The Wondrous and Womanly World of Officiating Weddings
Reflections on the highs and lows of the unconventional job of celebrating and solemnizing love in a complex world.
During the summer of 2014, I began a new career as a non-denominational and secular wedding officiant in Savannah, Georgia. To be honest, officiating weddings was my Hail Mary pass during a challenging period in my life, an attempt to make extra money on the weekends doing something I guessed I might like while I figured out what was next. That risk unexpectedly birthed a growing company that includes three partner officiants and a wedding chapel, and most importantly, it was the beginning of one of the grandest adventures of my life.
Together, my officiants and I have married hundreds of couples (823 as of July 7th, to be exact!) since then, from all corners of the world and every walk of life. Every morning when I leave my house to go to work, my husband tells me to go and “marry all the people,” and every day, I try my best to do exactly that and kick ass while doing it.
What does it mean to marry all the people? It means giving everyone who wants a dignified route to marriage that opportunity, whether it is an intimate marriage license signing or a ceremony with 200 of their closest friends. Before I had private space, I married hundreds of couples in a local coffee shop while we all sipped beverages. The only request among them all had been to keep it simple.
Some days, I might marry an 18 year-old soldier and his bride in the morning and in the afternoon, officiate a wedding for a 72-year-old widow who finally met someone else who made her heart flutter. Other days, I may marry two women in their 50s who met while incarcerated, both pregnant, and later perform a ceremony for two young women, who arrive in their favorite flowery dresses and best Converse ready to elope after becoming frustrated with traditional wedding planning.
And sometimes, my weekend involves managing an elaborate ceremony with hundreds of guests that features bagpipes and a miniature horse, or dressing as Wonder Woman to officiate a marriage under the authority of the Lasso of Truth.
I find the diversity of my couples addictive and thrilling. It is what keeps me excited to do this every day and all day. I store every ceremony I have ever prepared in an Evernote notebook, accessible from my ceremony tablet, itself protected in a blue-green case that says “Love and Forever.” When I arrive at a wedding, I bring the combined vibrancy and energy of every couple that came before them inside that notebook and device. It’s a mass of love in text form that grows under my maintenance and care.
On the surface, I am not someone who seems like she loves weddings, never mind even tolerates them. If you knew me when I made my career change, you’d have thought it was an odd choice. I had spent my career studying policy and economics and working for the government or consulting with them, a much less cool version of Leslie Knope. Marriage never interested me and I declined most wedding invitations I received as an adult. And then, in 2012, I moved to Savannah, Georgia, looking for change and inspiration after 15 years in New York City, and met the love of my life six months after I arrived. I married him two years later, at age 38, in an intimate, laid back ceremony I wrote and asked an ordained friend to perform. We had a son last year.
When someone learns that I officiate weddings as a paid profession, and that it is my full time gig, they are immediately fascinated and want to know so much more. Most people view weddings through their own experiences with them, their own wedding or as a guest, and assume couples only marry on Saturdays and it’s a rare occurrence. Both assumptions are far from the truth. I marry many more couples on weekdays, making it a 365-day a year gig. It doesn’t hurt that I live in one of the top destination elopement locations in the United States, thanks to Savannah’s 22 beautiful and historic squares which you can elope in for free, and of course, Georgia’s liberal marriage laws (You just need an ID! No waiting period! Marry your cousin! I am not kidding!).
I am often treated as a unicorn, as if I am the only person in the world who gets to make a living spending it with people on the most important day of their life. People picture me jumping over rainbows in a park everyday, while I pronounce people married, snuggled in a pink cloud of love. Of course, it is not all rainbows, and I am also not unique. Earlier this year, I joined a Facebook group of other wedding officiants, or celebrants, as they are called elsewhere, from around the world. It was amazing to meet so many people like myself! I spent a Skype call with one of the group members from California, nodding so many times in agreement at everything she said, that I wondered in the back of my head if we were just different versions of each other in some strange, wedding officiant multiverse. Yes, I read too many comic books… but then of course, I found out so does she.
No matter where the location, we face commonalities with our work.
- How do you find the right reading for the right couple and ceremony?
