Today, three in four couples in the U.S. decide to get married outside of a religious institution.
Whether they say their vows at City Hall, in their backyard, or at a science museum, the reasons couples make this decision are as diverse as the venues they get married in. For instance, my spouse and I wanted to design our own ceremony that honored, but was not bound by, the Catholic traditions we grew up with. Other couples report making the choice to write their own ceremony because they do not share a common faith tradition, have experienced bias or trauma through organized religion, or simply envision gathering in a place that feels more meaningful to their story than a house of worship.
Getting married in an alternative venue often creates the opportunity to have an expanded degree of influence over the ceremony structure itself. Will your officiant lead this process based on a few conversations with you? Will you customize an existing ceremony, or combination of ceremonies, to your taste?
Without fully knowing what we were getting into, my spouse and I rolled up our sleeves and wrote the whole darn thing from scratch. Here’s what we learned along the way:
1. Start early
Like many elements of wedding planning, writing your own ceremony will take longer than you imagine. Our final 25-minute ceremony was about ten pages single-spaced, which if we are honest, makes it the longest piece either of us has written since college. Much like the process of developing a school paper, we found we spent the bulk of our time on the research and reflective stages, rather than the writing itself.
We kicked off the process about six months before the wedding and completed the work in stages, beginning with a series of reflections on our collective values, and progressing to writing our vows, building a ceremony framework around those vows, identifying appropriate readings and reflections, and refining the script with our officiant. Starting early also allowed us the space we needed to take a step back from time to time and return to the ceremony with fresh eyes.
2. Reflect on what matters
Amid the exhilarating, but sometimes emotionally exhausting, bustle of wedding planning, we were thrilled to discover that the creative process of co-developing our ceremony continuously refocused us on what truly mattered: the commitment we were preparing to make to one another.
We kickstarted our reflection stage with a blank piece of paper, a bottle of wine, and a series of prompts: where have we been at our best as a couple? What do we admire about one another? What will we need to sustain us in good times and bad? We told stories, and doodled, and debated. This conversation continued for months to come; on road trips and over dinner, on walks around our neighborhood and at night before bed, we defined what marriage would mean to us.
These discussions shaped the backbone of our ceremony. We settled on three core values we committed to develop throughout our lives together: curiosity, generosity, and individuality. Instead of saying individual vows, we composed a collective vow statement that we memorized and delivered together with alternating lines. Ultimately, the ceremony felt authentically us because it was rooted in the messy, honest process we took to get there.
3. Involve your community
In the months leading up to our wedding, many friends and family members asked what they could do to help. At first, we struggled to identify meaningful roles. But what better way to bring our biggest supporters into our marriage than to include them in the compilation of readings, reflections, and quotes to weave into our ceremony script?
Asking loved ones who knew different religious and literary texts at a personal level helped us dig deeper than a web search alone to find readings that really spoke to us and opened the door to dialogue around how different faith traditions and philosophies approach the institution of marriage.
For each of our three core values, we asked a loved one that we consider a living example of that value to do the selected reading. The officiant also invited our entire community into our marriage by asking our guests to help keep us accountable to the blueprint of values we committed to throughout our lives.
4. Let it all sink in
While much of the industry gears your pre-wedding checklists and messaging toward a dizzying array of “must-have” and “must-do” consumer choices, the ceremony is where the promise actually happens. We are thankful for the time we invested in making that moment right for us.
And what a moment it was.
On the shores of a lake that has paid witness to our love story, we listened as our ceremony unfolded, our dear family and friends delivering the script with a striking blend of conviction and tenderness. We walked confidently into marriage together knowing that we truly believed every word.
Ashley K. Eberhart is a social entrepreneur, writer, and advocate for more inclusive, compelling storytelling around issues that matter. Ashley is currently based at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Center for Social Design, where she is pursuing design as an avenue for increasing representation in U.S. politics. Ashley splits her time between Baltimore and NYC and fortunately does some of her best thinking on trains.