There are options, but which one is the best for you?
"Professionally trained and know she will follow thru in providing quality service." - Rev. Sandra McKinney, NW Wisconsin officiant and retired Unity minister
There can be a lot of confusion surrounding who can legally marry you, which type of wedding officiant will be recognized in different spiritual communities afterward, and what do the terms "non-denominational", "interdenominational", and "interfaith" really mean. Even many officiants use terms interchangeably, that are inaccurate! I will attempt to clarify some of these for you.
When choosing your officiant, keep in mind this is the person who is legally binding the two of you together, as well as spiritually binding and blessing your union, if that's important to you. The perfect person will orchestrate your rehearsal and ceremony professionally, and assure the joining of your hands in matrimony will be meaningful and lawful. They are responsible for:
- Assuring that participants in your ceremony know their roles and when to do them;
- Making sure that the promises you are going to be asked to make are ones you are willing and able to keep;
- Delivering a ceremony that will be professional, and represent the two of you;
- Knowing what elements are necessary to assure a ceremony is legally binding; and
- Submitting the correctly completed paperwork to the government to record your marriage.
In addition, if you are asking someone to perform a ceremony joining you together spiritually and blessing your union, that person is responsible for having obtained the authority to do so through the appropriate religious channels.
CAUTION: There have been court opinions written in which the credentials of the officiant are found to be void (and thus the marriage!) during divorce proceedings even though they were accepted by a county clerk when the certificate was filed. There are also multiple states with laws that state specifically "Persons receiving online ordination may not solemnize the rite of matrimony." (Tennessee, 2019) Several states are currently challenging the validity of marriages by officiants 'instantly ordained' in this way. While no one goes into a marriage believing they will be divorced, around 50% of all marriages do end in divorce. The credentials of your officiant can potentially invalidate your marriage and have serious legal ramifications in some jurisdictions. If you have questions about the legal aspects of marriage by a particular type of officiant or acceptance in certain jurisdictions, please seek legal counsel before getting married.
A Professionally Trained, Formally Ordained Minister
A professionally trained, formally ordained minister is someone who has spent years attending a post-graduate seminary, studying religious traditions, how to perform different types of ceremonies, knows the legalities of each type, and received training in counseling couples both before and after a marriage has taken place. During a formal ceremony, these ministers were given a laying on of hands that conveyed a divine blessing and seal upon them to act as a messenger of The Divine. That seal gives them spiritual authority from The Divine to bless a couple's union and join the couple together spiritually. Without this formal ceremony, a wedding officiant can not spiritually bless your marriage. Upon being ordained, the minister is given a letter of assignment, identifying the spiritual organization who oversees their ministry and can vouch for their credentials. Do not be afraid to ask who holds a minister's letter of assignment! I consider it a blessing when my clients care enough to ask.
Some ministers are ordained in just one religion, such as Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, etc. Their education was primarily in that faith alone. They usually perform ceremonies that are already established by their church, and may be hundreds of years old. They may or may not be willing to perform a ceremony for someone who has not been baptized or confirmed in their church, or someone who considers themselves to be "spiritual but not religious," agnostic or an atheist. These ministers will not usually perform a civil ceremony. Their credentials are usually accepted by governmental and spiritual entities. Some religions may not recognize a union that was performed outside their faith, should you choose to switch congregations at a later date.
There are other ordained ministers that are "non-denominational" or "inter-denominational." These ministers are willing to perform ceremonies that incorporate different religions that come under the heading of "Christian," and may include parts of ceremonies from a Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist or Episcopalian church, for instance. They may or may not be willing to perform a civil ceremony. Their credentials are usually accepted by governmental agencies and spiritual entities within the Christian faith. Some non-denominational ministers are willing to amend or adapt their ceremony to reflect a few personalized touches, such as substituting a unity sand ceremony in place of a unity candle, for instance.
An interfaith minister is one who has studied many of the world's religions while in seminary. They may have studied Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American spirituality, Baha'i, Islam, mystical traditions, Earth-based religions, atheism, and agnosticism, to name a few. They are generally recognized in all these faiths as being fully qualified to perform a ceremony, and thus one can rest assured their union is accepted, should they wish to join a particular faith later in life. An ordained interfaith minister has received the laying on of hands giving them the authority to spiritually bless one's union. An interfaith minister will draw upon the religious beliefs of the parties involved, and be able to create a ceremony that celebrates the parties' spiritual beliefs, whatever they may be. For some, that may look very similar to a more traditional religious ceremony, but for a few word changes or the inclusion of family members, pets, or something personal to the couple. For others, a ceremony could be created that calls upon the Six Directions to witness the union, incorporates the breaking of a wedding glass at the end of the ceremony, and binds the couple's hands with a ribbon or strap during the actual vows, as a way of honoring the beliefs held by the couple and within their families. An ordained interfaith minister is usually also accepted to perform ceremonies with other officiants of various faiths, in their church, synagogue, or temple. Interfaith ministers are fully accepted by governmental agencies, and are usually willing to perform a civil ceremony as well.
