You’ve been asked to officiate a wedding ceremony for the first time. Your first reaction? You feel honoured! Now that you’re sitting down to actually figure it out, it’s overwhelming.
Maybe you feel pretty good in front of a crowd. But a wedding? It’s all too much.
I got you.
There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to a wedding ceremony! The key is to understand the parts of a the ceremony itself. First, you need to know how to format a wedding ceremony script. But that’s just the beginning. You also need to know when and what meetings to have with your couple, how to be ready for the details of the wedding day, and how to present and deliver in front of the couple and their guests.
Scary stuff? Nah. Not anymore. Because you found… this!
Here’s the definitive 10-step guide for how to officiate a wedding for the very first time. Follow these steps, and no one will ever guess it’s your first time to officiate a wedding ceremony. It’ll be our secret.
1. Understand The Timeline of Your Process
When you get asked to officiate a wedding ceremony, all the ceremony-related responsibility falls to you. That means you’re charged with taking your couple through a series of steps to crafting their perfect wedding ceremony. Your couple have put themselves in your hands. And now… you’re their guide. Think of them as Luke (the hero!), and yourself as Yoda (the master). It’s okay if you don’t feel that way yet. You’ll get there.
Your couple are gonna have questions. And it’s okay when you don’t know everything. You’ll learn a lot as you go. But the one thing you’ll want to be able to answer for them right out of the gate is: “What’s the process?”
When couples reach out to me to book me as their professional officiant, a description of the process is where I start. The couple and I meet for what I call our “chemistry check,” and I explain to them how we’ll get to their perfect ceremony on their wedding day. This fills them with confidence that we have a roadmap. I know where we’re going, and I know how we’ll get there.
Now, chances are you already know your couple. But in this respect, it’s no different for you: tell your couple exactly what they can expect in the days and weeks to come. They’ll be so glad they picked you – right from the start.
Here’s a general 5-part timeline of the process for crafting the ceremony and getting ready for the wedding day. We’ll cover these in more detail below. But when your couple asks, “What’s the process for putting together out wedding ceremony?”, this is what you can tell them. They’ll be impressed!
#1 Meet with your couple for the ceremony planning session.
Four to six weeks before the wedding, conduct a ceremony planning session with your couple. You want the ceremony to be exactly what they want. So the best thing to do is sit down with them and cover every detail. More on that below.
#2 Write their script and send it to them along with a questionnaire.
After your meeting with them, you know exactly what they want and don’t want. That means you’re ready to write their wedding ceremony script. And you’ll need to ask them a few questions so you can write your ceremony speech. Fire them off their script and their questions within a few days of your ceremony planning session. More on that below.
#3 Run the wedding ceremony rehearsal.
The day or two before the wedding, get everybody together for the rehearsal. The script is filled with all the ceremony details – from the moment you take the front to the recessional and everything in between. That means you can run the rehearsal like no one else. Keep it tight, keep it fun, and don’t skip it. A wedding ceremony walkthrough is crucial – especially when it’s your first time. More on that bel… you get it now.
#4 Prepare the final draft of your wedding ceremony script.
The day before the wedding, the ceremony script should be done and polished. The rehearsal may have changed a few things, so make those final tweaks. Then prepare the final version that you’ll read from at the front. Yep, we’ll cover this too… below.
#5 Officiate the wedding.
This is the day we’ve all been working towards; the moment we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the wedding day! You’re gonna show up early and make sure everything is ready. I’ll tell you how – if you make it to the end of this article, that is. Because this is the very last step.
Whether you have six days or six weeks, that’s the process. Ideally, you’ll have four to six weeks to move through the milestones. But even if you have just a week, those 5 steps are your game plan. And this process is what you tell your couple you’re going to guide them through.
Now you have an overview of the road ahead and you’ve told your couple about the process they can expect. It’s time for us to get our heads around the parts that make up a traditional wedding ceremony.
2. Start With a Traditional 10-Part Ceremony Outline
Most people who get asked to officiate a wedding ceremony for the first time just wanna get their hands on a wedding ceremony script. There’s comfort in just grabbing what’s already out there and following it word for word. Read it rote, and you barely have to do any work.
