Saturday, February 07, 2009

Ministering to Your Needs

My blogging colleague, Fr. Rich, gets some well-deserved publicity for his services -- RG

Choosing the Wedding Officiant That’s Right for You
by Kelley Granger,
Chronogram Magazine
January 30, 2009

Once the dress has been chosen, the venue selected, the cake ordered, and floral arrangements figured out, you’re closer to the decision that should be at the literal heart of a wedding—finding the appropriate officiant to create the ceremony that best fits you as a couple. Most wedding literature provides minimal guidance for finding an officiant, especially when compared to the focus given to the more glamorous aspects of the wedding. But finding the right person is crucial: It sets the tone of the entire celebration and ensures that the words spoken and promises made are tailored to your feelings and beliefs.

Before you begin looking for an officiant, sit down with your significant other to discuss your expectations and what type of ceremony you both envision. Consider your backgrounds—will you be bringing a strong religious or cultural foundation to the wedding, or are you planning a service to include two faiths? Do you want to acknowledge a spiritual union without prescribing to a specific belief system? Or would you prefer a civil or nonreligious ceremony? The answer to these questions will be the first criteria to narrow your search. From there, reflect on the people you know who may be a good fit or begin a search. The Internet has many resources for local options, including a search for clergy and ceremony officiants within the vendor section of and the Hudson Valley city guide on The Knot’s website.

Once you’ve found a few choices that seem promising, get in touch. “Take time to discuss ahead of time what the vision for your ceremony is and what your values are and prepare questions to ask an officiant,” says Puja Thomson, an interfaith minister from New Paltz who has been performing ceremonies for 13 years. “Then, after selecting a minister or two to interview, go with an open mind to meet with your first choice. Ask your questions. Notice what questions he or she asks you. Tune in to what you sense; whether you feel comfortable and trusting with the officiant. Do you feel heard? Is your point of view respected? Are you on the same wavelength? You’ll very quickly find out if you’re compatible or not.”

If you’re going the traditional route with a religious wedding, do your homework if you’re not using a clergy member that you or your partner knows. “If [the couple is] looking for a sacred moment, they should be very careful to find someone who is genuinely religious and will approach their wedding with the care that it deserves,” says Father Richard Haselbach, an ordained Catholic priest from Carmel. “I would look for seminary training and somebody who approaches you, not like [you are] a business client, but [instead as] someone who cares about your spiritual wellbeing.”

Make sure that the candidate takes a sincere interest in you and your significant other, your wishes, and your story as a couple. Ask the officiant to also share their own story to further investigate your compatibility. Through these talks, you may discover more flexibility than you thought possible. For example, though the Catholic religion says couples must marry within the church, Father Haselbach agrees to do weddings at most any location, frequently participates in interfaith ceremonies and says he is about to help his first gay couple in a ceremony. He is also part of a growing number of priests who have become married themselves—and since leaving what he calls the “corporate” church, is now working with CITI Ministries, an organization that promotes the spiritual services of married priests. While perhaps not the right option for those with certain beliefs, Father Haselbach’s policy of nonjudgment and willingness to help anyone on their path to God has brought him to officiate more than 100 ceremonies per year.

Couples may also find themselves charmed by the explanation of how the officiant came to help couples celebrate their marriages. Thomson, who was given the first name “Puja” by the spiritual master Osho in India in 1974, received her name well before she ever performed a wedding. The name means ceremony, worship, or offering—and was a hint of the destiny she would later fulfill as an interfaith minister.

Zoe B. Zak, a rabbinical assistant for the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, has another kind of story—she was moved by a couple she met at a Toronto music festival a number of years ago who were very much in love, but the groom was Jewish and his Polish bride was Catholic. “In all of Canada there wasn’t one rabbi who would marry them,” Zak says. “They desperately wanted a Jewish ceremony and were very hurt not to be able to find someone to support their marriage. I learned everything I could about a Jewish wedding ceremony and I went to Toronto and performed this wedding, and it was an incredibly moving experience for me [to be] standing under the chuppah with this couple at this sacred and amazing time in their lives.” Soon after, Zak began receiving requests to do more weddings and began specializing in interfaith weddings. Some rabbis, who cannot traditionally perform interfaith weddings, began referring couples to Zak for their ceremony. She is currently in rabbinical school and has halted her officiating until she is finished.

