10 Secrets to Creating the Perfect Wedding Ceremony

Reprinted here with the kind permission of Reverend Judith Johnson. To read more of her blogs, purchase a copy of “The Wedding Ceremony Planner,” her bestselling book on the topic of wedding ceremony design, or learn what she’s passionate about, please visit her website at http://www.judithjohnson.com/.

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Most couples want a wedding ceremony that speaks to their unique values, beliefs and life circumstances, but beyond a few inspired ideas, many are at a loss about how to put it all together. Having designed and officiated at hundreds of wedding ceremonies, here are my 10 top secrets to creating the ceremony of your dreams:

1) Remember that the ceremony is a sacred ritual and the most important part of your wedding day.

The marriage ceremony is rich with traditions that cross cultural boundaries and date back to ancient times. If a contemporary marriage ceremony does not include this sacred dimension, it runs the risk of being little more than the creation of a legal union. Like digging a well to tap into the aquifer, a ceremony that draws upon the sacred dimension connects a couple into the mystery of two becoming.

2) The wedding ceremony is a theatrical production and you are the producers/directors.

A seamless wedding ceremony is a carefully choreographed production. This theatrical dimension requires balancing the creation of a meaningful ceremony with careful attention to the details. Thinking everything through ahead of time and having a thorough rehearsal allows the members of the wedding party to confidently perform their parts, which will make the ceremony appear effortless to your guests.

It’s important that you take charge. If you have advisors, let them guide you through what decisions need to be made and what your alternatives are, but don’t let them make decisions for you. Even when you have a bridal consultant, be sure that all decisions affecting the ceremony are made by you.

3) A great ceremony strikes a balance between personal expression and tradition.

The rules governing the content of a wedding ceremony are those of the church and state. Religious traditions have their own specific way of performing the wedding ceremony and may not be open to the idea of personalizing the ceremony for individual couples. State laws specify such things as the minimum age for brides and grooms, the need for a qualified officiant, and the speaking of vows in front of witnesses.

When a couple is getting married outside the auspices of a particular religious tradition, they are free to customize their ceremony as long as they honor the laws of the state where they are getting married.

Creating a wonderful ceremony is a matter of balancing the opportunity for expressing your uniqueness with the comfort of the common ground of tradition. Going too far in one direction or the other creates a ceremony that is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Be careful not to throw away all the elements of tradition. For example, when presenting ceremonial elements in my book, “The Wedding Ceremony Planner,” I chose to loosely follow the structure of the wedding ceremony found in the Book of Common Prayer, since eighty percent of Americans are Christian. That is why this common root of Christian wedding ceremonies is so familiar to most people. It also provides a logical sequence of events that allows the ceremony to reach crescendo with the sharing of vows, the ring exchange, the final blessing, pronouncement, and the kiss. I recommend that couples put their signature on their ceremony in the content of the elements they choose to include rather than in their sequencing.

4) Make sure you and your ceremony officiant have a comfortable working relationship.

The role of the officiant in a traditional religious ceremony is governed in large part by the rules of that religion, while interfaith and ecumenical ministers have much more freedom to customize your ceremony with you. Remember that you get to choose who marries you, and it is very important that you have a comfortable working relationship with him or her. Our job as clergy is to guide you and to serve you, and some of us do a better job of that than others.

It is not uncommon for couples to be intimidated by members of the clergy. We have personalities, and strengths and weaknesses in how we perform our jobs, just like everyone else. You are entitled to an officiant who cares about you and wants to help you to create the wedding ceremony that is right for you, even if it means he or she needs to go above and beyond the call of duty.

5) Allow your ceremony to be unique, but not a cliché.

Some couples try too hard to be unique, and end up including elements in their ceremony that are either disappointing, cliché or offensive to some of their guests. For example, one couple planned to have butterflies released during their recessional. Unfortunately, when the cardboard containers were opened, half the butterflies were dead. At another wedding, the groom, accompanied by his rock band, played a song for his bride in the middle of the ceremony. This mini jam session left many traditional guests horrified.

6) Be very clear about the time and location of your ceremony.

Some people believe that weddings never start on time. However, most couples plan the time of their reception based upon the assumption that their ceremony will start on time. Remember, the later your ceremony starts, the more time and money you will lose on your reception. It is a good idea to either be clear that your ceremony will start on time, or build in a time cushion by scheduling the start time fifteen minutes before you actually plan to begin. Just be careful not to put those who arrive on time in the position of having to wait too long.