Here’s the problem with officiating with a wedding ceremony script you didn’t actually write. It’ll show. And it’ll be boring.
You’ll go through the motions, say the weird-sounding scripting that makes you sound like a 16th-century vicar. Yeah, everyone will survive the ceremony – and you will be told you did a “lovely” job. But who really wants that?
Remember: you want to be your couple’s guide. That means you need to understand all the parts of a traditional wedding ceremony. Then you can make sure that the ceremony will be everything your couple wants – and none of the things they don’t want! Plus, ideally, you want to sound down-to-earth and put together a wedding ceremony that your couple and their guests will genuinely enjoy.
Here’s how to make this happen. First, understand the 10 parts of a traditional wedding ceremony.
#1 The Wedding Officiant Opening Remarks
Okay here’s a confession off the top: these are all traditional parts of a wedding ceremony. But I’ve tweaked some of them for a contemporary experience that’s more engaging for everyone. Such is the case with the opening remarks. You may be more familiar with the officiant walking up to the front, smiling silently, and then the music starts and everyone comes in. Then the first words said are something like, “Dearly beloved….”
After hundreds of weddings, I’m here to say there a much better way. In fact, it’s my magic bullet to everyone thinking you’re the best officiant they’ve ever seen. Ready? Here it is:
Walk to the front at start time, turn, smile at the guests, and then… say hi!
I always start off playfully with the guests. Ask them if they’re excited for your couple to come out there and get married moments from now. Then tell them 3 things:
- Introduce yourself. This is not the time to give out a resume or a list of qualifications! Just your name and how you’re related to the couple. No one cares who you are – yet. But when you blow ’em away with the ceremony… they will.
- Tell the guests whether or not they can take photos. Your couple will have told you how they feel about that in your ceremony planning session with them. Some couple say it’s okay; others want it totally “unplugged,” which means no phones or cameras. So tell the guests what the couple has decided about this.
- Tell the guests to turn off their phones. Remind everyone that we don’t want to be interrupted by devices going off. Oh – and any members of the wedding party that may be up there with you… remind them too. It’s a funny moment.
With that, it’s time to start the ceremony! I always ask, “Should we get to it?” The guests cheers and whoop, and then you say, “Let’s begin.”
#2 The Wedding Ceremony Processional
When you say “let’s begin,” the wedding ceremony processional begins. All the people who are walking – the parents, the kids, the wedding party – and even the animals and whoever and whatever your couple has chosen will make their way down the aisle and get to the front. And when everyone has arrived and they’re standing where they’re supposed to, it’s time to start talking.
#3 The Wedding Officiant Speech
This is the part where the officiant – that’s you! – says a bunch of things for a few minutes. There’s lots you can do. You can read scripture from a faith tradition. You can recite poetry. You can give advice, reflect on love, or discuss the meaning of commitment. You can do all of the above.
I’d recommend starting off with your couple’s story. I’ve built an entire brand around writing and telling every couple’s love story. It wows every bride and groom and absolutely thrills their guests. Besides, nothing hooks everyone’s attention like a great story. So even of you do any or all of the above, start with the story and then go deeper. More on that when we get into writing the speech below.
#4 The Declaration of Intent and/or Exchange of Vows
There’s a lot of confusion around the Declaration of Intent and the Exchange of Vows. Are they the same? Different? Do you have to do both or just one?
The Declaration of Intent is basically a question you will ask your couple. This element of the ceremony is just what it sounds like: you’re asking the couple to declare what they intend to do here today.
Are your couple here to get married? And they understand that getting married is what’s happening? Again: this is a very traditional part of the ceremony. And you can tell it comes from a time in history when you really had to confirm that the two people in front of you weren’t under any false pretences.
Typically, this is a form of this simple question: “Do you stand here today of your own free will to give yourself to this person in marriage?” The answer is “I do,” which is where the famous “I do’s” from.
The Exchange of Vows can be a lot more eloquent and specific. It’s where our couple make promises to do certain things for each other: be faithful, never leave, be a partner and companion, make coffee in the morning, etc.