- When do you just accept that wedding photographers never publish ceremony pictures, but if they do, they will never tag you, even though the company who rented the tent you are standing under will get a shout out?
- What goes through your head when you are at the altar and for the thousandth time that wedding season, you hear A Thousand Years by Cristina Perri, as the processional song? (Thoughts vary from, “‘I have died every day waiting for you’… to stop playing this song” … and … “What?! She doesn’t even look like she KNOWS what Twilight is!”)
When someone finally accepts that yes, I do marry people as a profession, and I do it all the time and am paid well to do it, we reach the unsaid part in the conversation, but you can see it on his face… which is that I do not look like someone who officiates weddings. The prevailing image most people have of a wedding officiant is that of a man, usually white, and usually much older than myself, and that is based in truth about who has traditionally done this work, even recently. In 2015, I was the first female wedding officiant to perform a ceremony at three local venues. I’ve been fired many times when a couple’s parents or grandparents have found out that a woman was officiating, no matter what the couple desired. I often have older men rush to shake my hand after a ceremony to tell them that I did a great job for a “lady preacher” and marvel at what they had just seen.
No matter how well I am known in town, certain venues and wedding planners insist on providing me a male escort into the ceremony space, to preserve “tradition,” despite my title. It is one of my biggest pet peeves.
My colleagues across the globe experience the same challenges. In their words,
• “I can share a whole host of anecdotes about sexism and negative experiences as a woman, which although sometimes make me laugh, aren’t actually funny at all. I think there have also been times when parents thought that me being younger than them and a woman meant they could talk to me like I was a child. Now, I always make sure from the minute they meet me, they know I am a grown-ass woman.”
• “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been mistaken for the wedding planner. Fathers, in particular, seem to be shocked when they ask where the minister is and I wave a smiling hello.”
• “Once in particular I was at a rehearsal, standing where the wedding planner had placed me (up front with the couple, obviously), when the groom’s mother asked rather loudly, ‘Oh! Is this the minister’s daughter?’”
• “Early in my career I worked at a venue where the lapel microphone was provided for the officiant, however there was no clip on the battery pack for me to attach it to my belt. When I asked where the clip was, I got, ‘Oh, sorry. We’re used to men with pockets.’”
• “I had a couple choose a new officiant on my team — one who had only done two weddings compared to my many — simply because ‘our families just would not accept a woman marrying us.’”
• “I am sometimes asked at weddings if I have children, and why I don’t have them, and that I should get on top of it because my ovaries aren’t getting any younger. It’s quite a personal conversation to have with a complete stranger and, of course, I can’t tell them to ‘leave my uterus alone!’”
• “I have had older, male Uber drivers, guests at weddings and even married couples tell me that they did not even know a woman could ‘legally’ marry a couple! I’m sure being a woman in a field traditionally dominated by men has affected the way I approach my work, but honestly it has affected me my entire life so it’s just the norm, I guess.”
And yes, I have also had a groomsman wink at me, before and mid-ceremony, on more than one occasion.
For the most part, like other female business owners, we treat these experiences as annoyances that go with the job, something you dislike, but you brush off and recover from like coming home sweaty and bitten by hundreds of bugs after a delayed summer wedding. But when you take a moment to stop and reflect, it can feel disheartening and demeaning.
The media doesn’t help when they perpetuate images of women officiating weddings as simply playing a man’s role. During a recent binge of Season 3 of Jane The Virgin with my husband, I was SO excited when Jane was asked to officiate a non-church wedding. Immediately, the usually delightful narrator assigned her some priest imagery in the title credits. At this point in her story, Jane is a published and well-reviewed novelist, and was invited to officiate because of her writing talent, but she decides to approach an older priest as a “colleague.” My own inner narrator wanted to yell at the television, “Why didn’t you Google me, Jane! I would have helped- I AM your colleague, Tracy-ellio!”
Even when a real-life woman like novelist Emma Taub has the opportunity to officiate a friend’s wedding, she evokes the same imagery as Jane, but treats it as kitschy, as in “Oh, look at me get to play pretend priest. Eek!” No matter how progressive or even secular a person may be, it seems difficult to separate the concept of a wedding from the “church,” even when it is not involved. Some women often don’t even consider there would be anyone who might have expertise to help, except mom, who has never officiated a wedding before, and whose primary advice is to dress as boring as possible and don’t look old.
