A Wedding Ceremony Planning Framework to help you create your perfect ceremony.
As a professional Wedding Officiant, I receive a lot of questions from couples who don’t even know where to start thinking about their wedding event, let alone their ceremony (the part during which they actually get married) and they start feeling stressed. Fortunately, while there can be a lot to consider when planning a wedding and putting together a wedding ceremony, you don’t have to do everything by yourself.
In fact, for every part of your special day, there is a wedding professional available and desiring to assist you: Wedding Venues, Wedding Planners, Florists, Stylists, and Stationary designers, Party Rentals, Caterers, Bakers, DJ’s, Musicians, Photographers, Videographers Jewelers, Tailors, Retailers, Hotels AND, of course Officiants. Each professional can lead you to another.
The emails from stressed couples often start like this:
“HELP! We’re getting married. We want a beautiful, simple ceremony that is unique to us, but I don’t even know where to start.”
- Where should a couple start?
- Choose a date?
- Find a location?
- Decide what type of wedding to have? Large wedding, intimate wedding, elopement?
Oh My Gosh! There is just so much to think about!
If you’re already feeling the pressure, please know you’re not alone, but also that it doesn’t have to be so stressful. I have spoken with two couples recently who have been engaged a short period of time and whose weddings are more than a year away, and they are already worried about the details. Planning a wedding should be a fun and an enjoyable process for the two of you. Hopefully, after reading this brief article and learning about my wedding ceremony planning framework, E.P.I.C., you’ll be able to relax a bit, enjoy your engagement and let go of the anxieties that planning a wedding can cause for couples. I will also provide some resources for next steps and one very important MUST have, if you intend to be legally married in Washington State.
But first, let’s start with celebrating, shall we? You’re engaged! Congratulations! This is an amazing time and as I said before, planning your wedding should be fun. You’re preparing a celebration to begin the rest of your lives together. If you haven’t already, take some time away from planning to just breathe and enjoy the bliss of your engagement.
There is a lot that goes into planning a wedding ceremony and most couples have never done it before. Your wedding is one of the most important days of your life. Big or small, it doesn’t matter and you want it to be just right and all about the two of you. The idea of E.P.I.C, my wedding ceremony planning framework is to help you create the wedding you dream of with as little stress as possible.
There are four stages to E.P.I.C.: Envision, Plan, Implement and Celebrate. Ready to plan your wedding ceremony?
Stage 1: Envision
Before you tell anyone else, even your parents, your children or your best friends, enjoy the experience together. After all, the two of you have just decided you want to spend the rest of your lives together. You may as well start now. Give yourselves a few days to a few weeks to live in the bliss. Talk about your future together. What do you envision? What will your life look like as a married couple? Why?
Talk about your ideal wedding…How will it look and feel for you? and your guests? Who do you hope to share this day with and why? Are you wanting a faith-based ceremony, completely religious in a church, no religious aspects whatsoever? Will it be outdoors, indoors, something in between?
As the two of you decide what’s most important to you, you’ll be able to answer the questions that your friends and family will ask just as soon as you share your news and your wedding planner and officiant will ask later. Most importantly, enjoy this time together.
Stage 2: Plan
This is where you start thinking about things like a budget, a guest list and thinking about details such as a location, ceremony only or ceremony with reception.
You can use our friend, the Internet (aka Google and Pinterest), like Letty and Marc did (above photo) as well as friends who were recently married. Wedding sites such as the Knot, Wedding Wire & Style Me Pretty are just three of the many internet resources for couples (you can google those too). They have checklists, lists of vendors and the capacity for you to create your own wedding website where your guests can go for details. AND…we all know that person whose wedding you attended last month or last year. I bet they would love to share their experiences and maybe even their Pinterest page with you. They know the things you definitely want to do and totally want to avoid. I mean, isn’t that what friends are for?
