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Wedding Ceremony 101: Ceremony Structure and Basics

So you’re getting married. Yay! You’ve decided to have a wedding ceremony right at your beautiful outdoor venue. But what the heck will you say? What do you do and when do you do it? You need some wedding ceremony 101. In this series, I’ll be taking you through common questions about wedding ceremonies, including the ceremony structure, basics to consider, vow writing, readings, music choice and more.

Weddings have changed a lot over the past twenty years, but one of the largest shift is in the wedding ceremony. According to The Knot’s 2019 Real Weddings Study, only 22 percent of weddings are held in a religious institution. This means that wedding ceremonies are more personalized than ever because there’s no need to necessarily adhere to a specific tradition.

Only 22% of weddings are held in a religious institution.

The Knot 2019 Real Weddings Study

When you’re wedding planning, you’ll make hundreds of decisions. That comes with the territory of throwing a large-scale event. But if you choose to forego any religious tradition or to be married outside of a house of worship, the responsibility of deciding what to include in your wedding ceremony is completely up to you. 

This can seem daunting to couples, even those who have attended countless weddings. When you’re up to bat, it can seem overwhelming. In fact, when I asked my Instagram followers what questions they had during wedding planning, the wedding ceremony came up over and over again. 

wedding ceremony structure

I’m by no means an expert in wedding ceremonies, but I am someone who choose to forego the religious institution and write my own wedding ceremony. I did a lot of research, and spent a lot of time talking to my now-husband about our ceremony, which was something we viewed as very important during the wedding planning process. I’ve also been to a lotttt of different types of weddings during my time as a wedding photographer, both religious and non-religious.

Beyond figuring out where to hold your wedding (I hope you’ve already done that if you’re consulting this blog post), you’ve got to figure out who the heck is going to marry you!

Choosing your officiant 

Unless you live in a state where you can self-declare your marriage, sometimes called self-uniting marriage (looking at Colorado, District of Columbia, Wisconsin, and some other states with Quaker populations), you’re going to need someone to officiate the marriage. In many states, including Michigan, a person must be an ordained minister, magistrate, mayor, or a judge to perform marriage ceremonies. 

This doesn’t mean you’re limited. In the Internet age, it’s pretty simple to be “ordained” online. Many couples are opting to ask a friend or family member to act as their wedding officiant. According to a 2016 Real Weddings survey, 43 percent of couples choose this route, up from 29% in 2009. 

If you hire an officiant, they will most likely be ordained and have some wedding ceremony scripts to show you. They can walk you through what to include in your ceremony and answer questions about specific traditions. They may also write the ceremony for you.

If you opt for the family or friend route, you’ll probably need to take an active role in writing the ceremony. 

Either way, I think it’s important to think about and discuss what YOU BOTH want the ceremony to mean; how you want to say what you want to say; and who is the best fit to facilitate it all. It can be very meaningful to have someone close to you officiate your wedding ceremony. It can also be just as meaningful of a ceremony to hire a professional. I’ve seen both work very well.

So where do you begin with your wedding ceremony structure? Let me give you the basic building blocks.

The Basics of a Wedding Ceremony Structure

wedding ceremony structure

1. The Processional 

This is the part where you enter the ceremony. Many couples choose to include immediate family members including grandparents and parents, seating them during this time. Sometimes, it’s just the wedding party. Sometimes the groom comes down the aisle with the officiant. In Jewish traditions, both partners walk down the aisle with their parents. Josh and I choose to do this at our wedding instead of the “giving away” of the bride. The processional set up is up to you. You don’t HAVE to do anything, you could just enter together if you wanted!

2. The Opening Remarks

Usually the officiant welcomes everyone to the ceremony (think “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”). This could include a thank you from the couple, or a quotation, whatever you want it to.

3. The Officiant Addresses the Couple

After an opening statement, the officiant often addresses the couple. If it’s a friend or family member, they may share a memory of the couple. Or they may just emphasize the significance of the vows you’re going to make to each other.

4. Expression of Intent

The whole “I do” thing. This is the moment where you express your intent to marry. In most places, this is legally the only thing you really need. You’re saying, hey I’m here by choice and I do indeed want to marry this person. 

