For any minister, one of the most fun, and most rewarding aspects of our calling is having the ability to unite couples in marriage. It can also though be one of the hardest and most frustrating of our tasks.
Very often, the couple has already made all of the other preparations for their marriage before they begin looking for someone to conduct their wedding ceremony. You also often find people who are in no way, shape or form religious wanting an elaborate, full-scale high-church wedding because they want to impress their families and friends. And sometimes you find people wanting to get married who probably shouldn’t be married, to anyone, EVER.
But, even with the weddings that you will be happy to forget once they are over, there are many couples who come to you for your help and expertise that become good and dear friends, and whom you can help not only with their marriage but also with their spiritual lives.
Every minister who does weddings as part of their ministry will over the course of their career have to make some fundamental decisions. First, do you see yourself as strictly being a paid wedding officiant, and who is willing to perform a wedding service that meets every request of the couple. Or do see yourself as someone anointed by God to help people stand before the Lord and take vows that have been well thought out in a service that is reverential to God, that is dignified, and that reminds both the couple and the audience of the essentially religious and spiritual nature of the ceremony and the wedding itself.
As an Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, I am bound to follow the rules laid out in our Book of Discipline, so there are a very few things that I cannot do at a wedding. I cannot officiate at a same sex marriage nor at any ceremony that can be interpreted as blessing a Gay Union. I am required to do pre-marital counseling with every couple I marry. I am also given the absolute authority to decline to perform the wedding of anyone.
In your own faith tradition, you may or may not have any restrictions placed on your authority to conduct a marriage ceremony. If you are an independent minister (such as someone ordained by the Universal Life Church) and have no obligation to follow any rules save what your own conscience and understanding of your personal faith dictates, you are going to have to develop your own guidelines as to what you will and will not do, and what you will and will not require of couples who come to you to be united in marriage.
What you will find helpful is to develop a set of written guidelines that you give to every prospective couple, outlining your personal policies regarding weddings. This can be a very simple, one paragraph or even one sentence statement to the effect that you will do whatever the couple wants, as it is after all their wedding, to a very elaborate page or two that lays out in detail all the do’s and don’t for weddings that you officiate at. Just remember, these have to be things that you can, with integrity, follow. This way they will know up front what they can expect from you and what you expect in return. Scroll to the bottom of this page to see the wedding policies I used at the last church I served as a full-time pastor.
What to charge for a wedding depends on a large variety of factors. How much time you have to put into the wedding, any traveling you have to do, what type of services you are offering the couple beyond being the MC at their ceremony, and what other ministers in your area charge for their services.
I would not even make a suggestion as to what you should or should not charge. I know many clergies who don’t charge to do weddings at all, especially if they are performing the ceremony for members of their congregation or friends. I know others who charge five or six hundred dollars to perform a very simple service. This again is something you have to decide for yourself. I would though offer the following suggestions.
1.) Most couples spend a great deal of money for all the things involved in their wedding. It is typical for a couple to spend over $5,000 altogether. As a professional, providing a needed service, you should not hesitate to charge a fair price for your participation.
2.) If one or both of the people getting married are members of your congregation (that is, if you have one), it is fair and reasonable for them to expect you to charge them less than what you would charge people who have no relationship to your congregation, as they are already contributing to your ministry by their gifts. At many churches, the Pastor will marry a couple for free if one or both of them belong to the congregation. There is a problem with this practice though in that very often people will join the congregation a few weeks or months before the wedding so that they can get married for free, and then stop coming (and contributing) afterward. One way around this that many churches take is to give current members of the church a reduced price, but not so reduced that people would join for the financial benefit.
3.) As a professional courtesy, clergy typically will not charge to marry other members of the clergy or their immediate family.
