The first step is to sit down together with a glass of wine or coffee or bourbon or your drink of choice here, turn your phones to silent and talk about some real shit. Maybe you’ve already done this when you got engaged or before you got engaged, but I am a fan of managing expectations for both parties in an agreement.
So How Do You Write a Wedding Ceremony?
I think a HUGE part of writing a wedding ceremony is to first and foremost know mission statement as a couple. I know that sounds corporate AF but hear me out. When you’re making this commitment to each other, you gotta know what that means, for both of you. Yes, it means that you’re going to be together forever, but WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
Your Wedding Ceremony is Essentially Like a Contract
This is what a wedding ceremony seeks to define. Your ceremony is kind of like the contract for your marriage. It states what the hell you’re agreeing to. The first step of how to write a wedding ceremony is to step back and define your terms.
Before nonreligious weddings became a thing (remember only 22% of weddings take place in religious institutions these days), the religious doctrine defined the marriage terms. If you’re planning a nonreligious ceremony or even a ceremony that’s kind of religious-ish, you’re defining the terms of the ceremony and the agreement.
Yes, all you really need to do is agree to be with this person until you die, but it seems like there should be something else said when you’re agreeing to legally bind yourself to someone, amirite?
I am a person who is very into self-reflection and understanding my goals. I brought this into our marriage for sure. Even before we were engaged, we were having conversations about what we wanted our marriage to look like, how we wanted to function together as a married couple, what goals we had for our life together. It doesn’t mean that some of these thing can’t change (they can and they do) but the core of our partnership remains the same, and it’s centered on what we had said at our ceremony and what we said to each other in our vows. More on vows later.
How to Develop Your Mission Statement
First things first, you probably know why you love this person that you’ve agreed to marry. Most likely you’ve told them somehow how you feel about them. Start there. Write that down. It’ll come back to help you when you write your vows.
Now write down (this can be a bulleted list by the way) what you want out of your marriage together. What do you want to do for each other? What are some non-negotiables? How will you treat each other? What is at the core of your love for each other that binds you together?
PS — These are big questions, and I’m not a couples counselor. I would suggest finding one to help you answer these questions if you are having trouble.
For example, we agreed that we wanted our marriage to be a partnership. We wanted to both share in the household responsibilities. We wanted to capture the fact that love isn’t always grand and perfect, that the real love comes in the little moments, in the daily grind. To us, love isn’t a fairytale, but something that we have chosen to share with each other to help us navigate a life of ups and downs. We also wanted to reiterate that our love must be nurtured and not just something that’s checked off a list since we were now married.
Your list can be long or short and filled with whatever you want. I’m not here to tell you how you should function in marriage or how you should love one another; that’s totally up to you. But actually sitting down and defining what you want your marriage to look like and how you want it to function for you will not only help you write your wedding ceremony, but will also just help you understand what the heck you’re agreeing to.
After you’ve developed your list, write down some statements. They could be:
We will be lifelong partners that support each other through the good times and bad.
We will always work to bring out the best in each other.
We will laugh together always.
We will always resolve our fights before we go to bed.
We will make decisions together.
We will stay connected by going on dates once a month throughout our marriage.
We believe that marriage is a long journey full of ups and downs and we will constantly affirm our connection to one another.
These are just examples. They can be anything you want them to be. You have the power to define your marriage.
Once you have a clear indication of what I’m calling the contract of your marriage (cue the sticky note from Grey’s Anatomy, y’all), start writing your ceremony. The mission statement helps you decide the tone of the ceremony which will in turn help you write it. If you don’t have the fundamentals down, you will flounder and become frustrated while piecing together the ceremony.
Decide What Style of Wedding Ceremony You Want to Have
When you’re writing your own ceremony, you get to dictate the terms. Decide together what sort of wedding ceremony you’d like to have. It can be long, short, traditional, non-traditional, spiritual, etc. You can try to fuse religious traditions together or go completely secular. You can research interesting religious traditions that fit with how you feel about marriage and the vibe you want for your ceremony. You can go with traditions that symbolize everything you want to say about your partnership. It’s best to decide what you general style and vibe will be BEFORE you put pen to paper. If you need to consult parents, this would be the time to do it, but make sure that your wishes remain in the forefront and that your ceremony reflects what you both want.
Start Writing Your Ceremony
Ah, the time has come! It’s time to write this bad boy. How to begin?
First thing first, pick a basic structure. Refer back to part one of this blog series on basic ceremony structure and decide what you want to include and what you don’t. Think of the structure as an outline you need to fill in with language that reflects your mission statement. You don’t HAVE to include anything you don’t want to, except the declaration of intent (the “I do”).
