As a wedding photographer, I see a lot of wedding ceremonies. But aside from that, I’m also a pastor’s daughter. I have a lifetime experience of witnessing what works and what doesn’t in services. But in addition to that, I myself worked as a youth pastor for 3 years, and part of my job was to plan and coordinate our Sunday services. And, basically, if you think about it, your wedding ceremony is a service. It’s an event you put on for your audience. There’s very little audience participation. They are witnesses and they are being led by your service, instead of adding to it. Your wedding ceremony can be just as much about you as it can be about your guests, and it’s important to think about it that way.
However, in all reality, the ceremony ends up being the last thing so many brides and grooms plan for. And that’s not for lack of excitement about it – it’s just that weddings and receptions demand a lot of attention to detail, most of which must be seen to before planning the minutia of the actual wedding ceremony. But those ceremony minutia are so important! That’s why I have so many brides share with me that their greatest stress comes not from the big decisions along the way, but the little ones they make about the ceremony just a few weeks before their wedding day!
I get it. I remember brainstorming with my sister about how to plan for the logistics of the ceremony music not a few weeks before my own wedding. It can feel like a lot, because you’ve spent months and months planning for this huge day, and the whole reason you’re doing this in the first place, the ceremony, can sometimes feel like an accidental wedding afterthought.
That’s why I’ve written this special blog post JUST for ceremonies. Because I know they’re important to all you brides and grooms out there, and there’s no shame or guilt to be had about it accidentally falling to the back of your list – you’re under a lot of stress and there’s so much to think about! So please peruse this list of things to consider and ideas to make your ceremony special, and let it help you plan a ceremony that is going to honor you, your fiance, your guests, and the marriage you will share for a lifetime!
PURPOSE // I list purpose as the first thing to consider because the purpose of your ceremony is important! Your purpose (or goal) is basically your guide. Obviously the main purpose of the whole day is for you and your fiance to finally be wed, but your ceremony is also an opportunity to give something to all of your guests. If you think about it, you have a captive audience of people you love and cherish, with all eyes on you, for maybe the first time in your life. This is your chance to almost speak into their lives. It’s also your chance to really show them what you’re all about. When they walk away from your ceremony, what do you want them to leave with? How do you want them to feel? What do you want them to remember or learn or be thinking about? Kenton and I wanted our wedding day to point to Jesus. We wanted our guests to enjoy themselves and leave having heard the Gospel. That desire impacted the decisions we made about everything, as well as what we chose to do during our ceremony. So thinking of your ceremony’s purpose or goal can really help you to make decisions about what it exactly looks like easily! Your goal will guide you, so pick your purpose first and go from there.
MUSIC AND SOUND // Music is a big part of wedding ceremonies. It’s also kind of crucial. Music is transcendent, and it serves as a buffer for transition times, but it also sets the tone. I’ll dive into song choices next, but the first thing to consider is what kind/how much music you’ll employ during your ceremony. I.e.: Will it be live? Who will perform it? Do you have a gifted friend or do you need to hire performers? Do you want a person and a guitar or do you want a three piece orchestra? Or what if it’s not live. Maybe it’s someone on a speaker system. Where do you get the speakers? Who runs the music for your ceremony? Are they able and reliable? If you have a friend or even a DJ doing the music for your ceremony, it is SO IMPORTANT that you make sure they have a very detailed outline of when to play what song down the the second you want them to start and finish. Example: our exit song for our ceremony had a super long intro (like 30 seconds) that is very quiet until the actual music starts to play. If our friend who was playing DJ that day had simply started to play the track from the beginning right when we started to recess back up the aisle, we basically would have walked out to silence. So communication on transitions when it comes to music is SUPER IMPORTANT. A run-through is much advised. If you think about it – you’re basically planning a service for a crowd of people. You want it to run smoothly so that your purpose is clearly presented without the distractions of things going wrong. And the first thing to create an awkward gap or lull would be a missed music cue. What goes hand and hand with music is sound. For most ceremonies, I think a sound system is important. It is awkward, uncomfortable, and very unfortunate to show up to a wedding, sit near the back, and hear nothing because there’s a poor, or worse, no sound system at all. Run through’s will help trouble shoot allllllll the dumb stuff that can go wrong with sound systems like static, feedback, and mics that straight up go in an out. When thinking sound systems, consider the cords (hopefully be cord-less) and how much clutter will be on the stage. Try to keep it minimal so it looks neat and doesn’t distract from your ceremony.
SONG CHOICES // When thinking about music, I always like to encourage couples to think about what songs are special/meaningful to them in their relationship. Or another route is what do you want your audience to gain from attending your ceremony? For our ceremony, music was really important to me. My processional song (Holocene by Bon Iver, performed by my sister) was one that meant a lot to me in my own personal journey to marriage, but also one that was beautiful, and I think it also carries some Gospel undertones. Our recessional song was Charlie Brown by Coldplay. It is very joyful and felt like an appropriate tune to walk out to. We also had a song played in the middle of our ceremony (Love is War by Hillsong United) for a prayer/worship time, which was really special (and a part of the ceremony that I actually remember!). So song choices are important. They will set the tone for your ceremony and whenever you hear those songs again, you’ll remember your wedding day!
PROCESSIONAL/RECESSIONAL // This is really just a logistical element to ceremonies, but it’s also a way to honor special people in your life. Typical groups to include in the processional are grandparents and immediate family members. After family is seated, the bridesmaids/groomsmen will go down the aisle, followed by the bride. Surely you’ve thought about who to include in your bridal party, but who do you want to honor during the processional other than your bridal party? It’s common for Fathers to escort Mothers down the aisle (my dad walked my mom down the aisle, then walked back up the aisle to walk me down) and ushers or house party to escort other family members (my sister and I escorted our grandfather down the aisle during my cousin’s wedding). Wedding Planners are great about helping you decipher these people and then telling you just what to communicate to them. Basically, if you plan on having you grandparents seated during the processional, someone needs to get them there early to get in line!