Leave it to the ‘Pros’
My recommendation is to hire professionals and start with a Wedding Planner and your Officiant (the person responsible for making sure you’re legally married). They can help you define, design, plan and execute your vision for your wedding day and ceremony with little stress to the two of you. Oftentimes, couples tell me that because they’re planning a small wedding or elopement they don’t need a wedding planner or they can just ask a friend or family member to help. While I agree that elopements and intimate weddings have fewer moving parts than larger weddings or multi-day events, planning one still takes a lot of time and energy. Most couples have never planned a wedding before and… they usually work full time at jobs in addition to planning a wedding.
The wedding planner’s role is to help bring YOUR vision for your perfect wedding day and night (overall celebration) to life. I mean, they do this for a living. They help you know what to think about and when, as well as help you manage all the little details and vendors, and they are indispensable on the day of the event. You WILL appreciate the support…trust me. If you can’t swing a professional planner or Day of Coordinator, connect with someone in your life that is excellent at organizing events, just make sure they’re ok with not enjoying your wedding as a guest, because they’ll be busy taking care of you and the details of your day most of the time.
As an example, I recently officiated two weddings in a weekend, one without a planner/coordinator and one with. At the wedding without the coordinator, which was an intimate event with about 20 guests. The groom and his groomsmen were hurriedly building the arch that they wanted to be married in front of an hour before the ceremony was to start at 10:30 a.m. and the bridesmaids were decorating it at the original planned for start time. The bride had had to return home because her dress had been left behind and ended up almost getting a ticket because she was running late. The ceremony started over an hour late.
In contrast, the very next day I officiated a wedding where the couple had asked one of their sisters to be the planner and day of coordinator, even though the bride is extremely organized herself. When I arrived, the entire outdoor area had been transformed into a beautiful wedding venue, the 100+ guests were having a great time mingling and munching on their own blend of trail mix, no one in the bridal party was building anything and everyone was completely relaxed. We signed the marriage certificate, had the ceremony and the couple had a brilliant time just enjoying their guests. Their wedding coordinator managed to get over 16,000 steps in by the time the ceremony ended and the reception was in full swing.
In case you’re still feeling a little anxious and wondering where you find these people; no worries. If you would like the names of some amazing wedding planners, let me know. I will happily ‘hook you up’.
Your Wedding Officiant’s role is two-fold, though some, like me, provide a wide variety of related services. They help you create a ceremony that fits your personalities and vision for your perfect wedding, provide expert, caring officiating for you on the day AND just as importantly, more so for some, ensure that your marriage is legal. Yep…that’s a thing and there is paperwork involved.
I can see the ‘deer in headlights’ look now. Wait! I thought the Officiant just showed up on the day, ask a couple of questions, pronounce us married, sign the paper and left!
Well, yes, they can do that if that’s what you’re looking for as a couple. Most of the couples I have officiated for have waited their whole lives to marry this person and they want to start their marriage with a ceremony that is beautiful, meaningful and unique to them. If you think about it, you’re never going to marry each other again and you’ve asked at least two people (your witnesses), or possibly 200 to come share in the experience with you.
I recently saw from another officiant who tracked all the things an Officiant does for their couples (he does custom weddings in Canada). There are actually 36 (yes, thirty-six) different steps from the time we first have our consultation call until you receive your recorded marriage certificate in the mail after you’re married.
You can find wedding officiants the same way you find a wedding planner or a photographer. If you belong to a church or house of worship, you’ve already got someone you can ask. If not, you can ask your friends who’ve gotten married recently, search on Google, Pinterest and internet wedding sites, even ask the county auditor when you get your marriage license (though this is pushing it time wise). As with all wedding professionals, you’ll want to make sure the officiant you choose is a good fit for your personalities as a couple and the services that you’re hoping for and that they can work well with the rest of your wedding team. Talk with them, read reviews from other couples, make sure they’re insured.
That’s ok, we have a friend/family member who will officiate for us.