I require each couple I marry to meet with me three or four times. During these sessions, we get to know each other, plan out the wedding ceremony, and do some pre-marital counseling. The purpose of the counseling is NOT to weed out those who should not be married. I operate under the assumption that most adults should have the right to make their own decisions over whom they will marry, even if I think that they are wrong. The purpose of the counseling is to get them to evaluate their relationship, to see if there are issues that they have either never thought about, or have glossed over, and get them to talk about them openly with each other. And perhaps most importantly, to see if they both have the same understanding of what marriage is all about. This way, hopefully, they will not encounter some unpleasant surprises a few weeks or months down the road, as they discover assumptions that they made about each other were wrong. And if indeed during the counseling they discover that perhaps they should reconsider their decision to get married, this gives them a good opportunity to back down before they make what could be a terrible, life-changing mistake. This, by the way, is why I do not take any money from the couple until the night of the rehearsal. That way, if they have second thoughts, the fact that they have already paid for their wedding will not influence their decision.
There are many good instruments a wedding counselor can use with couples to get them to talk openly and freely about their relationship and what marriage means to them.
The one I have personally used the most in my ministry is the “Pre-marriage Awareness Inventory.” It comes in three versions. One for when this is the first marriage for both the bride and groom. One version for when the couple has been living together, and one version for when this is the second or subsequent marriage for one or both of the parties. This instrument (depending on the version) is a 110 to 140 question, multiple choice and true-false instrument that measures 11 different aspects of the couple’s relationship. By comparing their answers, you can see and help them to see where they might have different expectations of their relationship, or if there are areas where their views and attitudes are so different that they could cause problems down the road.
Here is a link to the website Premarriage Awareness Inventory
Unless you are having a very simple service, with perhaps just the couple and a few witnesses and close friends, you probably should insist on having a rehearsal for the wedding the night before the ceremony takes place. This way, each participant in the ceremony gets a chance to practice their role and helps to alleviate the nervousness that the couple and bridal party would otherwise experience.
The rehearsal typically will last no longer the one hour. If everyone cooperates, it can be done in as little as 40 minutes.
Normally, once everyone has gathered, I introduce myself to the group and inform them that I am the master of ceremonies, and if they pay close attention to me, this whole procedure can be done very easily and quickly. I then tell them that the wedding ceremony is very much like a three-act play. A wedding consists of the first act, the Processional, a second act, the actual ceremony, and a third act, the recessional. To practice the wedding, we are going to start with the THIRD ACT, the recessional. I then have the bridal party take the places where they will be during the wedding. We then practice leaving the site of the ceremony (typically the chancel of my church). With the recessional music being played, we practice the spacing and how fast each couple of the wedding party walks out. It is important to keep them from going too fast, as it makes it difficult for people to take pictures. Likewise, if they are spaced to close together, the pictures will not be as good. But we don’t want people to march out so slow that it seems like a funeral march.
Next, we practice the first act, the processional into the area where the wedding will take place. The wedding party is lined up according to the order that they will be standing in the chancel, and then, to the processional music, they walk in and take their places.
Now sometimes only the bridesmaids come in during the processional and are met upfront by the groomsmen (who have all entered together with the groom and the minister right before the processional begins). Sometimes the bridesmaids and the groomsmen come up together as couples. There is no right or wrong way to do it. This is something that should be discussed with the bride and groom as you are planning out the service.
Once everyone is back in their places for the ceremony, you then practice the second act, the ceremony itself. Once all of this is done, you can then instruct the ushers on their duties, particularly how to seat the guests as they come in, and how to dismiss the guests as they leave. Typically, the wedding party makes a receiving line just outside of the area where the wedding occurred, and the guests have a chance to great the newly wedded couple as they exit. It is important not to let the guests all leave the sanctuary at once, as that makes it hard for everyone to great the couple. It is better to have the ushers let the guests leave one row at a time. As a rule of thumb, you can let the ushers and the rest of the wedding party know that it will take about 20 minutes for every 100 guests to walk through the receiving line.
The ushers also need to be instructed about lighting candles (if any) and if they are going to be putting a runner down the aisle before the bride enters. They also will need to be told if they are going to be escorting in the parents and/or grandparents of the bride and/or groom, and they will need to be shown where to seat people.
Depending on your faith tradition, you may have a standard wedding service that you are supposed to use for any couple. In my own tradition, our Book of Worship has two services that we can use, but are not necessarily required to do so. My Sample Wedding Services page contains the ceremonies I have typically used in my ministry. These, of course, can and should be modified according to wishes of the couple if they find them inappropriate.
