My first experience as a secular wedding officiant

Wedding Garden (public domain)

Have you ever flirted with the idea of officiating a secular wedding? You’ve come to the right place! Let me tell you about my first time as an officiant, and along the way, fill in the blanks for you. 

A few years ago, one of my closest friends asked me to officiate their wedding. The question didn’t come out of the blue; they knew where I worked (FFRF) and my interest in officiating a secular wedding. Still, the request was both humbling and thrilling. Since I’m a seasoned performer of both poetry and music, the role of officiant felt like a good fit with my skill set. Additionally, my office at Freethought Hall is right next to Co-President Dan Barker, who has officiated many secular weddings. I knew I could rely on Dan’s advice if I ran into any challenges.

Legal steps

First, I researched how I could be legally ordained to officiate a wedding. I used an online service, which cost me less than $80. There are less expensive packages available if money is a concern. Unexpectedly, I really got a kick out of wearing the little plastic “officiant” badge that came with my wedding kit from the online service!

I then checked with our county clerk to verify that I was legally ordained to officiate. As it turns out, officiant registration is not required in Wisconsin. (See this FFRF FAQ about Marriage Oaths). After that, the happy couple and I focused on the marriage licensing process. Paperwork isn’t one of my strong points, so I was very thankful that my friends did most of the footwork in that regard. Our county clerk was very helpful, and gave us some tips that expedited the issuance of both the certificate and the license.

[Note: It’s possible that you might run into a clerk that mistakenly believes religion or a religious officiant is required to get married. That’s unconstitutional and FFRF’s legal team can help.]

Writing the script

As it turns out, that was the easy part — my friends also asked me to write the script for the wedding ceremony. I felt absolutely humbled by their trust in me to craft a speech that honored their love for each other. I met with the couple to discuss ideas for their script. Fortunately they had chosen three wedding themes ahead of time — growth, kindness, and laughter. We then discussed what those themes meant to them as individuals and as a couple. I took notes on  the language they used to describe the pillars of their relationship.

My process for writing the wedding ceremony script involved seeking other secular-based examples of script structures without reading the detailed contents. I felt it important to avoid being influenced by the creative components of others’ writings. I did read a few excerpts available online, but ultimately what I wrote was truly original. Since the event was at Olbrich Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, I was able to thread together the setting with the thematic component of “growth”. Once I drafted a few lines that compared the growth of a garden to our growth as individuals, and with growth in relationships, I was able to tap into my creative writing flow, and —  wow! The first draft took me about 30 minutes to complete. I went through several revisions, and then started practicing in front of a mirror.



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It took more time than I thought to fully prepare. A covid-19 delay granted me that time, so allow double or triple the time you think it will take you to draft, revise and practice the script.

Inclusion as a goal

When I first started, I was concerned that it may be very difficult to walk the thin line between creating a script that was truly secular and inclusive. In no way was I interested in offending the more religious OR faithful guests. That would have gone against my friend’s wishes as well. We wanted everyone included in this special day, and that’s where the chosen theme of kindness worked in my favor. Here’s an example:

“…being gentle with yourselves is just as necessary as being gentle with each other. That goes for pretty much everyone.”

How could that possibly challenge anyone’s belief system?

Throughout the process, I took care to leave decisions in their hands. This included asking them if they wanted to review the script before the wedding, or if they wanted it to be a surprise. To my surprise, they chose the latter. No pressure. 😉 

As the wedding approached, I kept practicing and reviewed the overall outline of the wedding to avoid any surprises. We rehearsed onsite the evening before the wedding, and made some very minor adjustments.

Wedding day

James as the secular wedding officiant
The author took this selfie at the wedding reception.

Their wedding day arrived — the weather was perfect, my outfit donned, and my script was nearly memorized. Before I knew it, I was in front of the couple’s mutual friends and family members, and officiating the wedding! I took a deep breath, reminded myself to keep my pace slow (I have a tendency to rush when I’m “performing” in front of a crowd), and started my reading. 

As I read, I made eye contact with the audience as well as the couple. This is where practice is your friend. I was nervous, but all I had to do was pause between sentences, breathe, and (mostly) follow the script. My style of reading includes making minor adjustments to words and phrases on the fly. I wouldn’t recommend that approach for everyone —  it’s important to know your limits where it comes to public speaking.

After closing the ceremony and taking the wedding pictures, we attended the reception. One by one, guests approached me to let me know they thought I did a great job, including people of faith along with the “nones”. The ceremony honored my friends, and I also achieved something else — I was able to provide a positive example of how an atheist can officiate a wedding without god(s), and uphold inclusive principles at the same time. We of all belief systems can join together and celebrate life and love, friendship and kindness, with mutual respect for our commonalities and differences.

 


Author’s notes: AHA and CFI provide excellent resources for becoming ordained: CFI: Secular Celebrant Program and AHA: Become a Humanist Celebrant. Please research your states’ laws before committing to a path. The author extends his thanks to Andrew L. Seidel for his assistance in writing this article.

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