way to address your concerns,

I do agree that making religion and moral values an equal is misguiding and misinformed. Perhaps as time changes the who's, how's and what's of the wedding day may vary although I hope they remain connected to the values and hopes for the individual and the couple. I also hope that the leader in such a special and life changing events is skilled and trained enough to facilitate the understanding of marriage and the resources avaiable to sustain it. The wedding is a fantastic day but the marriage is much more than that... what would be the role of the new officiants in supporting not the wedding but the marriage and all the complexities that come with it? Interesting discussion...