Wedding planning is full of decision making but choosing who will marry you probably tops the list. While there are many different types of wedding officiants, the type of ceremony you’re envisioning–religious, civil, or otherwise–will help guide the best person to lead your service. Like your other wedding vendors, it's best to get references or read online reviews and referrals of officiants in your wedding location before choosing the right one for your ceremony.
If you’re feeling a bit confused about the difference between a religious, civil, or professional officiant, fear not. You can consider this your official glossary of the types of wedding officiants ready help you tie the knot.
What is a wedding officiant?
A wedding officiant is perhaps best known as the person who leads the ceremony. However, that's only part of their job. An officiant, whether secular or religious, works with the couple in the months before the wedding day to craft the ceremony, which may include personal vows, readings, music selections, and more. They may also provide premarital counseling. The officiant must be legally ordained to perform weddings in your state and understand your jurisdiction's laws as they pertain to the marriage license. On your wedding day, your officiant will fill out and sign the marriage license (along with witnesses) and send it back to the county clerk's office for certification. This may sound like a minor detail, but without a marriage license, you're not actually married—so your wedding officiant has an essential role to play here.
Types of wedding officiants
You'll need to decide the type of wedding officiant you'd like to perform your ceremony before starting the search. Here's a rundown of the different wedding officiants, both religious and secular.
Civil wedding officiant
Civil officiants refer to those in government roles who have the ability to legally perform a marriage ceremony in accordance with their state laws. This type of secular officiant may have various titles, such as a justice of the peace, judge, mayor, city clerk, notary, or magistrate, and often oversee ceremonies within the context of a government setting, including courthouse weddings.
Many couples choose a civil officiant for a straightforward, nonreligious ceremony with the added assurance that their marriage is official in the eyes of the law. In fact, some couples marrying abroad will also need to conduct a legal secular ceremony back home with the help of a civil officiant.
Religious wedding officiant
Religious officiants serve as leaders within their particular area of faith and usually perform wedding ceremonies based at their place of worship. You may be familiar with common religious leader titles such as rabbi, priest, imam, pastor, revered, or minister, all of whom can perform a wedding ceremony and sign your marriage certificate.
However, just because you’re working with a religious officiant doesn’t necessarily mean you’re obligated to wed in a church, mosque, temple, or any place of worship. For example, many couples have their pastor officiate a wedding ceremony at the beach, in their backyard, or at their chosen venue. On the flip side, a Catholic priest might not be able to perform a marriage ceremony unless it’s held at the church.
Keep in mind that the rules and regulations that come with this type of wedding officiant vary widely by each religious organization and denomination. It’s always best to have a conversation with any prospective officiant before finalizing the location and ceremony script.
Professional wedding officiant
In addition to civil and religious wedding officiants, professional officiants–also called celebrants–are licensed and experienced professionals hired to perform your marriage ceremony. Most celebrants are well-versed in secular, spiritual, or interfaith ceremonies, but each celebrant likely has their area of specialty.
In addition to performing your service on the big day, these types of wedding officiants will often be able to offer guidance as you write and practice your wedding vows. They’ll also offer the flexibility to customize your ceremony with any rituals or readings you’d like to include.
Just like any other member of your wedding vendor team, you’ll want to take the time to meet with potential celebrants before hiring and to ask as many questions as possible upfront. Luckily, most celebrants come with years of experience, so you can rest assured they’ll lead your ceremony with the utmost confidence and professionalism.
Ordained wedding officiant
While we recommend hiring an experienced wedding officiant to conduct your ceremony, some couples are simply more comfortable with a loved one officiating their ceremony and choose to ask a close family member or friend who is (or agrees to become) officially ordained.
If the family member or friend you’d like to perform your ceremony isn’t currently ordained, they can apply online with a simple form and fee. However, it’s important to note that some states do not recognize online ordination, so be sure to brush up on your state’s marriage laws before your loved one completes the process.