A Basic Wedding Ceremony Outline for Planning the Order of Your I Dos

bride and groom during wedding ceremony outside under floral arch
Photo: Ryan Ray

From the moment the guests arrive and take their seats to the exit strategy for everyone involved, a wedding ceremony requires a fair amount of choreography in order to run smoothly. One way to ensure your day goes as well as possible is by creating a wedding ceremony outline. Here, we walk you through the basic timeline before breaking it down into the specifics for some of the most popular types of ceremonies: Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, and nondenominational. Of course, you may choose to conduct your ceremony in a different way (after all, it's your big day!), but be sure to ask the officiant if they are amenable to changes before finalizing your plans.

The last thing you or anyone on your big day needs is a lack of communication. Without a plan, there's a good chance your families and bridal party won't know where everyone should be when it comes time to say "I do." While some aspects of your wedding ceremony outline will depend on your venue, party size, and type of religious service (should you choose to have one), there are a number of traditional wedding details that are fairly standard, no matter what type of ceremony you're planning. Take the fact that people are gathering for the ceremony, for example. Whether or not your wedding plans have changed due to COVID, figuring out all the details—like who sits in what seat, where the bridal party should be at any given moment, and whose parents walk down the aisle first—should be done ahead of the ceremony. And while you can leave some of this up to the organic unfolding of the day, you'll want to plan as much out as you can to ensure everything goes as well as possible.

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Seating the Guests

outdoor wedding setup with rows of chairs and a floral archway
Josh and Dana Fernandez

The first order of business at any ceremony is quite natural: guiding guests to their seats. Have your ushers start escorting guests up to 30 to 45 minutes before the ceremony begins. This can be timed to coincide with the music start time or the arrival of transportation. Ushers should assign places as the guests arrive, from front rows to back, with the exception of the parents and any special guests for whom seats are reserved.

At a traditional Christian wedding or a large civil ceremony, the bride's family and friends are seated on the left and the groom's on the right. At a traditional Jewish wedding, the bride's side is on the right and the groom's is on the left. Mark off the first few rows with flowers or ribbon as seating for immediate family and special guests (such as the flower girl's and ring bearer's parents, someone giving a reading, and close relatives). Ask divorced parents how they'd like to be seated during the ceremony. They may choose to sit together in the front row, but if one or both parents are remarried, or your parents are not on good terms, consider asking one to sit in the first row and the other immediately behind them in the second.

02 of 13

Seating the Parents

parents of bride and groom sitting on wedding ceremony bench
Ryan Ray

The final guests to be seated at Christian ceremonies are, in this order: grandparents, mother of the groom (with father walking just behind), and mother of the bride. At Jewish ceremonies, the parents enter with the bride and stand under the chuppah during the ceremony; stepparents may sit in the aisle seats in the second and third rows or stand under the chuppah if they are very close to the bride or groom.

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The Processional

flower girl holding large wicker basket
Lisa Zeising of Abby Jiu Photography

Just before the procession begins, the officiant takes their place, with the groom to the left, and, if not entering with the rest of the bridal party, the best man to the groom's left, all three facing the guests. The ushers may also stand at the front, or they may start the procession, walking in pairs.

The second group to enter should be the bridesmaids, and they may or may not be escorted by groomsmen or ushers, if those attendants haven't already entered. The honor attendant (maid or matron of honor) is the last of the bridesmaids to enter, sometimes alone and sometimes on the arm of the best man.

If a ring bearer and a flower girl participate, they should enter third. They are the last ones down the aisle before the bride. Finally, the lady of honor arrives. At Christian services, she is escorted by her father, on his left arm, while at Jewish ceremonies, she is traditionally escorted by both her mother and father. Today, whether Jewish or not, the bride often asks her mother to join in the walk down the aisle.

Couples having civil ceremonies can customize to their preferences or circumstances. For example, some same-sex couples might choose to process together, from either side of the venue or one after the other, either escorted by a parent or not. It's also important to note that a Jewish wedding procession is largely the same as a processional for a Christian service, except that grandparents, the groom's parents, and the bride's mother all join the processional. The rabbi and the cantor often lead it.

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The Welcome

bride looking at groom during wedding ceremony
Mo Davis Photography

Once everyone is present and in their proper places, the officiant generally offers an address to establish the reason for the gathering. Depending on the style of your ceremony, this speech may be short and sweet or include a combination of prayers, readings, anecdotes, or declarations of intent.

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The Vow Exchange

wedding couple exchanging rings in church
Julia Kaptelova Photography

Here comes the important part: Consider the promises you make to one another—whether handwritten or borrowed from a book—the main event.

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The Exchange of Rings

vivian roland wedding ceremony couple
Chad Munro

When you both have spoken your peace, the officiant should prompt you to exchange rings, usually by asking you to repeat a phrase like "With this ring, I thee wed," or "(Name), take this ring as a sign of my love."