A really common nonreligious wedding ceremony structure is:
Vows (Including the “I do”)
Unity Tradition (sometimes!)
Closing Remarks/Pronouncement of Marriage (the kiss y’all)
Usually this amounts to fifteen to twenty minutes of content. If you don’t like something in here, THROW IT OUT. There are multiple ways to do each of these elements. Refer back to the basic structures of a ceremony post to understand what each of these elements are if you’ve forgotten.
You can look at ceremony scripts online, but I highly suggest reviewing them closely and tweaking them to fit your own ceremony. The great thing about breaking from the religious traditions and doing your own thing is that you can make it super duper personal which I find to be wonderful. It’s okay to be funny and it’s okay to mention personal things in your ceremony. That’s why you went this route, remember?
Looking for more wedding ceremony writing resources? Here are a few I’d recommend peeking at:
So you’re getting married. Yay! You’ve decided to have a wedding ceremony right at your beautiful outdoor venue. But what the heck will you say? What do you do and when do you do it? You need some wedding ceremony 101. In this series, I’ll be taking you through common questions about wedding ceremonies, including the ceremony structure, basics to consider, vow writing, readings, music choice and more.
Weddings have changed a lot over the past twenty years, but one of the largest shift is in the wedding ceremony. According to The Knot’s 2019 Real Weddings Study, only 22 percent of weddings are held in a religious institution. This means that wedding ceremonies are more personalized than ever because there’s no need to necessarily adhere to a specific tradition.
Only 22% of weddings are held in a religious institution.
The Knot 2019 Real Weddings Study
When you’re wedding planning, you’ll make hundreds of decisions. That comes with the territory of throwing a large-scale event. But if you choose to forego any religious tradition or to be married outside of a house of worship, the responsibility of deciding what to include in your wedding ceremony is completely up to you.
This can seem daunting to couples, even those who have attended countless weddings. When you’re up to bat, it can seem overwhelming. In fact, when I asked my Instagram followers what questions they had during wedding planning, the wedding ceremony came up over and over again.
I’m by no means an expert in wedding ceremonies, but I am someone who choose to forego the religious institution and write my own wedding ceremony. I did a lot of research, and spent a lot of time talking to my now-husband about our ceremony, which was something we viewed as very important during the wedding planning process. I’ve also been to a lotttt of different types of weddings during my time as a wedding photographer, both religious and non-religious.
Beyond figuring out where to hold your wedding (I hope you’ve already done that if you’re consulting this blog post), you’ve got to figure out who the heck is going to marry you!
Choosing your officiant
Unless you live in a state where you can self-declare your marriage, sometimes called self-uniting marriage (looking at Colorado, District of Columbia, Wisconsin, and some other states with Quaker populations), you’re going to need someone to officiate the marriage. In many states, including Michigan, a person must be an ordained minister, magistrate, mayor, or a judge to perform marriage ceremonies.
This doesn’t mean you’re limited. In the Internet age, it’s pretty simple to be “ordained” online. Many couples are opting to ask a friend or family member to act as their wedding officiant. According to a 2016 Real Weddings survey, 43 percent of couples choose this route, up from 29% in 2009.
If you hire an officiant, they will most likely be ordained and have some wedding ceremony scripts to show you. They can walk you through what to include in your ceremony and answer questions about specific traditions. They may also write the ceremony for you.
If you opt for the family or friend route, you’ll probably need to take an active role in writing the ceremony.
Either way, I think it’s important to think about and discuss what YOU BOTH want the ceremony to mean; how you want to say what you want to say; and who is the best fit to facilitate it all. It can be very meaningful to have someone close to you officiate your wedding ceremony. It can also be just as meaningful of a ceremony to hire a professional. I’ve seen both work very well.
So where do you begin with your wedding ceremony structure? Let me give you the basic building blocks.
The Basics of a Wedding Ceremony Structure
1. The Processional
This is the part where you enter the ceremony. Many couples choose to include immediate family members including grandparents and parents, seating them during this time. Sometimes, it’s just the wedding party. Sometimes the groom comes down the aisle with the officiant. In Jewish traditions, both partners walk down the aisle with their parents. Josh and I choose to do this at our wedding instead of the “giving away” of the bride. The processional set up is up to you. You don’t HAVE to do anything, you could just enter together if you wanted!
2. The Opening Remarks
Usually the officiant welcomes everyone to the ceremony (think “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”). This could include a thank you from the couple, or a quotation, whatever you want it to.
3. The Officiant Addresses the Couple
After an opening statement, the officiant often addresses the couple. If it’s a friend or family member, they may share a memory of the couple. Or they may just emphasize the significance of the vows you’re going to make to each other.
