When The Officiant Is Also a Friend

Settle around the campfire, kids, we’re going to tell HORROR STORIES!!
Don’t be scared, Little Jimmy, this is gonna be FUN!

Over the past 12 years I have officiated at a good number of friends’ weddings and commitment ceremonies. Almost all of the time, the experiences have been absolutely delightful and make for wonderful, happy memories.

And then [cue scary music] there are the times that they have been just awful.

My favorite is the time an old college friend got in touch after many years and flew me out to California in order to do her wedding. While she and the bridesmaids (also friends of mine) went off to get their hair and nails done, I was left to rot in a crappy hotel room (the other girlfriends were staying together somewhere else). I remember the punch in the gut I felt when she cheerily informed me that she and the bridesmaids would be going off to do “girl things” and they’d see me at the wedding location later. Wow. I guess becoming a minister stripped me of my girl status. I was devastated. A family member kindly invited me to go out with her to run some errands, so I spent that time SHOPPING FOR MEDICAL EQUIPMENT for sick granny or grandad. Nothing gets you in the mood for a festive occasion for which you have traveled thousands of miles like pricing bed pans and wheelchairs!

I was totally depressed by the time the ceremony rolled around, but did what I hope was a good job with the service. As my college pals laughed and sparkled, I felt like a troll. My (now former) friend did give me a thoughtful gift for my services, though: ONE LONE wine glass in a box from Crate & Barrel. Wow! Not only did I totally appreciate the message of, “Enjoy a glass of wine BY YOURSELF, LOSER SINGLE PERSON” — I loved the thoughtfulness of sending me off to my next destination (a conference in New Orleans) burdened with a piece of stemwear in my luggage.

I gave it to a flight attendant.

When I wrote a note to my friend confessing that I felt hurt by her treatment of me, she responded nastily that I should have appreciated her generosity in paying my airfare and hotel. Hmmm. Well, considering that I would not have considered attending her wedding had she not asked me to officiate, that argument was less than persuasive.

Life lesson, and this is especially for you, seminarians: Being a minister or priest will make you something of a curiosity or exotic species within a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Those with plans to marry will think it’s SUPER COOL to have their own personal clergyperson on hand to do the service. Be smart. First of all, don’t accept every invitation or you risk becoming exploited and exhausted. Second, accept invitations only for people you really love who are sure to include you in all the festivities and consider you part of the wedding party, not some kind of hired hand on the level of the caterer’s staff.

Secondly, remember that no matter how good a friend you are, you still have religious authority and professional responsibility for the service. You are not just a treasured guest, you are at work. No drinking before either rehearsal or ceremony. No skipping a rehearsal if one is needed just because you pal tries to cajole you out of it. If you require, as I do, a copy of a couple’s self-composed vows before the service, do not tolerate complaints that you are being a control freak. Say “no vows, no service” and retire to your room. This is just an example: you will have your own “musts” that no friend should be allowed to persuade you to neglect. You have to be willing to insist on certain elements of preparation or protocol even with the best of buddies.

I giggle thinking of that last bit of advice which comes from one of my favorite real-life experiences: My best and oldest buddyroo was getting married and she and her beloved decided to write their own vows. “Wonderful,” I said, “But I need a copy of what you plan to say as a cheat sheet in case you get choked up and entirely forget your words.” I knew from lots of experience that my ability to quietly prompt would very likely be necessary in the heat of the moment. My buddy’s fiancee obliged me immediately, but my friend herself kept postponing and postponing and blowing me off and saying she didn’t NEED a cheat sheet, she was sure to remember her vows… and finally it came to a small smack-down and temper tantrum (hers, not mine). She’s not much of a tantrum giver and no one’s idea of a Bridezilla, so I thought it was kind of funny.

However, I stood firm and by the time we got outside to do the ceremony in that beautiful yard in which we had often played as children, I had my friend’s vows in hand. I believe she submitted them to me on a napkin, written in crayon. If memory serves, I believe she kind of flung them at me muttering something about my being a control freak. I cackled wickedly in response.

SO guess who, mid-way through her vows, became overcome with emotion and could not for the life of her remember the next phrase, or even part of a phrase of her vows? I let her sweat it out for a few long moments as she gazed into her almost-hubby’s eyes in sheer, blanky, teary confusion.
Then, “Would you like some help?” I asked ever-so-softly, and she and her entire family burst into laughter. She was SO. BUSTED.
The photograph we have of that moment — all of us roaring with laughter in the green yard — is in my church study and remains one of my most prized possessions.

P.S. The marriage is a happy one and they have two beautiful daughters.

You go next!

13 Replies to “When The Officiant Is Also a Friend”

  1. I have a policy of requiring pre-marital counseling, and have declined officiating if the couple refuses. My favorite was the bride whose reason for not “needing counseling” was that this was her fourth wedding, and she knew what to do. LOL!