- personal words they write and then read to each other in the ceremony,
- a statement they repeat after the officiant line by line,
- a question asked by the officiant – like the Declaration of Intent but more specific; each of them answer, “I do.”
Do you need to do both? Maybe.
In some places, legal requirements mean that the officiant or the couple have to say certain words during the ceremony. So of you’re officiating in a legal capacity, it’s important to find out whether there are specific things you need to say or get your couple to say.
If there are no legal requirements you need to follow around this, then it’s really up to your couple!
#5 The Exchange of Wedding Rings
After your couple have exchange vows in the style of their choice, typically they will exchange wedding rings. This is often as simple as someone coming forward and giving Marrier A the ring. Marrier A places it on Marrier B’s finger, and you ask Marrier A to repeat a few words about the significance of wearing it. I’d recommend a more modern take on the old “with this ring/I thee wed.” Then it’s Marrier B’s turn.
And with that, vows are made and rings are on. We’re almost done the wedding ceremony!
#6 The Pronouncement of the Couple
When the couple have made promises to each other and they’re wearing rings as a symbol of those promises, it’s time to pronounce them married! As the officiant, that power is in your hands. As with the Declaration of Intent and the Exchange of Vows, you may need to say very specific wording here to make this legal. So double-check with your governing authority that registers marriages.
Whatever you say, this usually ends with, “You may kiss!” Then you step out of the way so you’re not leering over your best friend frenching their newlywed spouse. Creepy. So make yourself scarce.
#7 The Signing of The Marriage License
Okay, I know this is less common in the States. But in British commonwealth countries, for some reason we sign the legal docs right in the ceremony. There are pretty much no downsides to this, so I recommend it! You don’t need to wrangle your couple after the ceremony, everyone gets to see it, and – the best part – when your couple chooses a fun song to play (think “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder or something like that), the party is really getting started before we’re even done the ceremony!
This is why I’ve put another twist on the tradition here. Typically, the signing comes after the vows and the rings and it’s all tense and whispery and set to serious music. But when you move this to happen after the pronouncement and all the wedding guests have clapped and cheered and our couple has kissed, it’s like the cork has popped and you’re not putting that cerebration-genie back in the bottle! The fun has started, everyone starts chair dancing, and it’s an awesome rowdy atmosphere for our last 3 steps of the wedding ceremony.
#8 The Wedding Officiant Closing Remarks
After you’ve all signed the paperwork, our couple comes back to stand front and centre. But instead of facing each other as they had been during the ceremony, now they’re facing their guests while you make some quick, high-energy closing remarks. This is the best way to build the anticipation for the wedding ceremony’s grand finale to come. They’re beaming at their guests, the guests are beaming back at them, and everyone is psyched for a great party to come.
- Tell the guests what the couple are doing now. Typically they’re heading out for photos or stepping out for a breather and some privacy together. But they might be heading straight for the bar, too! As the VIPs of the day, their whereabouts are important, so tell the guests where they’re going and when they’ll join the rest of us again.
- Tell the guests what they are doing now. Usually it’s cocktail hour and guests need to know where to go. Keep it down to a sentence or two, maybe tell them what time the reception starts, and make sure they know what’s next for them.
- Thank everyone for coming. On behalf of the couple (and their families if appropriate), end the ceremony and start the night by thanking everyone for celebrating with them and making their day so special.
#9 The Presentation of The Couple
With that, it’s time to wrap this thing up! Invite everyone to get on their feet as they’re able. Then, in your best “let’s get ready to rumble” or Oprah “you get a car, you get a car!” voice, present your couple for the very first time! Your couple will have decided exactly what you say here in your ceremony planning session. It might be “Mr. and Mr. last name” or “first name and first name as husband and husband” or a variation on that.
Whatever it is, this is the very last word you’re saying in the ceremony, and it’s the cue for the DJ or the band to hit that recessional music.
#10 The Recessional
Your couple head up the aisle first, and you want to stay to the side so you’re photobombing their classic “heading up the aisle” shot. No one comes up behind your couple!