4. Expression of Intent
The whole “I do” thing. This is the moment where you express your intent to marry. In most places, this is legally the only thing you really need. You’re saying, hey I’m here by choice and I do indeed want to marry this person.
Sometimes couples choose to include readings in their ceremony. Usually in the wedding ceremony structure, readings come before vows. They can be short, they can be long, they can be poems, they can be prose. There are many common Bible readings if you’re from the Christian tradition, but there are also common poems people read at weddings. If there is a special passage that you both love, this would be a great time to share it. Choosing a family member or close friend to share the reading with everyone is a great way to involve others in your ceremony.
6. The Exchange of Vows
The big moment: the vows! There are a number of ways you can approach your vows. You can both write your own and share them during the ceremony. You can write something together beforehand and repeat it to each other during the ceremony. I think the vows are the most important part of the ceremony. They are the moment you get to declare exactly why you’re getting married and what you’re going to promise to each other. HEAVY stuff.
7. Exchange of Rings
If you would like, usually the exchange of rings occurs immediately after the vows. You can say something when you exchange rings, or you can just have the officiant say something like “As you place this ring on James’ finger…”
8. Unity Ceremony & Other Rituals
There are countless unity ceremonies you could perform. Typically you would perform them after the rings and vows are exchanged to symbolize your union. Popular ceremonies include sand ceremony, unity candle, signing of the marriage license, planting a tree, sealing a time capsule box, or hand fastening (that’s what we did). You can have someone perform a song during this time, or you can skip the unity ceremony!
9. The Pronouncement of Marriage
This is the moment when the officiant says “I now pronounce you…” The next few things come quick.
10. The Kiss
Usually couples choose to kiss after they are pronounced married by the officiant. Sometimes the officiant prompts the kiss, sometimes they do not.
11. The Closing Remarks
You may choose to have the officiant state reminders to the guests about the reception or a final blessing before the recessional.
12. The Presentation of the Couple
This is optional, but sometimes the officiant will say, “It’s my honor to present the newlywed couple” or something along those lines before everyone recesses.
13. The Recessional
Typically the recessional is the reverse of the processional. The couple exits together and then the wedding party follows. The parents usually follow after. If you haven’t signed a marriage license yet, usually it’s done right after the recessional.
The Most Important Thing to Remember about Your Wedding Ceremony Structure
There are no right or wrong answers to what should our wedding ceremony structure look like? because it can look like whatever the hell you want it to if you are writing your own or having a friend/family officiant. The beauty in dispelling what’s traditional is that you get to define what your ceremony looks like and means to you both. It’s okay if something isn’t right for you as a couple and someone else chooses to do it at their wedding. That was their wedding. This is yours. Remember that. Just remember to sign the marriage license correctly and send it in. That’s the most important part. Trust me.
Now that you have the basic wedding ceremony structure, I’m sure you have probably a million more questions. My biggest piece of advice is to sit down with your partner and define your wedding ceremony mission statement. Figure out what you want the ceremony to mean to you both. Forget everyone else, what do you want from it?
Here are some questions to discuss together:
How long do we want the ceremony to be?
Do we want others to participate in the ceremony? What will their role(s) be? Who will participate?
Are we uncomfortable by any certain part of the ceremony? Can we leave that out or alter it to fit our personalities?
What type of vows do we want? Do we want to write our own? Do we want to share them publicly?
What traditions will we incorporate, if any? Are there any religious/cultural traditions we want to include?
What do we believe to be true about marriage and our partnership and how can we infuse those beliefs into our wedding ceremony? —this one is a big question!
For Josh and I, we knew we wanted a very feminist, non-gender-role-conforming wedding ceremony. We view marriage as a equalitarian partnership and wanted that to shine through our wedding ceremony. We choose to use language that reflected that instead of typical gendered language (we both come from Christian backgrounds). We wanted to include readings because we both like books and poetry and we wanted a way for others to share in the ceremony. We choose a hand fastening unity ceremony because it seemed the most symbolic and simple for us. We had my sister sing a song that we both like during that part. It was pretty short (probably could have been even shorter), sweet, and encapsulated what we believed to be true about the partnership we were embarking on.
It doesn’t have to be the same for you. Remembering that you get to define the ceremony and your marriage is an important first step. Weddings always seem to be a parade of “Aren’t we supposed to do that?” but you don’t have to do anything. You do you.
Next week, I’ll be covering choosing readings for your wedding ceremony.
Have any questions about wedding ceremonies you think I should answer? Leave them in the comments!