Just about every contemporary wedding ceremony has a part where the couple exchanges wedding rings. This has been going on literally for ages – the earliest wedding ring exchanges were happening in Egypt over 3000 years ago when couples would exchange rings made of hemp or reeds, and then other cultures improved on that with rings of iron and then previous metals.
Because the ring-exchange element of the wedding ceremony has been going on for thousands of years across all sorts of religions and cultures, there are dozens and dozens of ways to actually do it. And there’s an equal number of things you can say about it in the ceremony.
Whatever you decide to say for this part (more on this below), there are a lot of moving parts around the Ring Exchange in a wedding ceremony. If we overlook them, it can lead to anything from not having the actual rings when we call for them to the bride stumbling all over her words when we ask her to “repeat-after-me.”
As with every element of wedding ceremonies, it’s my philosophy to break it down to its smallest components, to be prepared, and to keep things simple. So without further ado, here’s a guide: 8 steps for a Ring Exchange that works in the field for a real professional wedding officiant who uses it weekend-in and weekend-out.
This Ring Exchange will work for you, too.
1. Decide who will be holding the wedding rings in the ceremony.
As Wedding Officiant, first we need to talk to our couples about deciding who will hold and keep the wedding rings during the ceremony. I ask them about this when I conduct my ceremony planning session with the couple six weeks before the ceremony. I have a spreadsheet and a full training module for how to run this meeting in my full online course for wedding officiants called Unboring!Wedding Academy.
Sometimes, the person who carries the rings into the ceremony space and the person who keeps the rings during the ceremony are not the same person. A lot of the time, the couple will ask a Ring Bearer to carry the rings in; this is often a young man who will come down the aisle presenting the rings tied to a pillow or displayed in an ornamental box, for example. So in the planning session, if our couple want a Ring Bearer to walk the rings down the aisle, we need a clear plan: who does the Ring Bearer give the rings to?
In a traditional ceremony, the ring keeper is the Best Man, and he holds the rings until called upon for the Ring Exchange in the wedding ceremony. But it doesn’t have to be the Best Man; anything goes here. I’ve had couples choose one ring to go to the Best Man and the other to the Maid of Honour. I’ve had some couples choose their dog to come forward with the rings tied to her collar. I’ve had couples choose Grampa to come forward from the front row. You get the picture. Ask your couple what they’d like to do here, because it’s really up to them.
Just make sure we’ve decided who will be holding the wedding rings, and then we can move on.
2. Choose where to put the Ring Exchange in your ceremony script.
So you’ve finished your ceremony planning session with your couple, and they’ve decided who will carry in and who will keep the rings. Now we need to decide where the Ring Exchange best goes in the script.
In my opinion, the Ring Exchange almost always flows best after the Wedding Vows section. The Ring Exchange kind of crystallizes the promises as a visual symbol, really nailing it home.
That’s not to say that you need to go straight from vows into rings! There might be some stuff between the two. If my couple opt to include a wedding ritual here like a Sand Mixing or Unity Candle Lighting, I like to insert that after the vows and before the rings. If the couple opts to add a handfasting to their ceremony, then it’s best to get the rings on before tangling their hands all up in a cord or ribbon. So: most of the time, we want to do vows, then any wedding rituals, then go into the Ring Exchange, and from there into pronouncing the couple as married.
In a nutshell: Wedding Vows → Wedding Ritual (if included) → Ring Exchange → Pronouncing as Married.
3. Check that the ring keeper does have the rings before starting the ceremony.
Now we can skip right to the wedding day. Minutes before the wedding ceremony starts, all the people who will be walking down the aisle – the bridesmaids, the groomsmen, the parents, the wedding couple, the kids, the dogs – are all lined up together at the back, just outside the entrance to the ceremony space. So as part of your pre-ceremony checklist, right before you give them all a little pep talk, you’re going to find the person who has the rings and ask them point-blank, “Do you have the rings?”
You would be amazed at how often, when I ask, the answer is, “No.” So to be honest, I’ve started asking way earlier than when we’re lined up at the back. But if you haven’t asked yet, that’s definitely the time to do it.
4. Introduce the Ring Exchange section of the wedding ceremony with a reflection.
When you move into the Ring Exchange part of the ceremony, you want to explicitly say so with a “Morgan and Julian will now exchange rings…” to signal that we’re moving into that section. The guests don’t have a script like we do; they can’t see what we’re doing or where we’re going with paragraph breaks or subject headings. So our words need to clearly signal when we’re leaving one section of the ceremony and moving into another. After we’ve expressly stated that, then we can launch into our reflection on the wedding rings, what this exchange means, and why it’s all so important.