After they’ve made it all the way to the end, you can then move back to centre and direct any wedding party members out. Typically, they leave two by two. When the last of the wedding party has made it out, then you’ll move to the front row, congratulate them, and gesture for them to head up the aisle. Then you can stand and direct the second row to head up, then the third, etc.
That’s it! The 10 parts of a traditional wedding ceremony.
3. Meet With Your Wedding Couple for a Ceremony Planning Session
Now that you know what the ten-part traditional ceremony looks like, you can do two things:
- adapt these traditional elements to your couple’s needs and preferences,
- add any other elements they want to include.
That’s why it’s best to take your understanding of the 10 parts into a ceremony planning session with your couple. You’ll be the Yoda to their Luke, and you’ll help them craft the ceremony they want. Plus, you won’t miss a single detail – and they’ll be so glad they chose you.
As we worked through the 10 parts of a traditional wedding ceremony above, you noticed (right?) that there are multiple ways to do each of the things. Not hundreds (thank goodness!), but definitely a few. That’s just one of the reasons why it’s necessary to walk through the outline and vision-cast the ceremony with them.
So for Part 1 The Opening Remarks, for example, ask them whether or not the guests can take photos. You’ll pass this along to the guests after you introduce yourself and tell guests to silence their devices.
For Part 2 The Processional, you’ll get the full list of who’s walking in, when, and in what order. You’ll talk about what happens when the Marrier gets to the end of the aisle (Do they have an escort? Do you ask that escort a question about their blessing for the marriage?) and how they’re standing.
For Part 3 The Officiant Speech, you’ll ask them what they’d like you to say and their expectations around your speech.
For Part 4 The Exchange of Vows, you’ll ask them how they want to say their vows and the wording they’d like you to lead them through.
And so on and so on… until you get through all the 10 parts and find out all the things they want – and all of the things they don’t want.
After you’ve made it through all 10 parts together, you’re not done yet! We’ve only covered the 10 traditional essentials of a wedding ceremony! Your couple may want to add a few things.
That’s why in the ceremony planning session, we need to ask them 3 more questions.
- Does your couple want someone else to participate in the ceremony? You’re the officiant and doing most of the talking and leading. However, they may want a friend or family member to come up and read a poem or share some words. This can happen either at the front, off to the side, or at the reader’s seat. Make sure you ask and work out the logistics.
- Does your couple want any religious elements? It’s important never to assume your couple’s preferences when it comes to faith traditions. Whether you assume they want to add religious elements and you don’t add them, or you assume they don’t want anything like that and you do – either way, it’s a bad scene and a sore memory to mess this part up. Make sure you understand their expectations around faith elements and what they want and don’t want.
- Does your couple want to add a unity ritual? There are lots of different physical re-enactments to signify their union in a wedding ceremony – everything from mixing sand to a handfasting to a quaich to doing shots. Some rituals symbolize the couple coming together; sometimes it’s the union of the two families. Prompt them to think about if they’ve seen anything at other weddings or whether there’s a unity ritual that’s common practice in their ethnic heritage or faith tradition they’d like to perform.
That’s it! When you’ve walked your couple through the 10 parts and the 3 additional questions, you have all the information you need about their perfect ceremony. ‘Time to take all that data and craft their wedding ceremony script.
4. Create a Detailed, Shareable Wedding Ceremony Script
It’s time to write the wedding ceremony script. When you were in that meeting with your couple, maybe you were filling out a spreadsheet. Maybe you were using a note-taking app on your phone. Maybe you were scribbling on a napkin (not recommended!). Either way, your shorthand is not what you’re sending your couple. No, you’re going to write a very detailed, easy-to-read rundown of everything that happens and everything you say in the wedding ceremony.
As a wedding officiant course creator and coach, I see far too many scripts that consist of nothing but the words the officiant is going to say. But the spoken bits are just half of the wedding ceremony. The other half is all the moving parts and people! There are cues, songs, standing, walking, sitting, moving objects like rings and microphones, etc. etc.
