Are you looking for a side job that is rewarding, entertaining and pays a few hundred dollars per gig? If you aren’t shy around large groups, are organized and aren’t afraid to delve into a few state and local laws, becoming a wedding officiant might be your answer.
Unless you’re already familiar with your state and local rules and regulations, you’ll need to roll up your sleeves and do some research. To perform marriages, you’ll need to be ordained, but different states and municipalities have different rules.
If you’re considering presiding over the “I do’s” as your new side hustle, here’s what you’ll need to know.
“I've officiated about 18 to 20 weddings, gay and straight,” says Yvonne Doerre, a medical social worker who focuses on Maryland and Washington, D.C. “Most of them have been for friends of friends or referred by folks who were guests at a wedding I performed.”
Becoming ordained is simple. “It takes about five minutes and is free,” she says of her ordination through Universal Life Church Monastery (ULC). “If you want credentials, ID card, etc., there is a small charge.”
However, marriage is the domain of the state. Even if you’re ordained to perform marriages in the United States, you must comply with local rules and regulations. Before you bother, consider where you live and want to perform marriage ceremonies. According to FindLaw.com, Alabama, Connecticut, Virginia, Tennessee -- and certain parts of Pennsylvania, New York and Las Vegas -- don’t recognize online ordinations. To be certain, you should ask a clerk at your county courthouse.
States -- and even counties -- have all sorts of different rules about who can perform marriage ceremonies.
“Some are easier to register in; some do not require you register; some only recognize ‘ordained’ religious persons and judges; some notaries too can do weddings,” says Chaplain Jerry Schwehm, the moderator and president of the American Association of Wedding Officiants. He’s a retired minister and former Justice of the Peace who performs weddings in the Greater New Orleans area.
In DC, Yvonne went through a credential process that included having a character witness, showing proof of ordination, and registering with the DC Marriage License office. Maryland didn’t have such regulations when she performed there, and it didn’t “discriminate by denomination,” she says. “When I called Charles County for the first wedding I did back in 2003, they acted like it was an odd question. They told me, ‘If you're ordained, you’re an officiant.’ ”
Officiating a wedding is an exciting job, but make sure you’ve double- and triple-checked everything before the ceremony.
David F. Jackson, Senior Administrative Counsel for First Nation Church & Ministry in New York, explains that if you’re not recognized by the state where the ceremony is taking place, “you're risking the legal standing of the bridal couple's marriage--which can affect their health insurance, home ownership, taxes and more.” He stresses the importance of doing your own research rather than simply trusting an online ordination service.
While it can seem overwhelming, figuring out the rules for your area isn’t impossible. Jerry recommends checking your state’s website or speaking with your local county clerk. Another option is American Marriage Ministries’ interactive map of state licensing requirements.
If you’re looking for an easy place to perform a ceremony, you may want to steer clear of Virginia, which Yvonne says that as far as she knows is a “no go” for online ordination. “I've performed one wedding in Virginia and I don't plan to do any more,” she says.
“Some places frown on just online ordinations without any specific education or training involved. Although states are hesitant to say who is or who is not a clergyman, most prefer a main line type ordination process, some training, some form of screening and authorization,” explains Jerry.
Still keen? You’ll need to lay out every detail of the service -- where the church is located, when it meets, the size of the congregation -- before a judge, who will determine whether or not you can serve, says David.
“A lot of preparation goes on behind the scenes before you show up for a ceremony,” says Jerry. He recommends knowing how to prepare a speech, how to keep proper records and a calendar, and understanding the ins and outs of bookkeeping and scheduling.
Jerry also advises that officiants stay on top “continuing education, keeping up with what is new, new quotes and poems, new styles of ceremonies, knowing what the couple likes, special remarks, the history of the couple’s relationship, and at times adding in something about family or kids.”
Many officiants meet with the couple to plan the ceremony. “I really try to make each service unique and reflect the couple,” Yvonne says. “I collect stories and little details from each of the couples and weave them into the service.
“I really believe in the sentiment behind the vows. I try to set a tone that helps the couple really hear and reflect on the vows as they’re taking them. I want the couple and the guests to remember the service and what was said -- and not just remember the bride's dress and the cake,” she continues.
All the officiants I spoke with recommend one more thing: rehearse!
Once you find your way through the red tape, it’s time to earn some money. But what’s the going rate?
Yvonne says she “would never consider officiating a career” because you'd never get enough work. She usually charges between $300 and $500, depending on the size of the wedding and whether there’s a rehearsal. She also usually meets with the couple at least once to talk about the ceremony and spends an average of five to 10 hours on each wedding. (Like this idea? Click to tweet it!)
Jerry remembers reading that the average fee nationwide is $250, but doesn’t recall where he read it.
“I personally spend a lot of time on each request. A lot of time goes into the busy work of scheduling things, responding to questions, updating web pages and reading up on laws,” he explains. For every hour he spends at a ceremony, he spends two hours beforehand in preparation.
Anyone considering becoming an ordained ceremonial minister should recognize that their role is more than just reciting the “I do’s,” says David. You’ll be managing a major event in people’s lives, one you’ll want to treat with dignity and respect.
However, you have to find it fun, or it’s not the job for you. For someone like Yvonne, who has an engaging personality and is truly interested in the couples, wedding officiating is the perfect fit.
“I really enjoy the officiating. It is wonderful to be a part of such a happy occasion. I usually feel quite energized and happy the whole day after I perform a ceremony. I've met some really neat people in the process too, and that is always fun.”
Your Turn: Are you a wedding officiant or thinking about becoming one? What tips do you have? What hurdles have you encountered?
Alison Johansen is a freelance writer and mama of two in Northern Virginia. After working as a legal reporter in the Washington, D.C., area for 13 years, she decided to hang her own shingle, founding Mothernova.com: “A blast of ‘in the know’ for moms on the go.” She writes about parenting, managing food allergies, pediatric health, children’s literature and other topics that are close to her heart.