5. Readings

Sometimes couples choose to include readings in their ceremony. Usually in the wedding ceremony structure, readings come before vows. They can be short, they can be long, they can be poems, they can be prose. There are many common Bible readings if you’re from the Christian tradition, but there are also common poems people read at weddings. If there is a special passage that you both love, this would be a great time to share it. Choosing a family member or close friend to share the reading with everyone is a great way to involve others in your ceremony.

wedding ceremony structure

6. The Exchange of Vows

The big moment: the vows! There are a number of ways you can approach your vows. You can both write your own and share them during the ceremony. You can write something together beforehand and repeat it to each other during the ceremony. I think the vows are the most important part of the ceremony. They are the moment you get to declare exactly why you’re getting married and what you’re going to promise to each other. HEAVY stuff. 

7. Exchange of Rings

If you would like, usually the exchange of rings occurs immediately after the vows. You can say something when you exchange rings, or you can just have the officiant say something like “As you place this ring on James’ finger…”

wedding ceremony structure

8. Unity Ceremony & Other Rituals

There are countless unity ceremonies you could perform. Typically you would perform them after the rings and vows are exchanged to symbolize your union. Popular ceremonies include sand ceremony, unity candle, signing of the marriage license, planting a tree, sealing a time capsule box, or hand fastening (that’s what we did). You can have someone perform a song during this time, or you can skip the unity ceremony!

9. The Pronouncement of Marriage

This is the moment when the officiant says “I now pronounce you…” The next few things come quick.

10. The Kiss

Usually couples choose to kiss after they are pronounced married by the officiant. Sometimes the officiant prompts the kiss, sometimes they do not.

11. The Closing Remarks

You may choose to have the officiant state reminders to the guests about the reception or a final blessing before the recessional.

12. The Presentation of the Couple

This is optional, but sometimes the officiant will say, “It’s my honor to present the newlywed couple” or something along those lines before everyone recesses.

13. The Recessional

Typically the recessional is the reverse of the processional. The couple exits together and then the wedding party follows. The parents usually follow after. If you haven’t signed a marriage license yet, usually it’s done right after the recessional.

The Most Important Thing to Remember about Your Wedding Ceremony Structure

There are no right or wrong answers to what should our wedding ceremony structure look like? because it can look like whatever the hell you want it to if you are writing your own or having a friend/family officiant. The beauty in dispelling what’s traditional is that you get to define what your ceremony looks like and means to you both. It’s okay if something isn’t right for you as a couple and someone else chooses to do it at their wedding. That was their wedding. This is yours. Remember that. Just remember to sign the marriage license correctly and send it in. That’s the most important part. Trust me.

Now that you have the basic wedding ceremony structure, I’m sure you have probably a million more questions. My biggest piece of advice is to sit down with your partner and define your wedding ceremony mission statement. Figure out what you want the ceremony to mean to you both. Forget everyone else, what do you want from it? 

Here are some questions to discuss together:

  • How long do we want the ceremony to be?
  • Do we want others to participate in the ceremony? What will their role(s) be? Who will participate?
  • Are we uncomfortable by any certain part of the ceremony? Can we leave that out or alter it to fit our personalities?
  • What type of vows do we want? Do we want to write our own? Do we want to share them publicly?
  • What traditions will we incorporate, if any? Are there any religious/cultural traditions we want to include?
  • What do we believe to be true about marriage and our partnership and how can we infuse those beliefs into our wedding ceremony? —this one is a big question!
wedding ceremony structure

For Josh and I, we knew we wanted a very feminist, non-gender-role-conforming wedding ceremony. We view marriage as a equalitarian partnership and wanted that to shine through our wedding ceremony. We choose to use language that reflected that instead of typical gendered language (we both come from Christian backgrounds). We wanted to include readings because we both like books and poetry and we wanted a way for others to share in the ceremony. We choose a hand fastening unity ceremony because it seemed the most symbolic and simple for us. We had my sister sing a song that we both like during that part. It was pretty short (probably could have been even shorter), sweet, and encapsulated what we believed to be true about the partnership we were embarking on.

It doesn’t have to be the same for you. Remembering that you get to define the ceremony and your marriage is an important first step. Weddings always seem to be a parade of “Aren’t we supposed to do that?” but you don’t have to do anything. You do you. 

Next week, I’ll be covering choosing readings for your wedding ceremony. 

Have any questions about wedding ceremonies you think I should answer? Leave them in the comments!

wedding ceremony 101 basic structure

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