I accepted years ago that I will always lose business purely because I have a uterus and that generational trends will likely not change that (Google “woman wedding officiant” and read any one of the wedding message boards populated by brides much younger that me.) Of course, at times, there are advantages to officiating weddings while female. I officiate many second marriages (or even fourth) and I am sure people seek me out because they believe women are more understanding of life’s circumstances. Love is love, I say everywhere on my website, and will always do my best to make good on it. I recently picked up a wedding when an older, male officiant in town refused to say a phrase he felt was undignified and inappropriate for a wedding, but the couple would not budge on removing it in their ceremony. The offensive words? Poopy diapers, as in I’ll stick by you during the poopy diaper stage of our lives when/if we have kids. Your promises are also your promises. As a mom and wife, I can confirm this promise is a good one, and I will write it with glee.
I never feel more strong or feminine when I am working with a couple and performing a ceremony, as well as just human. There are the emotions and importance of the moments in some ceremonies that can bring you to your core, but it is also a unique experience to be on display when you are professionally photographed a dozen times a week during a busy spring, as well as by tourists with phones walking through our parks or circling them on one of our infamous trolleys. It is a regular occurrence to have someone mention how excited they were to see a random picture of me, a performer playing a part in a wedding theme park every weekend in Savannah, in their Facebook feed. At the same time, after working for a decade in an old dusty New York City government building under fluorescent lights while wearing boxy suits, I am secretly delighted and also puzzled when someone says they are excited to work with the woman in all “the pictures online,” the one who wears such pretty dresses and sparkly eyeshadow and looks like she loves her job. Are they really talking about me?
While I am focused on my professional role in these moments, it can feel vulnerable to look back at photos that you know took place during the most womanly moments of your life: recovering from a complicated miscarriage, having my son, and struggling to feel “normal” again after a postpartum experience that was stressful on my body. I married over 200 couples while pregnant with my son in 2015 and 2016. I often joke that he arrived early because he refused to hear the words “by the authority vested in me by the State of Georgia” even one more time.
Only after I became a mother did I describe the work I do as maternal, as caregiving. My most important job as an officiant is to create and protect the energy of a couple’s moment, whether it is the three of us or 250 of us, to envelope us in those metaphorical pink clouds so they experience the full strength of the lightning bolt when they say I do.
Even if you think that description of what I do is corny, and you want to make a face like my son does when he eats peaches, I am going to do that for every couple as fiercely as I do lovingly.
Weddings, the ceremonial beginnings of marriages, are important and making them more inclusive can only broaden the love we have in the world, during a time we could all use more. Marking unique commitments every day of the week should look different and be different, and be transformative.
Day in and day out, I am proud to marry all the people, with all my being.
Earlier this year, I joined a Facebook group of other wedding officiants and celebrants from around the world. It’s is my pleasure to introduce myself and some of the indomitable and impressive women I call my colleagues.
Tracy Brisson, Savannah Custom Weddings & Elopements. Savannah, GA, USA
Married 800+ couples in the last 3 years (with some help from my associates)
Started officiating in her late 30s
Some of her prior career(s)/education or training were teacher recruitment director, recruiting and career consultant; MPA in economics and finance
What I love/dislike about being a wedding officiant: “My favorite part of my job is asking couples how they met. No matter how long they have been together, a bubbly excitement comes up when they get to tell me. The stories are so different, but also the same. My favorite metaphor to use when I talk about marriage is adventure and that stems from hearing about all the little and big risks that couples take to find and get to know each other once they sense a spark…
I hate asking for reviews from couples. Maybe because I didn’t grow up with social media, it feels vulnerable to ask for those testimonials in such a public space. It makes me want to hide under the covers.”