‘Wanna talk about how the ring goes round and round and never ends – just like the love of this couple? Go for it! ‘Wanna talk about how it’s made of metal and will endure long after death has parted these two – as will their love and commitment? Perfect. Or about how the precious metal symbolizes a bond forged in fire just as the trials of life together are a crucible for love? Great! I could go on. But I’ll stop now. In a nutshell, scour your couple’s religious tradition or just ponder these symbols for yourself and you’ll be able to write something truly weighty for the big wedding-ring-exchange moment.
As for me, I keep it short and simple. The focus of every wedding ceremony I write centres on the story of the couple. So my discourse on rings tends to be fairly simple and straightforward. I something very brief like, “Morgan and Julian will now exchange rings as a symbol of the promises they made, and of their ongoing commitment to each other.” Literally: that’s it. You can even copy and paste that if you want.
And then I turn and nod to the ring keeper. Which brings us to our next point.
5. Make sure the ring keeper knows the cue for when to come forward with the rings.
Traditionally, when it’s time for the groom to place the ring on the bride’s finger, the wedding officiant will ask, “Who has the rings?”
This is part of a rich tradition where the wedding officiant asks questions that make it seem like he doesn’t know where he is or why he’s here. Like when the bride gets to the front and it’s tradition for him to ask, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man today?” And Doug the Dad is standing, like, right there. Or when he asks, “Do you come here of your own free will to be married today?” Um… haven’t you had several meetings with the couple, half a dozen email exchanges, a wedding rehearsal, and contact with the planner, photographer, and venue coordinator they’ve hired? Questions like these are from a time of yore, so we can do everyone a favour and update them a bit.
For newer officiants, I always advise that they be as explicit as possible when it’s time for someone to do something in the ceremony. That means when it’s time to repeat vows, it’s best to say, “Julian, please repeat after me,” or “Morgan, I’m going to ask you a question and you can reply with, ‘I do.'” Likewise, when it’s time to exchange the rings, rather than saying “Who has the rings?” like you have no idea what;’s going on, it’s better to say, “Chris, can you come forward and bring Morgan’s ring to Julian?” I find where those traditional questions are brutally impersonal, now we can use first names and be quite personable while being directive.
As for me (and more experienced officiants), I prepare the ring keeper for this moment in the wedding rehearsal. When we’re practicing the elements of the ceremony, I explicitly tell the ring keeper, “Dan, this is the part where I’ll say, ‘”Morgan and Julian will now exchange rings as a symbol of the promises they made, and of their ongoing commitment to each other.’ That’s when I’d like you to come forward and give the ring to Julian, okay?”
Then I walk Dan and the wedding couple through the next few steps (6, 7, and 8 below). And yes, we act it out with a dummy ring or a piece of grass or an imaginary ring. It really helps to pantomime the Ring Exchange and guide them all through exactly how we’re going to do it in the ceremony.
6. The ring keeper gives the ring to the Groom or Partner 1.
While this part seems pretty self-explanatory, there are three really important hacks here that will help this so smoothly.
First, I tell the ring keeper not to have the rings in a box. This seems counterintuitive, I know, because… aren’t the rings really, uber-safe in a box?
When the rings are in a box, they shift and move in the ring keeper’s pocket and when he’s extracting the box from his pocket. Guess what that means: when he opens the box, the rings won’t be in their nice little slots. They’ll probably be loose. So when he opens the box, there’s a huge risk that they’ll pop out like a jack-in-the-box the moment he opens it. That’s precisely what happened to the poor Best Man pictured below in this ceremony held on a deck outdoors.
We all had to watch as the ring bounced on the wood planks like a ping pong ball and mercifully came to rest without falling between the cracks. Which is why the bride jokingly approached him with hands cupped to take her groom’s ring. It was a moment of levity that could have been avoided – if he’d taken my advice and simply kept the rings loose in his pocket. No boxes. Just loose. Hand them the rings one at a time.
The second thing is a bit of stagecraft: tell the ring keeper not to come in from behind Partner 1 (the groom or bride), because then the wedding partner will have to turn away from the guests, and more importantly, away from the wedding photographer. So in the Ring Exchange, that old stage adage applies: never turn your back to the audience. So even if the Best Man is positioned slightly behind the Groom, tell him to step in front of Partner 1 and just to the side – not blocking him or her from the view of the guests or the photographer.
Lastly, I tell brides and grooms to hold their hand flat out, palm up, and I tell the ring keeper to place the ring firmly into his or her palm. This will ensure nobody does that thing we all do when you hand something to someone with fingers and they drop it – “I thought you had it!” “I thought you had it!” That’s not happening on our watch.