There are many excellent wedding resources, both in book form and on the web that you can use to construct a wedding ceremony that the couple and guests will find meaningful and uplifting. Three book resources that I use are:
A Marriage Manual: by Perry H. Biddle, published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
(This book btw is filled not only with different wedding services from many different denominations but with many other helpful hints and ideas for making a truly special and meaningful ceremony.)
Christian Weddings – Resources to Make Your Ceremony Unique: by Andy Langford, published by Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN.
A Contemporary Handbook for Weddings, Funerals and Other Occasions: edited by Aubrey Malphurs and Keith Willhite, published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI.
Unless you are from a faith tradition that requires you to use a certain form of service for conducting a marriage ceremony, you should give the couple a great deal of latitude in developing the actual wedding ceremony. In my experience, and I have been doing this for close to 20 years now, most couples are happy to use the standard service of my denomination, with perhaps making some modifications to the actual vows. The only thing I absolutely insist on is that whatever vows they come up with, they can NOT contain what I refer to as “weasel words.” That is, they cannot contain any form of escape clause that implies that the covenant the couple is making with each other can be broken. For example, vows that contain phrases like “I will remain faithful to you as long as we love each other.” Or, “I promise to remain married to you as long as loves flame burns.”
Remember, at least within a Christian context, a marriage is a covenant between two people that is meant to last till death.
Each state has different rules and regulations regarding marriage. Any minister who plans on conducting marriages MUST become very familiar with the rules in the state where he/she plans on officiating at marriages. There are some severe penalties for the officient who does not follow the rules religiously. In Wisconsin for example, you can be imprisoned for up to nine months for not filing the marriage license within the three-day time frame specified by Wisconsin statute. There are many websites that purport to have the rules of each state. Sadly, many of these sites have out of date information. Do not take any information you receive from any website at face value unless it is from an official state website. Your best bet for getting accurate information is going to the County Clerks office in the county you live in and ask what are the regulations in your state. Most will be only too happy to give you the information you need. In Wisconsin at least, most of the County Clerks have a brochure that they give out that gives all the information.
Two final bits of advice. If you live in a state that requires you to file your ordination credentials before you can legally officiate at weddings, do so ASAP. And secondly, NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES CONDUCT A WEDDING WITHOUT HAVING THE WEDDING LICENSE IN YOUR HAND BEFORE THE SERVICE. The penalties and potential ramifications to both yourself and the couple are too severe to do otherwise. I always ask for the wedding license before we begin the rehearsal on the night before the wedding, and keep it locked in my office until just before the wedding begins, when I place it on my pulpit so that we can all sign it right after the ceremony.
My Church Wedding Policies (from when I actually pastored a physical church)
To: Prospective Bride and Groom:
We are pleased that you have chosen our church for your wedding. We want to make our facilities available to you, so that you have a problem-free wedding, and so that you might have a grace-filled experience with God’s Church Community here.
There are a number of things requested of all couples who plan to use our church facilities:
· Under ALL circumstances the pastor of this church is to officiate at the service of marriage. If other plans are desired, the pastor must agree to them BEFORE the church facility can be used.
· A valid wedding license must be presented to and left with the Pastor at the wedding rehearsal, or the wedding will be canceled. Wedding licenses are issued by the County Clerks office in the county in which either the bride or groom has lived for the past 30 days. It must be applied for at least six full calendar days before it can be issued. It is then good for 30 days, and can be used to marry in any county in the state.
· The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, paragraph 331 i, states that it is the duty of the Pastor to “perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved. The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the Pastor.” Before the marriage can take place, it is important that the couple fully understand the meaning of marriage, both in the civil sense, and most importantly in its religious significance. To ensure that the couple fully understand the meaning of the covenant that they are entering into, they must meet with the Pastor to explore their relationship and the meaning of marriage at least three times before the wedding may take place. Failure to do so will result in the Pastor declining to perform the wedding.
· Care should be taken in choosing the music to be performed The music used will have a major impact on the mood of the service. All the music used should reflect the tastes of the couple, but also the fact that this is a Christian service. All music chosen for the service must be approved beforehand by the Pastor.