In Washington State, you can always ask a friend or family member to get ordained and officiate for you. This can be lovely for some couples. My oldest nephew did this for his younger brother’s wedding and it was beautiful. On the other hand, just like asking a friend to plan or photograph your wedding, things can go wrong (really wrong sometimes) and it can add to the stress and sometimes harm a lovely relationship. We’ve all seen those videos where friend officiants told inappropriate stories or jokes during the ceremony, while the couple stood there, visibly uncomfortable. Even more frequently, non-professional officiants back out of weddings (for any number of reasons). It’s hard to imagine, but at least ¼ of the couples I have officiated for have come to me after their friend/family member backed out of officiating for them at the last minute (this was even pre-pandemic). One of my couples had a really tough time. Their first officiant passed away and their second officiant, a friend of the groom’s just stopped responding to them a month before the wedding. By the time they called me, the couple and their family were very distressed and worried they wouldn’t be able to find someone to officiate. The other part to be mindful of with lay (friend/family) officiants is the paperwork. Washington State requires that the officiant return the completed (signed and dated) Certificate of Marriage to the county to be recorded. Professional officiants are used to this, have a policy and a practice of doing this after every wedding so the couple can be assured that they’re legally married. Most dads, uncles and friend officiants don’t, though they can learn and most counties do provide helpful information.
Stage 3: Implement
This is where you start hiring the rest of your wedding team and nailing down all those plans and where having a Wedding Planner can be of HUGE assistance. They have lists of amazing wedding pros, know what to do when to bring your vision to life and will make sure you stay on budget for your event.
Creating the Ceremony
Most ceremonies officiated by professional officiants take around 15-20 minutes to complete on the day of your wedding from the time you enter the ceremony spot until you’re pronounced married. If you have lots of elements, it may go a little longer, but not terribly long. Really, the sky’s the limit when it comes to how you want your wedding ceremony to feel. Just remember that it’s your wedding so it will be beautiful.
While the ceremony may only take 15-20 minutes, the planning and crafting of your unique, custom, E.P.I.C. ceremony takes a bit more energy, time and effort. Remember at the beginning when we talked about the two of you envisioning your wedding before jumping into planning? This is where taking that time together comes in handy.
These are some of the things your Officiant will ask you:
How do you want your ceremony to feel for you and your guests? If you start here, your Officiant can help you with the rest.
Do you want a faith-based ceremony? Non-religious? A combination? multi-cultural? themed?
Would you like an outdoor ceremony or indoor ceremony?
Do you want a large event that includes all your family and friends, or an intimate affair with just a few?
How many people (if any) you want to be in your wedding party?
Do you want any readings or music before or during the ceremony? These add to the feel, without adding to the length of your ceremony…trust me.
Would you like some traditional vows, to create your own vows or have a combination of the two? and
What type of unity ritual you would like (if any)? This is a great way to honor your family/ cultural backgrounds. There are almost as many unity rituals/ceremonies and variations to each as there are people getting married and they can add texture and depth to your wedding ceremony, again without taking a lot of time.
One of the most common is the Handfasting and it can be done as a quick ritual within a more traditional wedding ceremony (tying a knot over the couple’s hands with one cord/ribbon) OR, as one of my couples did, an entire ceremony can be created around the Handfasting, incorporating multiple-colored ribbons, and multiple family members offering blessings, specific to the couple.
Another example of a unity ritual that can be a quick part of a ceremony or the ceremony itself and be a perfect reflection of the couple and their life together is the traditional Jewish Shabbat (Seven Blessings). I have had two couples with brides from Jewish backgrounds and grooms who were not Jewish. Each requested to have the Ritual of Seven Blessings incorporated into their ceremony. One couple had a relaxed outdoor wedding (all the guests stood in a protective semi-circle around the couple) and asked specific family members to read a blessing and share a personal wish for the couple. The second couple had the ritual of the seven blessings as the major part of their ceremony and asked family members to offer the blessings in Hebrew and English while the couple performed a circle dance (symbolically creating their house to protect their new family). Both were beautiful and a unique reflection of the couple.
In order to create a custom, personal wedding ceremony that fits YOUR vision for your day and matches your personalities, your officiant needs to get to know you as much as they can. As I am getting to know my couples, I ask a lot of questions. We start with safe, easy questions:
What are your favorite movies? Favorite music? Fave books?