With the ring safely passed off, now we guide our brides and grooms through the next part.
7. Wait while Partner 1 places the ring on Partner 2’s finger.
I contemplated calling this section “Avoid this Major Rookie Mistake!” or something equally alarmist. Because when this next part is done badly, it kind of derails how lovely the moment of the Ring Exchange can be.
When I’m coaching new officiants, I always make sure to emphasize this point on our coaching call: don’t talk while one of the wedding partners is putting the ring on the other’s finger.
Don’t make the bride or groom try to put the ring on the other’s finger and say things at the same time.
In the wedding ring exchange, two things are going to happen. One of the things is the couple are going to put the ring on each other’s fingers. The other thing that’s going to happen is in Point 8 below: they’re going to say some words to each other after they do.
Here’s what to do:
Ask Parter 1 to put the ring on, then resume holding hands with Partner 2, then say some words. Then repeat this same cycle for Partner 2.
Do not conflate these very distinct actions.
Why? Because almost always, one of them has trouble getting the ring on the other’s finger. It sticks. It won’t go over the knuckle. There’s some pushing and pulling and tugging. There’s always a moment where it starts to get awkward and there can even be a slight rising panic. This is so normal is most ceremonies!
Now, as the wedding officiant, we determine what happens next. Let’s imagine one less-than-ideal scenario. The groom is trying to get the ring over his soon-to-be bride’s knuckle, and it’s difficult and it’s slightly awkward. The officiant launches into making him “repeat-after-me.” But he’s distracted, and he’s focused on getting the darn ring on and on how hard it is, and he stumbles over his words, and he has to ask, “Sorry – can you repeat that, please?”
Here’s the ideal scenario. The groom is trying to get the ring over his soon-to-be bride’s knuckle, and it’s difficult and it’s slightly awkward. But that’s okay. She’s giggling a bit, and he’s blushing, but the officiant waits, smiling. The guests chuckle a bit, too; the officiant has given this space to happen. When the ring is on, the groom makes a funny comment – “Perfect fit!” and the bride says, “It’s about time!” and there’s a smattering of laughter and applause. Everyone recomposes themselves, and the officiant smiles and says, “Julian, please repeat after me.” Julian then goes on to repeat, and it’s meaningful and beautiful and both parts – the funny and the moving – were both allowed to happen because the officiant was patient and kept the two parts separate.
I always tell my couple at the rehearsal, “I’m not going to make you walk and chew gum at the same time, here.” We want to keep these two actions – the putting on of the ring and the talking – two distinct parts! Because the one event – having trouble getting the ring on – will be fun and humorous and will inject some air into the moment. And then, when the ring is on and all is settled down, we will facilitate a meaningful and moving moment where the groom and then the bride say some important words to each other.
Last but not least: here’s some more detail on exactly what they say.
8. Prompt Partner 1 to consummate his/her ring exchange with a few words.
When the ring is on, we want to help them seal the deal by getting Partner 1 to say a few words to Partner 2. I like to keep this short and simple. If the couple’s religious tradition dictates certain scripting here, go for it! As for me, almost all of my weddings are fairly secular. So in conjunction with what I emphasized at the start of the ring exchange – that the rings are a symbol of commitment – I ask the couple to repeat a few lines after me to that effect.
Most couples really like the following scripting, so feel free to use it with my blessing. I’ll lead them each in turn to repeat after me line-by-line something like this:
Morgan, I give you this ring
as a reminder
that I will love and honour you.
Please wear it as a daily sign
Of my commitment to you.
Some couples want to say as little as possible during the wedding ceremony. In this case, I would simply rewrite this part almost exactly, only in the form of a question instead. All they need to do is answer, “I will.” (This is the same technique for the three wedding vow styles where scripting can be written either as a repeatable statement or as a question.)
Julian, do you give this ring to Morgan
as a reminder
that you will love and honour her?
And do you wish for her to wear it
as a daily sign of your commitment to her?
Partner 1 says, “I do,” we do it all over again for Partner 2, and it’s just about time to pronounce them as married!
In sum, the Ring Exchange in the wedding ceremony is a set of explicit steps. First, we find out who has the rings when we’re planning, then we make sure that person has the rings before we start, then we call for the rings in the ceremony, and then Partner 2 and Partner 2 each take their turns putting the ring on and saying a few words.
Here’s what the Ring Exchange section looks like in my actual wedding script:
There you have it! Remember the steps, walk them out with your couple in the rehearsal, and bingo – you’ve got a wedding ring exchange that any ancient Egyptian would love.