Similarly, it is important to give your guests clear information about your ceremony location. Some couples choose locations that are aerobically challenging or simply inaccessible to elderly or physically challenged guests — including women in high heels. Be sure to include an excellent map and directions with your invitations. Also, strategically place signs, balloons or ushers to guide your guests to the wedding site. Another good idea is to provide the cell phone number of someone willing to serve as a contact person for guests who get delayed or lost. Give your family and friends the gift of a ceremony that starts on time, at a user-friendly, easy to reach site.

7) Keep it short and simple.

You can create a beautiful and memorable ceremony that takes no more than 15 or 20 minutes. In my experience, a ceremony that goes much longer than that runs the risk of creating fidgety, bored, and impatient guests. For example, you may lose the attention of your guests by including more than two readings.

8) Just breathe. Be present. Be joyful.

Your wedding ceremony is when you will first see all of your guests and they will see you. This may be a bit overwhelming or anxiety producing. I have seen many a couple come before me with terrified smiles on their faces and no air moving through their bodies. That’s when I remind them “Just breathe.” It is so simple, yet sometimes challenging for a couple to let go of all concerns so they can bring their hearts and minds present. Once they get to the altar, all the bride and groom really need to do is to look into the eyes of their beloved and just breathe and feel the joy in their hearts. What a magnificent moment in life and what a shame to miss it because you are worrying about some detail or find yourself overcome with nerves.

The greatest gift you can give yourself and each other on your wedding day is to be fully present in the loving that brought you both to this moment. You can only focus your attention on one thing at a time. So, let it be the joy, loving, and gratitude you feel to be joining together in marriage, rather than worrying about whether or not the caterer got your message about the olives. Just be fully present in your loving.

9) Remember that your wedding day has only 24 hours.

While this is one of the most important days of your life, it only has 24 hours like any other day and will come and go before you know it. The more you obsess about your wedding, the less you are likely to enjoy it. Have fun planning your special day, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to make it the most perfect and spectacular wedding that has ever existed on planet earth.

Enjoy discovering and expressing what aspects of your wedding day are truly important to the two of you as individuals and as a couple. Just remember, this is not an Olympic event. It is the celebration of your commitment to each other and the beginning of your journey together as husband and wife. Have a heartfelt and delightful day.

Don’t set yourselves up for disappointment by buying into unrealistic expectations and then falling into post-wedding depression because the day has passed and you are no longer the king and queen for the day. Your wedding day is meant to be a gathering of loved ones to witness and celebrate your union and to launch you into your life together as husband and wife. That brief 15 or 20 minutes called your wedding ceremony is what the day is all about — your entrance into the sacred and joyous covenant of marriage. Then you party, and then you have the rest of your lives together to fulfill your vows by loving, honoring, and cherishing each other.

10) Delegate, have fun, and keep your sense of humor.

Do plan ahead, paying careful attention to the details, and delegate implementation of your wishes to friends, family, and professionals. Once you have set your plans in motion, let them go. Do not carry them with you throughout your wedding day, comparing what actually happens to what was on your list. What you planned for was your image of perfection, which never actually happens. Remember to keep your sense of humor handy and to enjoy the serendipity as it unfolds. Be open to the unexpected blessings and surprises that are sure to come your way.

May you and your marriage be blessed in all ways, always.

Should we elope?

“Rather would I have the love songs of romantic ages, rather Don Juan and Madame Venus, rather an elopement by ladder and rope on a moonlight night, followed by the father’s curse, mother’s moans, and the moral comments of neighbors, than correctness and propriety measured by yardsticks.” – Emma Goldman

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The word “elope” is defined by Wikipedia to mean, “to run away and to not come back to the point of origination.” The term “elopement” is most often used to refer to a marriage conducted in “sudden and secretive fashion,” sometimes involving a quick getaway from your place of residence together, with the intention of getting married.

Maybe you’ve decided you don’t need a large wedding ceremony, and an elopement sounds pretty good to you. If you’re like most couples, you’ve probably considered Idaho or Las Vegas, mainly because you can get a marriage license and be married on the same day in both states…but if you’ve also considered all of the added expense, travel time, stress and distance, it’s a lot of hassle to go through just to save a little time!

Why not elope right here in Washington state, without the hassle of booking a judge or reserving a venue? Washington doesn’t require a blood test, so all you have to do is visit the County Recorder’s office, pay about $65 for your License, and wait a measly three days. During the waiting period, you can find a local, non-denominational wedding officiant who’s available on short notice.

The reason for utilizing a non-denominational wedding minister is that they’re authorized to perform virtually any kind of wedding ceremony – civil, religious or spiritual – and most have flexible schedules and offer very affordable pricing. A simple online search for “non-denominational wedding minister” should bring you plenty of names to contact.

You can elope virtually anywhere and usually without much hassle or expense: your own backyard (or that of a friend), a local or State park, a restaurant or the beach. Usually, if the location is nearby, there won’t be any travel fees. Non-denominational wedding ministers are used to performing weddings in unusual locations, and most have a favorite place, or places, where they regularly marry eloping couples. Be sure and ask your potential wedding Officiants about their preferred location, as this can help you decide on the one you would like to work with.

As with any Washington wedding ceremony, you still need two witnesses to the elopement. If, for personal reasons, or reasons of privacy, you’d rather not have friends or family attend, or be witnesses to your ceremony, and your wedding location is reasonably public, you can usually elicit the help of folks hanging out or passing by. Most people are overjoyed to be part of such a happy event…and bring home a fun story to tell their friends and colleagues! If that won’t work for you, then your Officiant may also be able to provide witnesses for a small additional cost. In any case, it’s not necessary for you, or your fiance, to know the witnesses personally.

If you decide not to include wedding vows or a ring exchange (neither is legally required), the Officiant will simply ask you if you take one another in lawful wedlock, pronounce you husband and wife, and sign the official papers.

It may sound romantic to proclaim your love before 300 people…but be sure that’s really how you want to be married. Maybe you don’t want to be the center of attention for the 25 friends and family members you actually know or the 275 assorted great aunts you’ve never met, second cousins you haven’t seen since 1958, husbands and wives of your daughter’s co-workers…or total strangers!

If you decide, instead, to make the day just about the two of you, and not about guest lists, venues, hairdressers, rehearsals, a “something for everone” buffet, or pleasing everyone in your two families, then an elopement may be just what the doctor ordered!

A “Grand” Wedding Venue!

As Seattle wedding officiants performing nearly 100 non-denominational weddings every year, we have an opportunity to experience lots of different wedding venues, from the most elegant to the most rustic, from the reasonably priced to the “OMG!”  Based on our experience, we’ve determined that most wedding venues (at least, the ones we’ve worked with) come in four basic “flavors:”

1. Wedding venues that treat both vendor and couple like royalty.  These are obviously the most desirable venues, and tend to book up pretty early every year.

2. Wedding venues that treat the couple like royalty, and let wedding vendors pretty much fend for themselves..

3. Wedding venues that treat the couples like money machines and wedding vendors like necessary evils.  Luckily, there don’t seem to be many of these around anymore.

4. Wedding venues that aren’t all that nice to anyone. These definitely do exist, and no, we’re not gonna write about them!

One venue that is definitely a Type 1, and one of our favorites, is The Grand Willow Inn in Mt. Vernon (17926 Dunbar Road  Mount Vernon, WA 98273. (360) 428-5071. Owner: Connie Weech).

The Grand Willow Inn - Front Gazebo.

The Grand Willow Inn – Front Gazebo.

There are plenty of reasons we love working at this place (and why you should seriously consider getting married here), but the most important reason is probably Connie, herself.  In the words of one happy couple, she is “caring, thoughtful, thorough, always reachable, will help you through any problems no matter what, knowledgeable, just plain awesome!!”  No argument from us!

Not only does she get personally involved to make sure virtually every facet of your wedding goes perfectly, but she does so with compassion, humor, insight and imagination. We’ve been privileged to do a dozen or so weddings at the Grand Willow, and have never had cause for even the smallest complaint.

And while we’re on the subject, we don’t want to leave out Connie’s “right-hand woman,” Sarah, who helps keep everything running smoothly and never loses her sense of humor!  Together, Connie, Sarah and the rest of the superb Grand Willow crew provide an “island of calm” in what often seems like a “sea of chaos.”  🙂

But hey, don’t take our word for it!  See for yourself! For more information, photos and tons of great reviews (all well-deserved), visit them at the Grand Willow Inn website, and have a great wedding!