· The Pastor will work with you to develop the actual wedding service. The United Methodist Church has two standard wedding rituals in its “Book Of Worship” that can be used. If you do not feel that either of these is appropriate, the Pastor can help you to modify the service until both you and the Pastor are comfortable with it. Subject to the approval of the Pastor, you may, if you wish, write your own vows for use during the service.
· In the event of a public church wedding ceremony in which music is requested, the Organist of this congregation is to be consulted. Her fee, which covers one rehearsal, a fifteen-minute recital prior to the wedding service, and accompanying work during the service, and a fifteen-minute postlude, shall be a minimum of One Hundred and twenty-five Dollars ($125.00).
· You will need to negotiate with the Organist if there are other rehearsals desired, for example with soloists. Contact her as soon as possible to discuss the music for the service, even if you do not plan to have a soloist.
· Any soloist chosen by you shall rehearse at least once with the church Organist, prior to the wedding ceremony. The fee for the soloist is to be negotiated by the bride and groom.
· If you wish to use the church candelabra, them will be a charge of $20.00 for the candles. Use of your own candles in the candelabra is prohibited.
· A charge of Seventy-five dollars ($75.00) will be made for janitorial services in the sanctuary.
· If you desire an aisle runner for the sanctuary, you will need to contact your florist to make arrangements.
· If you wish to use a unity candle as part of the service, you will need to purchase the unity candle, the two side candles, and the holders yourself.
· If you desire the church office to print and fold bulletins for the service there will be a charge of $35·00. You will need to purchase/furnish the blank bulletin stock you wish to be used and have that in the church office 10 days prior to the wedding.
· If a Reception is to be held in the Fellowship Hall downstairs, or the lounge off the sanctuary, an additional charge of Seventy-five ($75.00) dollars will be made to cover janitorial services.
· Decorating arrangements for sanctuary and/or reception are to be cleared with the pastor at least two weeks prior to the wedding.
· There shall be NO use of tape on the pews. There shall be NO use of rice or birdseed in the building, and no use of rice on the sidewalk area outside the building.
· NO flash photographs are to be taken during the service of worship.
· If videotaping of the service is planned, the person responsible for the videotaping will NOT be standing or moving in the chancel area during the service.
· NO alcoholic beverages are permitted on the church property.
· NO smoking is permitted in the church building.
· The Pastor’s fee, which includes all pre-marital counseling sessions, his attendance at the rehearsal and wedding, and all of his/her preparation, is $150.
· All fees are to be paid by the time of the rehearsal.
For NON-members, (when neither the Bride or Groom is a church member) all the above fees apply, in addition to those below:
The charge for the use of the sanctuary will be $75.00 (Seventy-five Dollars). If the Fellowship Hall and Kitchen area are used for a Reception or catered dinner following the service, there will be an additional $75.00 (Seventy-five Dollar) charge.
· All fees for the use of the building are due upon booking the date. The date will not be reserved on the church calendar until these fees are paid.
For couples who are non-members, who use the building with their own clergy:
(Fees are to be paid at the time of reserving the date on the church calendar.)
· There will be a $100,00 security deposit.
· The fee for custodial services for the sanctuary will be $100.00, in addition to a $100.00 fee for using the sanctuary. There will be a $100·00 fee for use of the fellowship hall if a reception is to be held here, and an additional fee of $100.00 for the custodian.
· If the church organ is used and church organist does not play, a fee of $75.00 will be charged for use of the instrument.
My Wedding Fee Structure
For Church Members
Organist Fee: $125.00
Pastors Fee: $150.00
Fellowship Hall: $75.00
Bulletin Printing: $35.00
All fees must be paid on the night of the rehearsal.
For Non-Church Members
Organist Fee: $125.00
Pastors Fee: $150.00
Fellowship Hall: $75.00
Fellowship Hall: $75.00
Bulletin Printing: $35.00
Building usage fees are due upon booking the date. All other fees are due on the night of the rehearsal.
For Non-Church Members Using Their Own Clergy
Organist Fee: $125.00
Fellowship Hall: $100.00
Fellowship Hall: $100.00
Bulletin Printing: $35.00
Fee for Organ Usage: $75.00
Security Deposit: $100.00
Building usage fees are due upon booking the date, as well as the security deposit.