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The Closing Remarks

bride and groom exchanging vows during backyard wedding ceremony
Sanaz Photography

The priest, minister, rabbi, or officiant may now give a blessing or a few words of conclusion.

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The Pronouncement of Marriage

wedding ceremony kiss with floral and greenery backdrop
Carlie Statsky

With promises made and rings exchanged, it's now time for the officiant to formally declare your union ("I now pronounce you [man] and [wife]") and ask you to seal the deal with a kiss ("You may now kiss the bride").

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The Recessional

caitlin amit wedding couple recessional
Sally Pinera

Following your kiss, walk (or maybe dance!) up the aisle as a newly wedded couple. The bridal party exits shortly behind you. Then, the guests are dismissed, usually by row.

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Catholic Ceremony Outline

Bride and Groom at Ceremony Altar
Corbin Gurkin

Here's a rundown of what to expect at a Catholic mass. First and foremost, know that these services are usually one hour long. Want it shorter? Have your choir or song leader recite prayers instead of singing them to save about 10 minutes.

  • Processional: Ceremonial entrance of the priest and bridal party.
  • Hymn: A starting poem to praise God, either spoken or sung by the priest.
  • Opening Prayer: A greeting to everyone and/or prayer by the priest.
  • Old Testament Reading: An Old Testament passage of your choice shared aloud by the reader of your choice (couples often choose an excerpt from the Book of Genesis).
  • Responsorial Psalm: An excerpt (usually sung by a song leader and the congregation) from the Book of Psalms in response to the Old Testament Reading.
  • New Testament Reading: A reading of your choice from the New Testament, shared by the person of your choice.
  • Gospel: An excerpt from one of the apostles in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
  • Homily: A sermon from the priest based on the gospel and usually pertaining to your impending marriage.
  • Rite of Marriage: The vow ceremony, blessing and exchange of rings, and an optional Unity Candle lighting.
  • Lord's Prayer: Recitation of "Our Father" together with the congregation.
  • Sign of Peace: A moment to shake hands with neighbors and offer them peace and blessings.
  • Communion: An offering of communion to bride and groom, followed by the bridal party and the rest of the guests. (Only those who are Catholic should participate in this portion, though non-Catholic attendants and guests may come forward for a blessing instead.)
  • Blessing and Dismissal: A formal blessing and introduction of the newly wedded couple by the priest before dismissing.
  • Recessional: The bride and groom, priest, and bridal party exit the church.

You can also ask your priest to add the Prayer of the Faithful as a significant way to honor family members who have passed.

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Jewish Wedding Ceremony Layout

bride and groom breaking glass under chuppah during wedding ceremony
Hunter Ryan Photo

Jewish services usually go as follows, and will take roughly 30 minutes. Want it shorter? The only absolute requirement is the signing of the Ketubah, so you can select what else you want to weave in.

  • Ketubah: Signing of the marriage contract.
  • Badeken: Veiling of the bride.
  • Chuppah Ceremony: The bride and groom move under the canopy, which represents the couple's new home and life together.
  • Kiddushin: Circling and exchanging of rings.
  • Sheva Brachot: Seven blessings; breaking of the glass.
  • Yichud: Couple's alone time before the reception.

To personalize your ceremony, appoint a friend to collect the broken pieces of sheva brachot glass, which you can have hand-blown into a piece of art.

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Hindu Wedding Lineup

bride and groom performing traditional ritual during hindu ceremony
Bonnie Sen

At Hindu weddings, which generally take about three hours (to make it shorter, cut anything but the Seven Steps—without it, the marriage isn't valid), the ceremony traditionally includes the following:

  • Ganesh Puja: Prayer to dispel all evils.
  • Baraat: Arrival of the groom.
  • Parchan: Arrival of the bride.
  • Kanyadaan: Giving the daughter away.
  • Gathbandhan: Tying the knot.
  • Mangal fera: Walking around the fire.
  • Saptapadi: Seven Steps.
  • Saubhagya Chinha: Blessing the bride.
  • Aashirvaad: Blessings.
  • Viddai: The bride's departure.

Place a coconut under the wheel of your getaway car, a modern update on the tradition of a carriage driving over the fruit to test its strength.

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Nondenominational Service Order

Jose Villa

And finally, most nondenominational ceremonies, which take about 30 minutes but can easily be shortened, follow this outline.

  • Processional: Entrance of the wedding party.
  • Welcome: Opening remarks from the officiant.
  • Readings: Opportunity to share meaningful passages.
  • Officiant's Address: A speech by the person leading the ceremony
  • Declaration of Intent: Also known as the "I dos."
  • Vows: Promises to one another, either handwritten or selected.
  • Exchange of Rings: Ceremonial giving of the sign of love and loyalty.
  • Blessing or Closing Remarks: Final words from the officiant.
  • Pronouncement: Official declaration of marriage.
  • Recessional: The exit of the bride, groom, and bridal party.

You can also get creative by having loved ones stand up and give marriage advice.

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