Marie Burns Holzer, Let’s Get Married SoCal. Southern California, USA
Married 800+ couples over the last 5 years
Started officiating in her late 20s
Some of her prior career(s)/education or training were cocktail waitress, freelance writer and social media marketer, trained in musical theater
What she loves/dislikes about being a wedding officiant: “I love getting to guide my couples through the experience of the wedding while reminding them to be present and really enjoy it. It’s an experience that happens so fast and can be so fraught with stress and intense emotions that they forget to really savor it…
I don’t get sick days. It doesn’t matter if I have the flu, a migraine, or my allergies are insane. This is someone’s wedding! While I tend to thrive under that kind of pressure, it also makes it difficult when you really just need to rest and take care of yourself.”
Katherine Edwards, Ceremonies by Katherine, North Carolina, USA
Marries about 100 couples a year
Started officiating in her early 30s
Prior career(s)/education or training were facility supervisor in parks and recreation, as well as former lifeguard; BFA in graphic design & MS in recreational administration
What I love/want people to know about being a wedding officiant: “I am a hopeless romantic, so working with couples to bring their love story to life in the ceremony is such a joy. I’ve been known to shed a few tears during a wedding…
Some people think all we do is stand up there and read off a script for 15 minutes. A good officiant does so much more than read the words off a page. They set the tone and create an atmosphere for this huge, transformational moment in a couple’s life. Through telling my couple’s story, I leave their guests with a new, deeper understanding of why they are perfect for each other. ”
Glynnis German, Glynnis German Celebrant, Spain
Marries about 40 couples a year
Started officiating in her late 40s
Prior career(s)/education or training were film production, member of a band, university degree in Drama
What I love/dislike about being a wedding officiant: “I love the variety of the couples.…
I do not love having a seasonal income to spread out over the whole year.”
Natasha Johnson, Malaga Minister, Spain
Marries about 70 couples a year
Started officiating in her late 20s
Prior career(s)/education or training was BBC Journalist
What I love/dislike about being a wedding officiant: “I love meeting my couples and working with them to have a ceremony that is truly about them. I love the process of seeing couples starting off a little unsure, a little doubtful, with a little bit of fear of the unknown and guiding them through the process, making them push the boundaries and stereotypes a little, and step out of what they think is their comfort zone. And when the process is finished, to see their reactions and to know I served them well and given them just what they wanted …
The hardest part is the business side of being a celebrant; being in charge of all your accounts, your marketing. In the beginning, I was so in love with being a celebrant that I kind of forgot I was a business woman, too.”
Catherine T. Pick, Ceremonies by Catherine, Florida
Marries about 150 couples a year
Started officiating in her early 30s
Prior career(s)/education or training were Administrative and executive assistant
What I love/want people to know about being a wedding officiant: “I love how every wedding is different. Every couple has their idea of a perfect wedding and no two are exactly the same. I officiated a ceremony in October that had live action zombie actors who showed up during cocktail hour! Just mingling with the guests — hissing and making zombie type noises. It was GREAT! …
I am not sure everyone understands and values what we do and how much time and energy goes into each wedding. From the back and forth emails, to the in person meetings, then drafting and working on the script with the couple until it is perfect. We also drive to the ceremony, arrive at least 1/2 hour early, perform the ceremony (usually not on time), then drive back home. This simple ceremony can cost us minimum 5 hours — and that is if the ceremony is local!“
Daniela VillaRamos, Once Upon a Vow, New York City
Marries about 50 couples a year
Started officiating in her late 20s
Prior career(s)/education or training were grant writer, a communications manager, a volunteer coordinator, and an event planner to raise funds for a nonprofit. At the core of my many jobs, I shared the countless stories of the children and families thriving in our programs.
What I love/dislike/want people to know about being a wedding officiant: “I love the fact that I get to meet so many fun and awesome couples, hear their stories, see the cute way they interact, witness them picturing their future together, and learn what marriage looks like to them. Wedding officiants are storytellers and party starters! …
The toughest thing for me about being a professional officiant is keeping my systems organized, and managing all the day-to-day biz things that I need to do to work with more of my dream couples. The greatest stereotype I bust every time a couple meets me is that we’re NOT all men who wear minister garbs and speak in a monotonous tone about God and the sanctity of marriage.
Ceremonies should never be boring or something to get through.”
[Amen, Daniela. Amen.]