So a script that has only the words is just as incomplete as a script that has only actions. A proper wedding ceremony script is filled out with every action that’s going to happen and every word that people are going to say.
That means it’s time for you to go back through all the notes you took in the wedding ceremony planning session with your couple. Start at the beginning and make headings of all the 10 ceremony parts, plus any parts your couple added. Next, mentally put yourself at the venue half an hour before ceremony start time on the wedding day and start writing every detail in concise bullet points.
Make the wedding ceremony script easy for anyone to read – especially you. Ideally, this is the wedding ceremony script you’re going to carry into the ceremony and read from at the front. There’s no reason to make multiple versions of the script. Your “stage copy” will be the same one your couple sees.
Now you’ve finished making a clear, easy-to-read wedding ceremony script will all the words and actions that will happen in the ceremony. The only thing missing will be your officiant speech, but that’s okay. We’re going to write that in the next few steps, For now, the priority is getting your couple their script so they can see what their wedding ceremony looks like.
5. Send Your Couple the Wedding Ceremony Script and Questionnaire
Ask them to look it over and sign off on all the language and check for anything that’s not quite right for them. That way, they’ve approved of everything you’re going to say and everything that’s going to happen. Now you don’t need to sweat that the ceremony won’t be what they’re looking for! On the contrary, you can be confident that you’re going to deliver exactly what they want.
But what about your wedding officiant speech?
I don’t let any of my couples see what I’m going to say in their wedding ceremony ahead of time. It’s the only surprise I keep in reserve for the couple. That said, remember: in the wedding ceremony planning session, we discussed Part 3 the Officiant Speech with our couple. We asked them what they’d generally like us to say there. Let that be your guide.
I always send my couple a questionnaire to personalize the ceremony and tell my couple’s story. My signature online course Unboring!Wedding Academy has a core two-hour lesson on how to write the ultimate, guaranteed-best love story. But the quick tips here would be to ask them 3 questions:
- How did they meet and what were their first impressions of each other?
- What was the first date like?
- How did the proposal go down?
So send them those questions and ask them each to separately tell their side of the story. You can also include any other questions you think will help you write a personalized speech that’s all about them. Just don’t give them too much homework! You don’t need a lot to write a little speech centred on your couple.
6. Write Your Wedding Officiant Speech
When you get their responses back to your questions, it’s time to start writing your wedding officiant speech!
After you write the love story for the ceremony, you may want to add other stuff like marriage advice, thoughts on commitment, quotes and lyrics, a faith-based sermon, or personal reflections about your relationship with the couple. But however you land the plane, when you start with the love story focused on the couple and end with something heartfelt, everyone will be riveted to your every word. I promise.
7. Format Your Final Wedding Ceremony Script So It’s Easy To Read
When you’ve finished writing your officiant speech, it’s time to create the final wedding ceremony script you’ll read at the front.
At this stage, you have two scripts: the script of your officiant speech, and the “everything else” script you sent to your couple. Simply make a copy of the full ceremony script you sent your couple and paste in your officiant speech.
Now you have your full wedding ceremony script – all the people, actions, cues, and every word you plan to say. So the first part of this Step 7 is done. The other part is making sure it’s easy to read!
I get asked a lot if the wedding officiant needs to memorize the ceremony script. Good news: nope! You don’t have to memorize any of it. It’s perfectly normal to read the whole thing. The crucial thing is to make sure it’s easy to read!
That means: use a large font, and avoid huge blocks of text in paragraph form that make you get lost. When you’re reading in the wedding ceremony, you want to be able to look up at your couple, look around at the guests, and look back down seamlessly. I break the script into lines and run my thumb down the page as I read. That way I can engage the reactions around me as I deliver in the wedding ceremony.
So as you practice reading, see that you’re able to look out and down again with huge pauses. Format your wedding ceremony script in a way that allows you do to that, and you’re ready!
8. Run The Wedding Rehearsal
When the wedding ceremony script is as detailed as the one you’ve made, you’re the most qualified person on the planet to run this wedding rehearsal.
Don’t even think about skipping the rehearsal. When it’s your first time, the rehearsal is as important for you as it is for everyone else.