VOWS // Vows are a big one! This is where you make promises to your fiance that you’ll essentially build your marriage upon. Things to consider when drafting vows: will you write your own? Will you choose a basic list (a lot of times your officiant can supply you with that)? Will you add lines that are meaningful to you? It can be helpful to think backwards to things you’ll go through together when you’re married and write vows that way. A special idea is to handwrite vows to each other and frame them in your home after the ceremony.
SPECIAL ELEMENTS // This is where you get to yet again express your purpose for your wedding ceremony. It’s also where you get to show who you are as a couple and what you care about. It’s where you get to enrich your service with elements that take one more step to display your commitment to one another. Examples include but aren’t limited to: a time of praise and worship, mixing sand, lighting candles, communion, planting a tree, moments of silence, group prayer times, scripture or special quote readings, addressing the audience (something my brother did at his wedding right before my sister in law, Amy, walked down the aisle), special songs of reflection, etc. There’s literally no limit to what you can do. What will serve you and your marriage best? What will honor your guests? What will you look back on and be grateful you took the time and energy to think through and plan? What can you take from your ceremony into your marriage? These are things to consider when planning special elements for your wedding ceremony.
CEREMONY FLOW // As I’ve stated above, you’re basically planning a service for a group of spectators you care about. A great way to steward your ceremony well is to make sure it’s very well planned, meaning you’ve through through transition times, the service order, and entrance and ending. The obvious book ends to the ceremony are the processional and recessional. But what happens in between? After the processional and the bride’s entrance, what is the first thing that happens? Does the officiant greet the audience and state your purpose? Or do you want to do that before the processional? Does a special friend come to the front and read scripture? Or do you dive straight into prayer? Do you start the ceremony off with a song or worship, or do you immediately dive into vows? Do you want your officiant to deliver a brief message to your guests (20-30 minutes for your ceremony total is average and advised!), or do you want it short and sweet? Whatever you decide to do with your ceremony, make sure you think through the flow of the ceremony elements. Does it feel bumpy or does it make sense? Think from the perspective of an audience member. Are they confused about what’s happening or are they being guided well by who’s in charge (and there should always be someone in charge).
YOUR AUDIENCE // I’ve talked a lot about your audience today and maybe you’re thinking that your service has nothing to do with them and everything to do with you. Which is true, it is about you and your commitment first and foremost. But I do think it would be a missed opportunity not to consider your audience as you plan your ceremony. Part of this is your goal or purpose, which we’ve talked about at length. What to you want to leave them with? But audience comfort is also really important! Are you getting married outside or inside? Will it rain? Will people arrive dressed to the nines (because you asked them to!) and then sweat bullets? If you’re getting married outside in Texas (which I’m ALL ABOUT – outdoor ceremonies are my favorite) then you definitely need to think about your guests comfort level. If it’ll be warm, then maybe don’t make them dress in black tie. Or if you picked a warm month and desperately want to get married outside, maybe think of ways to plan a thoughtful ceremony that is meaningful for everyone involved, but doesn’t last forever. For warm wedding days, you can also provide fans or water bottles in a cute way as people enter the ceremony space. Programs made of card stock are also able to transform into a fan. You can even provide a little wine bar for your ceremony. I mean, why not? I’d love to sit through an outdoor ceremony with a glass of wine. That would be so fun! Seating is also something to consider. Benches? Chairs? Pews? (Yes you can rent pews!)
PROGRAMS AND DECOR // Finally, the little things. Programs are not essential, but they’re nice. They help guests understand the flow. They’re a way to honor your family and bridal party. They can help you demonstrate your purpose and they’re one more way you can add beauty to your overall day. And again, they can double as fans on warm days! They don’t need to be extravagant. In fact, less is more. And again, this is something you can frame in your home later (along with your invites)! Decor can display more of the style or look of your wedding. Florals are always a great idea. Pretty altar structures or installments look amazing, just make sure you stand RIGHT in the middle of your altar or all your photos will be a little off-centered!
LIGHTING // If you’re getting married outside, lucky you, if you plan your ceremony at the right time you won’t need to worry about this. Your ceremony will be beautifully lit by the sun. And please do consider the sun when planning your ceremony time! There’s nothing worse than an outdoor ceremony in pitch black because you printed invites before checking the sunset time on your wedding day. Also, your ceremony time is the thing that has the single greatest impact on your wedding day timeline and wedding day photography. I suggest planning your ceremony 1.5 hours (or better yet, 2 hours or MORE) before sunset time to ensure plenty of light after the ceremony for photos. The more time you have with the sun after your ceremony, the more relaxed your wedding day will be. Trust me! If you’re getting married in a church or indoor venue, lighting will be something you’ll have to consider. From a photographer’s perspective, WINDOWS ARE EVERYTHING. Pick a space that’s well lit with natural light. There’s really nothing worse than a ceremony space with no natural light. But in addition to windows, some spaces (honestly, mainly just churches) may need more light to fill the stage to make sure that 1) your guests can see you, and 2) your photos turn out! If you think about it in respect to your photos, light is the resource for photography. If there’s no light, there’s no photo. Now obviously good photographers will have low light capable cameras and flashes as well, but if we don’t have to use those, that’s preferred!
And really, that is everything you need to consider for your wedding ceremony. This may seem stressful because you’ve never planned a service before, but don’t worry, you got this! Really truly, if you can think through these things above, you will plan a really lovely ceremony that not only sends you into marriage in the best way possible, but a ceremony that also leaves your guests with more than they came with!