  2. I always require that the friends who are doing various readings submit the readings ahead of time. I definitely had people want to read inappropriate things and NOT give them to me in advance! (I caught them…let’s just say that non-song-of-solomon erotica has its place, and it’s not the wedding service.) The last wedding I did, the friend refused to turn in the reading, so the bride and groom (in abject fear that I would call it off) assigned her something. The friend thought they were the control freaks, but no….it was me, emailing them every day “where is it? if you don’t give it to me, it won’t be in the program and it WILL.NOT.HAPPEN.” lol.

  3. Wow, you are a good sport, particularly with your best friend…honestly, if I had been in your place, and she had pulled that act of throwing her crayon-scribbled vows on a cocktail napkin at me, I would have turned around and walked out. Would she have pulled that stunt on an officiant who was not a friend of hers? Unbelievable…
    [You have to know that it was actually quite hilarious because she is such a totally wonderful, level-headed, never-ever snitty person that when she showed signs of strain I thought it was GREAT! Because she always handles stress with such maturity and grace that I loved seeing that human moment. I couldn’t adore anyone more, she is truly a gem. Of the two of us, believe me, I am the drama queen!! And she has never walked out on me. And never would. But thanks for the support because that’s not always the case with those who mistreat their clergy friends or family! – PB]

    I actually appreciate the fact that in my denomination there are specific readings, nuptial blessings, and vow formulae from which the couple have to choose ahead of time for the ceremony. There are a good range of choices, and honestly, I prefer this to having to worry about checking and double-checking ahead of time whether the readings and the written vows are appropriate or not to the occasion.

    Your comments about having to play different roles when you are presiding at friends’ weddings is spot on. Have you ever presided at family weddings? I find that can be even more challenging…you have a leadership role in the service, yet you are still sister/brother/cousin/niece/nephew/child/grandchild., etc. to the congregation present, and you are all too aware of the tinderbox of conflicts and behavioral and emotional timebombs that could go off anytime during the festivities! Talk about draining!

    That first story about your college acquaintance just sounds painful. But I know that when I have been brought in from out of town to preside at friends’ weddings, I am actually relieved when members of the wedding party go off and do their own thing, and leave me wherever I am staying. But then again, I am a classic introvert on the Myers Briggs, so having to be “on” for others for rehearsal, rehearsal dinner, wedding, and reception is a major league drain on my energy…I relish any quiet, alone time I can get.

  4. No horror story, just a self-indulgent story of wardrobe redemption. I recently attended the wedding of a colleague in ministry. I was honored to be ask to take a small part in the ceremony. In all there were 6 clergy involved, in addition to the groom. Fortunately two of these clergy were specifically friends of the bride and the event was beautifully orchestrated to reflect both of their lives. It would have been a horror if it ended up as a one sided love fest! Having a small, but sacred role of serving communion to the guests, I felt that I needed to dress very professionally, but I dying to dress for a party. I guess that wardrobe complication is my only frustration to weddings which blend roles of clergy and family/friend. Last summer I faced the wardrobe challenge at my brother’s wedding by changing between the service and the reception. That was a bit much. This time I was able to find a darling little black dress which I wore with a short sleeved structured jacket and scarf at the ceremony and was able to remove for the reception. I did a quick shoe and jewelry change in the car and I felt fantastic in both outfits.
    PB, sorry that you had to loose such a useless “friend” in such a painful way. I hope the conference was at least decent. 😉

  5. I have been blessed in the ceremonies I’ve done for family and friends. No horror stories as of yet. I will admit to having done an extra-special homily for the niece I was closest to – about whom I had the best stories to share – and probably some ruffled feathers from others who got “less”. When I married one friend, because of her outrageous sense of humor, I felt freest to say more outrageous things, myself. It was a hoot. At the end of the ceremony, she hollered, “Let’s do it AGAIN!” We didn’t.

    My concern is memorials. I am resolved not to perform a memorial for my family – esp parents. I want to be a daughter that day.

  6. I am not a clergyperson, but I attended a friend’s wedding where the bride’s uncle officiated. My boyfriend (now husband) and I were horrified when her uncle referred to her in the homily as a “nice piece of woman-flesh”. Ew. [*screams* – PB]

  7. My story is perhaps not of the horror genre but challenging nonetheless. My husband’s cousin, not exactly a church-goer but congnizant that her parents wanted some holiness, asked me to do her wedding in a lovely little wooden chapel — without a microphone. This would not have been a problem, as I project well, except that the bride is close to 6′ tall. Her groom was a former body-builder whose tux had to be custom-made for his torso and arms. I, well I am 5’2″ and 140 lbs. With the bride and groom towering over me, it was impossible to move my voice over them and into the pews. With my head tilted up to look at them and my voice projected, I felt as though I were yelling at them rather than offciating a wedding. Next time, I think I’ll request that a larger couple remain on the chancel steps rather than moving up on the chancel itself.