What do you enjoy doing together as a couple?
What do you enjoy doing on your own or with your friends?
Then we move on to the more mushy stuff:
How did you meet? More than one couple has told me their love story is boring or non-romantic. I ask them to tell me anyway. Whether they met in college, on the internet, or at work, the story is always fun and brings smiles to their faces…now that’s romantic!
What did you do on your first date? Favorite memory from that date?
What made you want a second date with each other?
How long did you date before you got engaged and what did that look like?
One thing almost all couples have in common is that when they “plan” their engagement, it almost NEVER goes according to the plan.
One of my couples planned a helicopter flight over their favorite national park. The groom had the ring in his pocket and intended to ask his beloved in a private space on the flight, but he just couldn’t find the right moment. When they landed afterward, he seized the moment, got down on bended knee with ring in hand and found himself surrounded by on-lookers with phones out.
Another couple planned a trip to Europe. The groom had everything planned for a beautiful hiking proposal, but by the time they were almost to the spot, his bride to be was so hungry/hangry, that she couldn’t go on and needed to turn around and find a burger! It took three more attempts on that trip until just the right “them” moment presented itself. Thankfully, both ladies said yes.
After even more love story related questions, we start talking a bit more about the ceremony and plans for your marriage after the ceremony. After all, there is a whole life that will continue after this one day and all of it helps to create that very unique, magical, ceremony that celebrates your one-of-a-kind love.
That ONE thing you MUST have to be legally married in Washington
I mentioned above that as your officiant it is my role to make sure your marriage is legal. In the State of Washington, you must have a marriage license, which you must obtain as a couple. There is a three-day waiting period to get married once it has been issued, and it’s only valid for 60 days. So, once you receive your marriage certificate, you must wait three days to get married and the marriage must take place before the expiration date of the license. Washington State also requires your officiant, the two of you (the couple) and two witnesses sign the Certificate of Marriage. The Officiant is then required to return it to the county of origin within thirty days (this varies by state). If you have questions about this, remember to talk with your officiant.
Stage 4: Celebrate
Cue the confetti and balloons.
Finally, after envisioning and planning for this moment and implementing the plan comes the Celebration…the BIG DAY…Your E.P.I.C. wedding day. Your ceremony, your reception/party afterward, your honeymoon AND, don’t forget… your married life together. Yes, then too. The celebrations don’t end with the wedding. Your life together will continue to be filled with special moments worth remembering and celebrating.
Your wedding day is one of the most important days of either of your lives. There is a lot that goes into planning a wedding ceremony and most couples have never done it before. The most important thing to remember is that the two of you have decided that you want to be together and whether you choose to commemorate that with a large family wedding at the ranch or sign your license with your witnesses and officiant in the mountains or at your favorite winery overlooking the lake, it’s YOUR special day and you want it to be meaningful to the two of you, not stressful. There are many, many resources available to help alleviate stress, including amazingly talented and committed wedding professionals and E.P.I.C., my Wedding Ceremony Planning Framework that I’ve shared in this article, but if you start with remembering to breathe and enjoy your engagement together, all will fall into place. Hopefully, rather than a panicked email asking for help, your next email to your officiant might be a thank you or a positive Google review. This is a magical time, and I’m absolutely delighted for you. Best wishes for a lifetime of love. – Chanelle
Chanelle Carlin is Your Celebrant for Life. She is an ordained minister, professional wedding officiant, coach, and owner of Chanelle Carlin Weddings, LLC. Believing that life and love should be celebrated every minute, she collaborates with couples who’ve already started building the foundations of their relationship over the years and are now ready to venture forth into marriage with a custom, memorable (for all the right reasons) elopement/intimate wedding ceremony. While Chanelle works throughout the Pacific Northwest and Ireland primarily, she gladly travels to wherever her couples prefer to marry. As their Celebrant for Life, Chanelle also celebrates all the special milestones and moments that matter in each of her couples’ lives. She lives with her family in rural Okanogan County, Washington, USA, and totally LOVES her life. You can visit Chanelle at www.chanellecarlin.com, on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest.