Handfastings, Priesthood, Clergy, and Ordination, Oh My!
A while back I was ordained, legally, to be recognized by the state. It’s an interesting thing, being ordained. According to most Pagan faiths, particularly in initiatory traditions, you become a Priest or Priestess in your own right.
The state, however, does not recognize this as a legally binding ordination unless the group by which you were initiated has a church standing filed under a 501(c)3 non-profit organization status, or you are ordained and vouched for by another legally ordained clergy member whom legal authorities may call for verification purposes. So, unless legally ordained, a Pagan Priest or Priestess may perform handfasting rites but may not sign a legally binding certificate of marriage.
I became a Priest first in 2008, then I got legally ordained after months of personal studies (not including the 10 years of studying and practicing witchcraft within a coven setting which prepared me for writing custom ceremonies by hand with a large number of correspondences and cultures to pull from.) My ordination records got lost as I moved around from one place to another, so I went ahead and got re-ordained in 2010 with a letter of good standing from an interfaith church which recognizes all religions, not just Judeo-Christian. Now, this latter ordination was an online ordination via the Universal Life Church Monastery which, though online, does have an actual monastery in Modesto, California.
I tell you that in order to tell you this: just because your ordination happened online does not in any way invalidate your experience, wisdom, knowledge, or capabilities as a clergy member! I’ve seen many people look down their nose or turn up their nose and sneer at the idea of someone who was ordained online.
Want to know a little secret? I highly respect Clergy members who are ordained online and do it for a living, not just for a friend or two, because the online churches do NOT in any way take responsibility for how you choose to use your credentials. So yes, while legal, you have to stand on your own two feet and build up a good reputation for yourself in order to make it, because you don’t have the following or financial support of a church behind you. It’s all on you to show that you have the wherewithal to stand toe-to-toe with other clergy members out there and prove you know what you’re doing without years of official training at an accredited seminary.
I’ve been performing handfastings, handpartings, premarital education courses, blessings, namings, and other ceremonial rites of passage for nearly ten years, previously as Midnight Star Ministry, now currently as both a solo Officiant as well as the Bellehaven Family Tradition. There’s no perfect guidebook to prepare new clergy 100% for what to expect, as something totally unexpected will always occur! Especially outside the realm of weddings as many clergy members must also deal with loss, grief, crisis intervention, counseling, last rites, at times even prison ministry. (That’s not to say there aren’t perfectly wonderful clergy training books out there, there are! Such as the handy Baker’s Wedding Handbook. Even some dealing specifically with Pagan clergy! Such as The Wiccan Minister’s Manual: A Guide for Priests and Priestesses or The Pagan Clergy’s Guide for Counseling, Crisis Intervention, and Otherworld Transitions. There are also some resources that delve very specifically into how to provide clergy services for the LGBTQ+ community such as The Knot. )
My best advice to you is to approach it just like you’re writing a ritual for your solitary practice or coven. Know everybody’s roles and what they’re supposed to do inside and out so that if they forget they can always ask you and you’ll always be ready with the answer. Even if you forget your copy of the ceremony, you’ll know what to do. Remember that with a ritual, the logistics aren’t as important as the feelings you provide — your words will be forgotten but how you made people feel will always be remembered. So be kind, be courteous, be professional, but don’t forget to be pragmatic. The more level-headed and down-to-earth you are, the more calm the happy couple will be.
I rarely ever come across a couple who fail to get nervous jitters regarding their wedding, even if they’ve been together for more than a decade or two, have already been living together and basically doing everything a wedded couple already do just without the little piece of paper from the government stating they’re an official pair! The nerves always come…and not just for the bride and groom, but for you, the Officiant, as well!
Don’t take yourself too seriously, the Powers that Be will always send something your way to knock you down a few pegs. (Such as a well-timed gust of wind blowing out all your candles! Or a bee flying down your shirt!)
Improvisation will be your best friend. You’ll find yourself winging it quite often the more ceremonies you perform, as someone will inevitably forget something…and you’ll always be required to do something that isn’t quite within your job description.
Doing things outside of your job description is part and parcel with weddings, funerals, namings, and any other legal ceremony that requires an officiant. Particularly for weddings, as a bride and groom will often select a venue that provides a full service including a wedding coordinator who will walk everyone through their parts, all you *have* to do is officiate and sign a piece of paper. I still recommend that you learn all the ins-and-outs of weddings, from the names of people’s roles and parts to their actions, where they should stand, when they should perform what action, etc…..as you are most likely going to be the one member of the whole wedding party around whom they all feel most comfortable as you’ve already been talking to the bride and groom and most likely their family, months in advance…while the coordinator is a relative stranger to them. You’re the familiar face. If you don’t know what someone should be doing, don’t panic! You can always direct them to the coordinator, and if there isn’t one, you can always Google it really quickly!
A prime example: one time I was officiating a wedding and the groom’s men provided the music. However, one song was in the wrong file format and couldn’t be read! They were panicking because out of all the music on their carefully-selected playlist, this one song was THE one song that was most important to the bride! (Funny how it always works that way, isn’t it?) Thinking quickly, I suggested they find the song on Youtube and plug their phone into an adapter that allowed them to plug directly into an amplifier. Voila! The wedding processional was saved, the bride got the song she specifically wanted to march to, and everybody could breath in a sigh of relief.
The wedding party will not always be the ones to forget something. I, myself, have fallen victim to this. I have a satchel I always carry around with me which had my minister’s wedding stole and a small book of generic interfaith wedding passages for on-the-spot officiating and more. I left it at a wedding venue when I took a tour with the bride and groom (at their invitation), and hadn’t realized it until a few hours later after I’d returned home! Luckily for me, the bride and groom found the bag and automatically assumed it was mine, and took it back to their hotel with them. They called me that evening to let me know, and promised to bring it back to the venue on their wedding day safe and sound. This was amazingly above and beyond for them, as a bride and groom already have SO much they have to remember on their wedding day, and quite a lot going on mentally and emotionally. It can be easy to forget small things, especially things that break from routine.
Here are just a few things to help new clergy get started:
- Ceremony: It doesn’t look very professional to be reading off a printed ceremony, custom-written or otherwise, with a piece of paper in front of your face or placed on the altar, especially considering some parts of the ceremony will require the use of both of your hands, so you’ll need to keep them free! I like to memorize the actions, and any spoken parts required of me I can write on some note cards. You don’t need to write them verbatim, just the highlights (like tarot correspondences) to keep you on track. This way they are small, they don’t cover your face or muffle your voice, they don’t tie up your hands much and are small enough to temporarily slip into a pocket or onto the altar when you require both of your hands. It sounds difficult, but usually you have weeks or months to prepare for this ceremony so you’ll have a good majority of it memorized, especially if you wrote it yourself. (Some couples will request a simple, traditional ceremony, which you may find a plethora of online at various websites and in printed publications for clergy.)
- Logistics: For the most part, the majority of weddings and handfastings will have all the same steps, so you’ll come to innately memorize all of the physical actions, people’s places, etc…inside and out, the more ceremonies you perform. The exception being any additional little “extras” a bride and groom request to make the ceremony more their own. The best way to memorize this is to not just sit and read them over and over, but do a walk-through of them with the bride and groom, and even better, if they have a rehearsal dinner the officiant is usually invited! Perform a cursory walkthrough for the whole wedding party so everyone knows more or less what to do when the big day arrives! This will also help you to memorize the parts by putting thought into action. This will become second nature to you over time. If distance is a problem, walk-throughs can be done online via Skype or any other webcam hosting site where you can be seen and heard by (and similarly can see and hear) the bride and groom. Even if you can’t do a rehearsal with the whole wedding party (not everyone can afford a rehearsal dinner within their wedding budget) the most important thing is for you to calm the nerves of the bride and groom by helping prepare them for what’s to come, so it’s not a huge unknown to them.
- Ingredients: The fewer things you have to carry with you, the better! Your ceremonies do not require a large, elaborate ceremony where you provide a ton of crystals, statuary, and other such items. It is exceedingly difficult in some venues to keep track of every single item you bring for the altar or ceremony in general, and it’s even easier to lose them or have them (Gods forbid) stolen by curious hands. Only bring what is absolutely essential, and if you must bring small, easily lost objects, make sure you take an inventory of them before and after the ceremony. Sometimes the altar might get bumped or relocated by venue staff who do not know how to handle spiritual items, and those items fall off and get lost or damaged.
- Attire: As the officiant, it’s important to look your best, however you do not want to outshine the bride or groom. In fact, the officiant should be in the background so that the spotlight isn’t stolen. It’s always a good idea to coordinate with the bride and groom, and it’s usually recommended to actually dress in the attire you’ve selected, and allow the bride and groom to see what you’re going to wear so that they may approve or help to make appropriate tweaks. I recommend professional attire that isn’t too flashy. Some officiants experiment with their attire based on the season and their mood, some have a standard of dress for all ceremonies with minor tweaks for practicality based on whether or not it’s an indoor or outdoor ceremony.
- Money: One of the hardest things for many officiants is knowing when and how much to charge a client for their services. How much is your time worth? How much custom work have you put into this ceremony? If you have another job and a family, how much time did you take away from either in order to prepare for the ceremony? How much is too much, and how much is too little? At what point do I mention payment to the bride and groom? — All very valid and difficult questions to navigate in person, as it’s never a comfortable topic. Some ministers officiate for free! They’re glad to do it! Some can’t afford to put all that time and effort in and spend money on a ceremony without seeing some return or breaking even at the very least. A few things to remember: 1.) Officiating is a service, so what you’re offering is still a business transaction. 2.) If it’s just a hobby for you, it’s fine to only charge what you’ve spent, plus gas for your transportation and/or accommodations if meals or overnight stays are required, so you break even. You may even only ask for a positive review from the wedding party post-wedding as your only form of payment. 3.) If you’re like me, you have a job and family and writing custom ceremonies, going to rehearsals, etc…takes a large chunk of time out of your schedule. I can’t make due with only breaking even, so what I did was research officiants and call local churches and venues to find out how much other clergy members and even Justices of the Peace charge for officiating services. I found a happy medium for a standard rate so I can stay competitive yet affordable for people on a budget, with costs for small extra things I provide such as premarital education courses, frame-able certificates, etc… 4.) Always mention the price in your initial conversation. Ask them about their budget and figure out whether or not they can afford you, and if you are so inclined you can adjust their payment to you based on their budget. Be upfront about it, you don’t want to get stiffed after putting so much into a wedding because the bride and groom can’t afford your rate after the fact, or just stop communications with you because they no longer have to depend on you for anything — it’s a sad, unfortunate part of the job but it can happen, so you need to keep your bases covered. Price is always the elephant in the room, so get the uncomfortable bit out of the way first and the rest of the time can be spent in convivial bonding.
- Venu: Get to know the venue up-close and in person. It’s always a smart idea to visit the venu where the wedding will occur at least once so that you can incorporate the setting into your ceremony, this way you’ll be able to more easily explain to the groomsmen and bridesmaids exactly where they’ll be stationed, where they’ll walk out from or walk toward at what stage in the ceremony, etc….some venues are perfect for all themes and wedding requirements but some actually hinder plans and ideas that stray from the orthodox practices, so be prepared to improvise after you’ve ascertained whether or not the layout of the venue can help or hinder how the bride and groom wish to have their ceremony performed.
Just like in ritual and in theatre, improvisation, adaptability, and voice projection are key. It’s not about nailing every single point and action perfectly, which will rarely happen when dealing with large groups. In fact, if you mess up, chances are few people –if any– will even realize it as long as you don’t draw a lot of unnecessary attention to it, just play it off and move along! Even if you have to pause momentarily to compose yourself. Some pauses can look quite intentional as if it was written into the ceremony.
In my Ritual Theory 101 classes, I often tell my students that if you aren’t spiritually, mentally, or emotionally getting something positive out of the ritual, whether you’re a participant/celebrant or the host/coordinator performing the ritual, then you’re doing it wrong. Your focus is in the wrong place. While the logistics are important, they’re not as important as the atmosphere that you create. This is an auspicious moment to be celebrated, a happy, joyful moment that everyone present will come to remember in various ways. Every tiny little detail isn’t important….as I stated earlier, people will forget what you do and say, but they will not forget how you made them feel. So above all, be sincere, be happy for the couple, and make sure the spotlight is on them as this is *their* day to be celebrated…it’s not about you, it’s not about their friends, their family, the venue staff, ec…it’s about them. Keep that in mind through every single step of your process, and even make it a point to remind the bride and groom of this when they’re feeling overwhelmed with trying to incorporate a little something to make everyone attending happy. This day is about the happiness of the bride and groom, nobody else. Their happiness and comfort is your only priority.
When you or even the bride or groom get nervous….a mantra I like to repeat like a litany or spell that helps to calm most any situation comes from one of my favorite authors, “The fear is always greater than the reality.” (Kimberly Kirberger, “Chicken Soup…”)
Ordained Interfaith Minister
Crisis Intervention Counselor