Are you a “Bridezilla?”

“I would like to see anyone, prophet, king or God, convince a thousand cats to do the same thing at the same time.” ― Neil Gaiman

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Okay, the wedding is four days away and it’s time to ask yourself this crucial question: Are you turning, slowly but surely, into “Bridezilla?”

Look around. Do you see fear in the eyes of everyone in your Bridal party? Your wedding vendors?  How about total strangers? Do small children hide under the table when they see you coming?  Weddings with all their emotional involvement, anxiety and that sometimes-desperate longing to get it all absolutely perfect, can turn even the most reasonable and placid individual into a hair-tearing, appliance-throwing psychopath.  It can happen to anyone…but it doesn’t have to happen to you.  As with most everything else in your life, you can decide what type of bride you want to be.

To help you over that hurdle, here are some “pearls of wisdom,” gleaned from our 400+ weddings, to help you avoid becoming everyone’s worst nightmare (including your own)!

  1. Make Time to Relax.  This should be Job One!  We can all agree that marriage is kind of a big deal, right?  You have made a life changing choice here…but it doesn’t have to stress you out.  Every wedding brings with it a certain amount of hassle; organizing it all is enough to get on your last nerve. When that happens, you need to remind yourself that you chose to do this, you wanted to do this.  Make whatever time you need to relax in whatever way you please; maybe a warm bath or a long drive out of town.  The preparations can get by without you for a few hours, and these moments of relative sanity will bring you back to yourself, ready and able to tackle the next task…but calmly.
  2. Be a good listener.  Everyone and their brother will offer their opinions and “sage” advice; everyone will have wisdom they wish to impart to you.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the “help,” especially when you’re dealing with friends or (more likely) relatives who can be a bit too pushy with their “wisdom.”  Hear them out, take a deep breath and thank them for their help. Be gracious and appreciative,  and then dump all of it if you want to – it’s your wedding!  But don’t be surprised if, occasionally, you actually hear something that makes sense, and helps you with your planning.
  3. Be nice.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s really what everything comes down to. Your friends and relatives are usually thrilled and proud to be part of your wedding party. Don’t make them regret it.  Find a way to keep everyone busy enough that they feel  helpful, without being demanding or overbearing.  Before the big day, figure out everything that needs to be done, figure out who could help you and in what way, and then…use everyone to their best advantages. Utilize their native skills to help you get your jobs done, but also give them a chance to do something they’re good at. Weddings are a celebration!  Make yours fun, and don’t let it become a chore for those who have stepped up to help you.
  4. Take a break.  Make sure you allow time just for you and your fiancé, now and then, a little or a lot, just to kick back (see #1, above).  This helps you to handle the stressful moments calmly, gives you something to look forward to during the chaos of planning, and keeps you and your fiancé connected as you get closer to the big day.
  5. Stay loose. Expect the unexpected, celebrate the day, embrace the possibilities…and resist the impulse to imagine how it will all turn out.  When you have throngs of well-wishers in a confined space and free-flowing booze, things tend to take on a life of their own.  Don’t sweat the small stuff, and if something does go sideways – and by the way, as a non-denominational wedding minister since 2007, I’m here to tell you something almost always does – try to just roll with it. Tell yourself that it could always be worse (it could, believe me).  The bottom line is that none of this matters. You have just married the one person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life.  What could be better than that?

A few more bits of wisdom to keep in mind as you get closer to the big moment:

  • Don’t lose sight of what’s important. Be sure the wedding doesn’t mean more to you than the marriage! A wedding is just a formality, as much for your audience as for yourselves. In the cosmic scheme of things, only the marriage matters.
  • Deep breaths actually do work. So does going outside for awhile to get some fresh air.  Use these simple, but effective techniques whenever you feel the “Bridezilla” in you getting anxious to wreak havoc.
  • On your wedding day, accept that there is nothing more that you can do. You’ve planned, you’ve prepared, you’ve organised. Now it’s time to have faith that the people you’ve hired (like your wedding Officiant!), and selected, will get you the rest of the way.

And finally, if you’re ever in doubt as to whether or not you have crossed the line into Bridezilla territory, ask someone whose insights you trust. If they really care about you, they will let you know honestly (and hopefully, gently) if you’ve gone over the edge.