After getting to know your possible officiant and making a choice, you’ll have the opportunity to meet with them to begin preparing the ceremony details. For Thomson, who was ordained as a minister of natural healing and has studied energy work with the Healing Light Center Church for about 15 years, this preparation is essential to a meaningful ceremony. “I ask each couple to fill out a detailed form giving me information, not only about the date, place, and cast of characters of the wedding, but also about themselves—what they appreciate in each other, their value systems (because their vows are going to be based on shared values), religious and cultural backgrounds, and current spiritual perspectives, their wishes for the ceremony, and more,” she says.

She’ll then share sample ceremonies with the couple and allow them to alter and add anything they’d like, often within the framework of three main parts: a beginning that may include a welcome, opening prayer, reading, music, or an address about marriage and the couple; the core of the ceremony with a declaration of intention, a reciprocal exchange of vows, and a prayer of blessing; and a finish that may include another reading or song or elements from respective traditions (like a unity candle or the breaking of a glass). Thomson then makes the pronouncement of marriage, sanctions the first kiss, and offers a final blessing. To be legal, she says she is required to do just two things—have the couple exchange vows and pronounce them to be husband and wife. Aside from those, couples have a lot of freedom to carefully construct a unique and personalized ceremony. She recommends Daphne Rose Kingma’s book Weddings from the Heart: Contemporary and Traditional Ceremonies for an Unforgettable Wedding (Conari Press, 1995), a guide that offers advice from the search for an officiant to each segment of the ceremony.

Megan Park and Joe Belluso chose Thomson to lead their wedding in Danby, Vermont, in 2000. She chose not to have any specific religious focus during the outdoor ceremony Thomson helped her put together. “We just really wanted to talk about the simplicity of it and to us that’s what it was all about, we didn’t need the pomp and circumstance,” Park says. Throughout the process, she says Thomson was encouraging, helpful, and made the couple feel like there were no rights or wrongs. “Her lovely [Scottish] brogue was very calming. When you’re getting married there are 80 million things to think about, and this was one less. Her presence is just really comforting.”

Interfaith couples will find a number of officiants willing to work on their ceremony throughout the Hudson Valley. Zak has worked closely with a number of priests to perform Christian-Jewish weddings, Thomson is open to ceremonies from all spiritual paths and Father Haselbach has collaborated often on interfaith weddings—he believes he and a Hindu priest from Albany may be the first in the country to have created a joint Catholic-Hindu ceremony.

For these couples, the planning process is only slightly different than it would normally be in that clients meet with both officiants to discuss their options and to blend the various traditions and rituals into one ceremony.
Some couples may wish to have a civil ceremony or to ask a friend or family member to officiate for them. At their wedding in December, Shari and Fred Riley Jr. of Modena had the best of both. They asked a local judge, who was also close friend, to officiate at their wedding. “For me, it felt important to have somebody who had some sort of connection to us,” Shari Riley says. “There was a true connection that enhanced the whole ceremony, rather than having a stranger that didn’t know us. I think there was genuine happiness on [our friend’s] part, making the ceremony more genuine.”

If you have a friend or family member you would like to have lead your ceremony, information on ordinations is typically easy to come by online, as well as the actual ordination. Zak used to receive her ordination, although her work is coupled with an intensive study and work within a religious community. Any person who plans to pursue ordination should make sure they’re fully aware of the laws and responsibilities pertaining to ceremony officiants.

No matter what type of ceremony you’re planning, make sure that you’re comfortable with your officiant and being faithful to your own wishes as a couple. As Thomson says, “A wedding ceremony is the energetic jumpstart for a couple’s marriage. It’s a very sacred and important moment. Honest communication pertaining to the ceremony is important and bodes well for good communication in the marriage.”


Puja A. J. Thomson, (845) 255-2278

Father Richard Haselbach, (914) 804-1944

Zoe B. Zak, (845) 255-6156

Photo: Father Rich Haselbach presides over the ceremony of Bonnie Jeanne Regan and Jimmy Gerhart at their wedding in the Dominican Republic.

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