Nervous Dads, Friends, Siblings: Now Everyone is Stepping Up to Officiate Weddings

By Bob Davis

I knew emotion was starting to overwhelm me at my daughter’s wedding when I forgot my son’s name mid-sentence. Those things happen when you agree to officiate.  At least no one fainted in the Memorial Day weekend Virginia heat.

Weddings are no longer the sole province of rabbis, ministers and priests. There are so many do-it-yourself ceremonies that officiants have their own trade association and many clergy say their wedding business is off big time. In West Seattle, the stunning Fauntleroy United Church of Christ lets “guest officiants” lead ceremonies as a way to halt the 90% decline in weddings held there in the past 15 years.

My daughter Joanna and I saw a cousin’s father marry her off. Could I do the same, she asked.

“You know he’s an actual minister,” I said. “He does this for a living.” He’s also Christian and we’re Jewish. No matter, she said. Modern times.

I consulted the minister Dan Wadleigh, who said he is now retired and farms vegetables in Hollis, N.H. “Find out what’s in your daughter’s hearrrt,” he said in the thickest New England outside of South Boston. That guided everything I did.

Regulations governing who can conduct weddings vary state-by-state, and sometimes county-by-county. From the start, I decided that I wasn’t going to get ordained by an internet ministry. That seemed to me a slap in the face to people who truly have a calling. In Washington D.C., where I live, a $25 fee is enough to be certified as a “temporary officiant.” It’s more complicated in Virginia, where my daughter’s wedding would be. As a non-minister, I’d need to live there and get approval by a circuit court judge to perform the ceremony.

While that route was closed, my daughter still wanted me to perform the ceremony. She and the groom, Udi, could sign a marriage certificate earlier. I couldn’t. On the upside, that would make for a surprise ending to the ceremony. I could say I confirmed the marriage that had actually taken place when a Virginia clerk brought them to certificate to sign a couple of hours before the ceremony. Really, who cared who signed what?

Some online research made clear there were a half-dozen elements to a traditional Jewish wedding, which was our starting point. Joanna and Udi aren’t regular synagogue attendees – ditto with their parents—and didn’t want to be married by a rabbi, who they wouldn’t have known. They wanted a more personal ceremony.

That describes a lot of young people who choose friends and family to marry them. Before the pandemic, about 23% of Americans described themselves as having no religion, according to the General Social Survey, an annual study of American society. That’s a three-fold increase in just 20 years.

“I get it,” says Rabbi Hara Person, the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, an organization of Reform rabbis. “At your wedding, you want someone who knows you and has a relationship with you. Either people don’t join synagogues or join at later ages.”  She says rabbis are reporting “huge drops in wedding requests.” She checks the New York Times wedding pages to count how many couples are married by non-clergy.

The change in society is large enough that a number of officiants make it a full-time gig. Bethel Nathan, a former Wall Street exec, started officiating in 2009 during the global financial crisis. “There was zero barrier to entry,” she says. She picked up an internet ordination through the Church of Spiritual Humanism. (Motto: “We can solve the problems of society using a religion based on reason.”) Since then she figures she has done at least 900 weddings in the San Diego area, at $795 a pop for a full ceremony and $395 for an elopement.

Another full-timer, Laura C. Cannon, formed the International Association of Professional Wedding Officiants in Ellicott City, which now has about 250 members. Cannon says she has collected six ordinations from internet ministries and one from a church she started. To join the trade group, applicants must pledge not to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion—or any other way—against a couple seeking to get married. Non-clergy weddings got a boost, she says, when traditional clergy wouldn’t perform same-sex marriages.

My daughter was enthusiastic about some parts of a Jewish ceremony. She wanted to stand under a chuppah–a canopy suspended by four poles that symbolizes the home newlyweds are establishing. She and Udi also wanted to stomp on a glass at the end of the ceremony, which is everyone’s favorite part of a Jewish ceremony. To them, it symbolized the fragility of life and the importance of seizing every moment, which is one of many different interpretations.

She was adamant about rejecting other parts. No veil over her face. Too old fashioned. No way was she going to circle her groom seven times, as custom has it. Too submissive. In some ceremonies, the groom circles the bride too. No to that too. Udi might step on her dress.

The rest was up for grabs. They rewrote one of the initial prayers that date back hundreds of years to a time when the engagement and wedding were a year apart. The prayer essentially pledges that the couple didn’t have sex during that period. Udi’s parents came up with a replacement.

The couple also rewrote the traditional seven blessings, which celebrate God, fertility and wedded joy, so that the blessings spoke more about love and adventure and less about God.

On the day of the wedding, I took to heart the advice offered by the officiants I spoke with, both traditional clergy and the internet variety. We had plenty of water ready for an outdoor wedding in sweltering Virginia to deal with swooners. We used white wine instead of red in prayer services,  in case the wine spilled on the wedding dress. I made sure the couple smashed the glass and not my hand. I stepped back when the couple had their first kiss, so I wouldn’t be part of those photos.

I was also on the lookout for signs of hyper-nervousness. Rabbi Person says one time when she said, “You may kiss the bride,” the groom kissed her instead.

It turns out that I was the most nervous of all.  Joanna got most of her tears out when she walked to the chuppah. I choked up telling the guests that she had chosen to wear the earrings of my mother, a woman who died young and didn’t have a chance to meet my wife, let alone my two children. That’s when I screwed up my son’s name.

The biggest surprise was the significance of my role. According to Jewish tradition, I discovered, rabbis aren’t required for a wedding. All that’s needed are two witnesses, an exchange of something of value (a ring) and reciting a vow, in Hebrew, which says, “With this ring you are consecrated to me, according to the tradition of Moses and the Jewish people.”

We did all that. The couple stomped the glass. The guests shouted “mazel tov,” the couple kissed (each other) and the ceremony gave way to a party. I hadn’t simply confirmed their marriage. I actually had married them by Jewish custom.

Bob Davis retired from the Wall Street Journal in 2020 after a 39-year run. As a youth, he rarely attended the Hebrew School his parents paid for, earning “absent” on his report cards.