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Hiring a Wedding Officiant

Martha Stewart Weddings, Volume 8 1999

The officiant you choose can enrich your overall wedding experience and help you prepare for married life. Getting to know your officiant and discussing what you can expect from each other will help eliminate unnecessary anxiety on your wedding day.

Where to Start The first thing to decide before beginning to look for an officiant is whether the ceremony will be religious or civil. A religious ceremony, performed by an ordained officiant such as a priest, rabbi, or minister, is recognized not only by the state, but also by the affiliated religion. A civil ceremony is performed by an officiant who has been certified in accordance with state laws -- a county clerk, justice of the peace, mayor, or celebrant affiliated with a nonreligious organization such as the American Ethical Union or the American Humanist Association.

A wedding planner will often have a list of officiants she has worked with and can pass those names along. The couple should take note of friends' services they've enjoyed and ask them for references as well.

Timing Be sure to book an officiant as early as possible, contacting him or her up to a year in advance and scheduling meetings for six months and 10 days before the wedding. Booking early will put your mind at ease; also, many religions require or strongly suggest that a couple attend premarital counseling sessions, which can start well before the wedding.

Etiquette While there is no obligation to invite the officiant to the rehearsal dinner or reception, many couples choose to do so, especially if they have a close relationship with him or her. If the officiant is included, be sure to send a formal invitation and invite his or her spouse as well; traditionally, they are seated in a position of honor at the parents' table at both occasions.

For a Religious Ceremony Any clergyperson who officiates will want the couple's interests to be deep-seated and to extend beyond the architecture of the church. If the couple practices the same religion and are members of a church or synagogue, then the choice of officiant is probably clear. Someone who is not a member of a church or synagogue can find a clergyperson by calling local churches and a religion's national headquarters for referrals.

What to Ask

During the first meeting with a religious officiant, start by asking questions about his or her approach to the service and what the ceremony will entail -- whether there will be a speech or a sermon, and whether the couple can offer input on the subject. Should the couple choose to add some personal touches to the ceremony, such as writing their own vows, they can ask the officiant for suggestions and advice.

Religious Officiant Budget

If either the bride or groom is a member of the congregation, the couple may not need to pay a fee to be married by a clergyperson. It is appropriate, however, to give him or her a gift of appreciation and gratitude. For nonmembers, the fee for a religious officiant can range from $100 to $250, especially if there are prenuptial meetings. Payment is expected for all of the officiant's travel expenses. Sometimes the fee for having the wedding at a house of worship is taken in the form of a donation, which can range from $50 to $1,000. It is customary for the best man to hand over the payment immediately after the ceremony.

For an Interfaith Marriage Not too long ago, it was nearly impossible to find an ordained officiant to perform an interfaith ceremony. Today, although there are some hurdles, the climate for an interfaith ceremony is much warmer. Many clergy will perform this type of ceremony alone, or with an officiant of another faith. Couples who are met with resistance from within their own religions can turn to a third, more liberal religion, such as the Unitarian Universalist Association, which is supportive of interfaith marriages across any lines, regardless of whether the bride or groom is a member of its church. Some couples choose to celebrate their vows in the tradition of both religions and have two ceremonies, in which case only the date of one and one signature will appear on the official wedding certificate.

For a Civil Ceremony A nonreligious ceremony can be just as expressive as a religious one. If it has been cleared with the officiant, the couple may write their own vows and incorporate readings, music, and themes into the ceremony. Exactly who qualifies to be a certified officiant varies from state to state, so be sure to check with the local marriage-license bureau for its rules. Some government officials may perform weddings outside government offices, but the rules for this also vary widely, so check with the local government to find out what is permissible.

Civil Officiant Budget

The cost of having a judge, a county clerk, or another government official perform the ceremony depends on the locality. The fee may vary if the officiant goes to the site, or if the ceremony takes place at a city hall. As for a religious service, it is customary for the best man to hand over payment after the ceremony.