And don’t outsource running it to the wedding planner either! The wedding planner is awesome, but they’re coaching from the back on the wedding day. You’re the one out front and in the spotlight with your couple. You need to call the shots.
I know it feels scary to finally come out from behind the computer and in front of your couple and their friends and family and handpicked wedding party. But the kind of well-run rehearsal you’re going to run will skyrocket everyone’s faith in you.
So: schedule when to get everyone together with your couple.
When that day comes, show up early and confirm with you couple that everything in your wedding ceremony is correct and that nothing has changed. Then run the wedding rehearsal in 3 parts.
- Talk through the wedding ceremony. Invite everyone to make a big circle and then fill them in on who needs to do what from the very beginning all the way to the end. This should take 5 to 10 minutes.
- Walk through the wedding ceremony. Get everyone lined up at the back and walk in out as you will at the wedding. Iron out the kinks and go over cues and standing positions and every part that requires people to move around. This should take about 20 minutes.
- Walk it through a second time. Chances are, that first go-round was a bit chaotic. Now, line everybody up at the back again and go through it one more time. Everyone is gonna be 1000% better this time because they know what to do, where to go, and when to do it. This should take about 5 minutes.
With that, your couple and their wedding party are way more relaxed – not to mention, so are you! You’ve reduced a lot of anxiety for everyone and instilled confidence that you’re the right choice to officiate and deliver this wedding ceremony.
9. Show Up At The Wedding Ceremony Early For The Final Checks
It’s the big day! Grab that polished final draft of your wedding ceremony script and show up early. I always arrive 45 minutes before wedding ceremony start time. There’s a lot to do in that 45 minutes.
Make final checks that everything and everyone are where they’re supposed to be. Things can fall through the cracks, and the best person to catch those details is you.
Some of the most important things you want to make sure of:
- The person doing the music (DJ, live band, or friend with an iPhone) knows your cues.
- The marriage paperwork and pen are in place.
- Any accoutrements for a unity ritual are set out and ready.
- Your microphone is functioning well. Do a sound check!
- The person who is bringing out the wedding rings in the wedding ceremony does have the wedding rings.
With all those crucial details nailed down, you’ve done everything you can to sure there aren’t any unpleasant miscues during the wedding ceremony. When your couple are ready, get everyone lined up at the back and get ready to walk in and start the wedding ceremony!
10. Crush The Opening Remarks and Show ‘Em a Great Time
So you get to the front – either alone or with some or all of one of the Marrier’s wedding party – and you turn and face all those guests. They’re looking at you like goldfish in a bowl and you start to sweat. This is the most nerve-wracking moment of the whole wedding ceremony. It still is for me, and I’ve officiated hundreds of weddings!
Let’s vaporize this tension right out of the gate.
Remember Part 1 of our wedding ceremony outline we started with above? It’s time to deploy that secret weapon: your officiant opening remarks!
I always start by getting the guests involved. I recommend that the first thing out of your mouth addresses the guests directly: “Good afternoon, everyone!” No one – and I mean no one – will answer back. You’ll hear crickets. Maybe even literally if you’re outside.
Wedding guests don’t know they’re allowed to make some noise! People have been conditioned to sit silently and passively observe a wedding ceremony. But that’s not what we’re looking for, is it? No. Let’s get this thing started by unleashing the joy that gets everyone cheering for the couple who have brought us all together today.
So I always playfully say, “Oh come on now don’t go quiet on me. Today’s a celebration! Good afternoon, everyone!” With that, everyone is shouting back at me and we’re on our way to a great time together. We’ve broken the “fourth wall,” and guests feel drawn in and a part of this wedding ceremony. They feel attached to you as you buoyantly make those opening remarks about who you are (briefly!), whether or not they can take photos, and to silence their devices. You can be humourous about it, everyone will be smiling, and when you’re done, you ask, “With that said, are you ready to get these two hitched?” Everyone will holler a boisterous, “Yeah!” And then it’s your cue to get this whole wedding ceremony started:
“With that, let’s begin!”