Many legal jurisdictions have defined definitions of what constitutes terms such as "clergy member"
An Attorney, Judge or Justice of the Peace
Many courthouses have attorneys, judges or Justices of the Peace who are able to perform a legally binding, civil ceremony. These are usually very short ceremonies that do not include spiritual language or a spiritual blessing. Some faiths and/or spiritual communities do not recognize civil ceremonies as being spiritually binding, and thus may not accept that you have been married in the eyes of their church and faith. In these spiritual communities, you may be required to take part in a religious ceremony to join you together spiritually, should you wish to become a member.
A Family Member or Friend
Some people choose a family member or friend to perform their ceremony. There is one significant difference: if this person has not received the laying on of hands during an ordination ceremony, they are unable to spiritually bless your union the way a formally ordained officiant can. If that does not matter to you, and you choose to go with this option, assure the following:
- The friend or family member will not get cold feet at the last minute, leaving you without an officiant;
- They have obtained credentials ahead of time that give them the ability to marry you legally;
- They have checked into the legal requirements for them to perform your ceremony at that particular location;
- They have experience in orchestrating the ceremony, contractors and its many participants;
- They fully understand how to complete and file the marriage certificate, along with the deadlines for doing so, thus assuring you are legally married;
- They prepare the ceremony in advance and practice it several times; and
- You have a back-up plan in the event they can't or don't want to do it at the last minute.
Someone "Instant Ordained" Online
There are many who make claims in their advertisements that they are ordained, but how do you know whether someone's credentials are real or if they're not? Do not be afraid to ask someone claiming to be a minister how they got their ministerial training, or to see their credentials. If they are genuinely ordained, they will not be offended.
A quick Google search of "ordained online" can show you some of the bigger websites that routinely claim to ordain. One of the larger organizations, the Universal Life Church, advertises "ordination is fast, free & easy!" All one does is give them their name and email address and a pop-up informs them they are now ordained and able to perform all ministerial duties. Two of the larger organizations that do this are the Universal Life Church and American Marriage Ministries. For additional fees, the person can purchase a certificate that says they are ordained, an ID badge and even a parking pass stating they're a minister. These websites then sell books with ceremonies in them or souvenir wedding certificates, for additional fees. The person being "ordained" in this way never steps foot inside the organization's facility; may never have had any formal training or education in performing ceremonies, may never have been educated about what makes a ceremony legally binding or how to properly file the paperwork afterward assuring your marriage is legal, may never have had a conversation with anyone in the organization, and there is no spiritual laying on of hands that conveys a divine blessing and seal upon the person to act as a messenger of The Divine. These officiants oftentimes use the title of Reverend, Pastor or Rabbi as well. Some charge fees equal or more than seminary-trained ministers, and perform lots of weddings each year. It has become a business for them. They are usually willing to perform either a civil or spiritual ceremony, and may claim they are non-denominational, interdenominational or interfaith without knowing the distinctions. These individuals are usually not qualified to offer pre-marital counseling unless they have taken college or seminary courses at some other time. Some faiths may not accept their credentials, and thus may question the spiritual validity of your union. Not all governmental authorities are willing to accept these credentials either. Check with your county, state or religious affiliation before using someone whose credentials were acquired online.
- If it is important to you to be married by someone who has been formally trained and is overseen by a spiritual organization, ask what seminary they attended, and who holds the officiant's letter of assignment. The letter of assignment identifies the organization who oversees their ministry and who can vouch for their credentials.
- If it is important to you that your union be spiritually blessed by someone who's received the blessing and seal to do so, ask whether the minister or individual has received a laying on of hands during a physical ordination ceremony.
- Make sure you trust this person to follow through with their promise to be there at the date/time of the ceremony, and that they will not back out at the last minute.
- If the officiant uses the term "non-denominational," "interdenominational," or "interfaith," ask them what they mean by that.
- Ask what type of ceremony they will be using to marry you.
- Ask whether they know what elements of a ceremony must be included in order for the ceremony to be legally binding, and what those elements actually are.
- Ask if they have someone who can step in to perform the ceremony if they get sick or are unable to make it that day.
- Ask if they have completed the marriage certificate process before, and who will be handling the paperwork after your ceremony.
If you have any further questions about what to look for in the person who is going to marry you, contact me. I will be happy to answer your questions.