Stacy and Alex's wedding at Craftsman Inn, Fayetteville, NY 2019 - Photo by DJ Peter Naughton
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Peter's Pointers: Choosing a Wedding Officiant - Friend or Pro?

Choosing a Wedding Officiant: Friend or Pro?

More and more often, couples are skipping church and getting married right at their reception venue.  Among the advantages, you can choose your own officiant.  Are professional officiants really worth the money, or are you just as well having a friend get ordained online? Find out how your decision could have a major impact on your marriage in this edition of Peter's Pointers for Wedding Planning.

Ceremony and Reception at One Location: Why?

If the concept of skipping church sounds odd, here are some common reasons:

  • Different religions, neither wants to convert to the other
  • Not that religious in the first place
  • Convenience, convenience, convenience
    • No need for guests to travel from church to reception (and possibly get lost, if they're from out of town)
    • No need for limo service to transport the wedding party
    • If your wedding and reception are at a hotel, guests who stay there won't even need to leave the building
    • Less stress: Fewer contracts to sign, fewer invoices to pay, fewer moving parts to potentially complicate or delay your schedule

Even if you're still doing your ceremony and reception in two different places, if your ceremony will be at a "non-church" location (park, beach, etc.), you still might need to hire an officiant.

Professional or Friend: What's the difference?

You're probably aware that literally anyone can go online, fill out an application, and -- voila! -- they're "ordained." At least one ministry actually ordains people for free - no classes, no quizzes, nothing.  Seems like a no-brainer, right? 

Why spend $100-300 for a professional officiant when you can ask a friend, uncle or aunt to get ordained for free?  What could possibly go wrong?

To be frank, quite a few things -- and the first one is really serious.

"Friendor" Problem #1: Your Marriage Might Not Be Legal

I'll cut right to the chase: online ordinations are not legally recognized in New York State.

Surprised?  So am I... I had been a wedding DJ for nearly a decade before I learned this!

Marie April Gismondi of the Church of Ancient Ways writes on her website:

Even though the state will issue a Certificate of Marriage, the marriage can be later questioned in a court of law and can be deemed invalid with a ULC or online officiant." 

Although her blog post is titled "Legality of Online Ordinations on Long Island," you're likely aware Long Island is part of New York State, so the same laws apply here in Central New York.

Gismondi elaborates:

If you want to be legally married in front of family and friends, then hire someone who is legal to marry you. If you have [already] been married by someone ordained online, go down to Town Hall and get legally married.

Although neither Gismondi nor I are lawyers, her research on the topic includes proper references to law journals along with her direct interactions with town clerks (the people who issue marriage licenses) in her area. Even when you search for officiants who are available for hire, you need to make sure they are legit.  Gismondi's blog includes some insight on what kinds of questions to ask, or "red flags" to look for on an officiant's website, to determine if they are legally-recognized by New York State.  In the end, if you aren't completely sure, check with the clerk of the city or town where you live.

Friendor Problem #2: What if There's an Unexpected Glitch?

Celia Milton is a wedding celebrant based in New Jersey, but known nationwide for her contributions to various wedding forum discussions.  She recently shared the following item, which she typically emails to prospective couples when they request a quote.  She also gives out copies at wedding expos:


You’re planning your wedding and like every couple you’re thinking about the ugly B WORD....yes, budget. Everything is more expensive than you could ever imagine.

Relax! Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat as necessary!!

Really, the ONLY thing you need (besides each other, of course) is a great officiant. But it seems like a natural place to save money.

“Anyone can get ordained....why don’t we ask Uncle Phil or your wacky college roommate Kate? They know us, they’ll make it so personal!”

Rethink that. Here’s why. Essentially, you’ll give yourself another job, because neither you or your friend know how to do this. It sounds like a great idea when you ask, but as your wedding day draws close? It becomes less fun and more, well, job-like.....

Your ceremony might be short and sweet, but it has a lot of moving parts, from beginning to end! Ask yourself;

1) Does your FRIEND even want to be doing this, or did they just say YES to be polite? We get dozens of calls every year (usually at the last minute) to fill in for friendors who panic. Not only is the ceremony compromised, but the friendship is stressed too.

2) Can your friend write an inspiring, entertaining, engaging ceremony that includes all the legal language necessary?

3) Public speaking is the NUMBER TWO fear (after death). Can your friend actually deliver your ceremony with both charisma and gravity? Will it be fun for your guests to hear?

4) Can your friend troubleshoot on the fly? A groomsmen faints, a unity candle goes missing, the rings roll into the pond, the DJ doesn’t show up, the three year old flower girl has a nuclear meltdown on the aisle. Does your friend have even the first clue as to what to do when things go “unexpected”?

5) Does your friend understand how to complete the paperwork so that at the end of the day your marriage is legal? Do they know how to spot and deal with mistakes on the license that’s created by the issuing clerk? Will they remember to file it?

6) Can your friend seamlessly coordinate ceremony cues with your photographer, videographers and musicians? Can they work with your guest readers or people taking part in rituals like hand-fastings or sand pourings?

The honest answer to most of these questions is ‘no’. You are spending a lot of money, time and emotion on your wedding day. Don’t leave this element to chance.

Celia Milton

Another item to consider: what if YOU forget to file for a marriage license, or you forget to bring it to the ceremony?  Legally, without a marriage license available to be signed on-site right after the ceremony, you can't have a wedding. 

Now, you can still have a "commitment ceremony" so there's still something for all your guests to see... and most guests might not even realize. What's the difference? Legally, there is certain wording that's required in a wedding, but forbidden during a commitment ceremony. If you have a friend officiate your wedding, would they know what wording legally needs to be changed if the marriage license isn't present?

Yes, there's a lot more to being an officiant than just standing up and reading a script.

Guests Can Tell the Difference

During my years in the wedding industry, it's become pretty easy for me to tell if the officiant is a fully-fledged pro or a friend.  Any guests who've been to their fair share of weddings can probably tell pretty quickly as well.

A professional officiant dresses and acts the part.  Pros often help get people in place before the ceremony.  They're ready to go on-time, usually at least a few minutes early.  They know grooms are often nervous, so they might say something comforting or crack a joke off-mic right before the ceremony begins.

By contrast, "friendors" are usually focused on their own part -- standing up front and reading a script.  It becomes obvious when they stand up there waaaaay before the wedding is scheduled to begin, or they're nowhere to be seen until just a minute before things get started.  They often overlook the duty of making sure the wedding party is lined-up properly and ready to go... because they've never done this before, and either never knew that it was part of the job, or they were so nervous that they just plain forgot.

During the ceremony, a pro vendor will speak clearly, with proper annunciation, so that everyone can hear.  They know their part well enough to make occasional eye contact with the couple and with the guests.  Friendors, on the other hand, will often be nervous. This can cause them to speak faster than normal, which leads to words being mumbled and jumbled. 

People who aren't experienced with public speaking often have that "flat" tone of voice, where it's obvious they are "just reading a script."  True professionals can make it sound more natural, more conversational.  It's a lesson I learned early in my broadcasting career, and it's a lesson any officiant worth their fee has also learned.

Don't Just Take My Word For It...

Here are several other articles that reinforce why it's better for everyone involved, to hire a professional officiant rather than asking a friend or relative.

Of course, I'll still work with any couple regardless of your choice of officiant.  You know your own friends and family better than I do.  Many couples have friends or family who are excellent public speakers, and can perform just as well as a professional officiant.  But remember, you may still need to schedule a separate "legal" ceremony before or after the one you host in front of your invited guests.

My sincere thanks again to Marie April Gismondi and Celia Milton for allowing me to borrow from their works in this article.

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