  8. As an Episcopal deacon, I can do weddings but not the blessing (surely there’s a prayer that could be substituted). But denominationally–the pre-wedding counselling I have to do. Glad for the tip about see the vows and readings; I’ll be prepared to set limits, if needed.
    And wait for what our diocese is going to say about equal marriage. There’s hope.

  9. I’m not ordained, but I preached my brother’s wedding. He and his bride could not have been kinder. I was the first person they contacted to let me know they had gotten engaged, and asked me to do ‘something significant’ for their wedding in about 2 years (for logistical reasons, it was a long engagement). They thought I would help plan music and readings–the minister at the church where she grew up (she had been away for years but kept in touch) asked if they would like someone who knew them well to do the sermon. So they asked me, and I said yes.

    Except for my Roman Catholic father being appalled that his son was not only being married in a Methodist church, but that TWO WOMEN were doing the service, and he threatened to object because it wasn’t a ‘real’ marriage, it was a fine day. But you just can’t make parents behave.

    I could not have had more fun preparing and delivering any sermon than I did with that one–and I have served as a lay preacher for 8 years prior to moving to England.

  10. Before I comment on this genius bit of advice, I have to tell you how much I LOVE your blog. I’m starting my first semester of seminary this fall. When I starting telling friends that I was going to be a minister, one turned to me and asked, “What are you going to do with all your shoes?” Apparently some people think that stoles and an adorable pair of purple alligator skin almond toe pumps do not mix… silly silly. But you can understand my utter delight in finding your blog.

    Anywho, this particular post is an incredible piece of advice. I tend to over commit myself and being 22, all my friends with significant others are jazzed about the idea of personal officiant. Thank you for the piece of mind that it’s alright to politely decline some.

    Thank you!

  11. This topic is as juicy as a summer peach, PB! I don’t dare begin share horror stories, lest I never stop. However, having received more than my share of wedding battle scars, here are 3 of my personal “musts,” which I make clear to couples in a very gentle, pastoral, steel-fisted kind of way as soon as my services are procured:

    1. I receive half of the professional honorarium up front, “to hold the date on my calendar,” even if we’re 6 months from the wedding. (Thank you, Silicon Valley engineer and his fiancee who didn’t speak English, for teaching me that by calling off the wedding after the rehearsal dinner.)

    2. If the couple has engaged the services of a wedding planner or coordinator (and *do not* get me started there….), I require the couple to communicate to her that she will not have a role in the wedding rehearsal. The minister leads the wedding rehearsal. (Thank you, horrible, nasty lady in Napa, for teaching me that by screaming at me in front of everyone because you wanted to send the ring bearer down the aisle first.)

    3. If anyone in the wedding party shows signs that they’re under the influence of alcohol/drugs when I arrive at the ceremony, I will wish the couple well and leave the premises without conducting the ceremony — AND: see Rule #1! (Thank you, Saratoga couple, for teaching me that on an extremely hot summer day when you plied everyone with bubbly for an hour before I showed up.)

  12. Judith (and all) –
    When I’m doing a wedding of someone I know well, I ALWAYS have them do pre-marital counseling with someone else. As an Episcopalian, the counseling is required, but it doesn’t have to be done by me. I work on a college campus with a great Marriage & Family counselor, which makes it easy. She sends me a letter when they’ve completed the 3 – 4 sessions.

  13. I’m coming late to the party on this one, but I’m just catching up after a summer of attending SIX weddings of dear friends and family, three of which I officiated. The experience so far has been exhausting, but also really interesting and fun. I required pre-marital counseling and said they should probably think of doing it with someone else, but they all wanted to do it with me because they didn’t feel comfortable talking to a stranger. I dealt with that by adding a ritual of lighting a candle before each session, explaining that when the candle was lit, I was the pastor and not the friend, and that everything they said would be handled with the utmost confidence and all the professional care I could throw at them. Once we blew the candle out, I could go back to being their joking, fun friend. It was a nice way to work it.

    The other interesting challenge has been that I am the only “religious” person most of these people know, or else I am the only one willing to do their interfaith wedding. I’ve learned a lot about my beliefs about marriage and commitment by experimenting with the couples as we try to create a ceremony that reflects their deep beliefs without compromising my own convictions.

    The friends have all been lovely to me and I feel our relationship is deeper because of it, so I hope people won’t get too scared off. But I also think I have particularly nice friends! 🙂

    The hardest part of all of it has been figuring out what to WEAR! The one I have in two weeks is the hardest. It’s at a cabin in the woods with 35 people; the groom is wearing a polo shirt and the bride a simple blue cotton dress. I’m thinking a plain shirt and pants, but I’m at a loss and open to suggestion!

    Peace be with you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.