One of the biggest decisions a couple must make about their ceremony concerns the vows. Sharing vows and saying, “I Do,” are what everyone comes to see and hear. Much of the ceremony falls on the officiant, but for these two parts, all eyes and ears are on the couple. It should be both personal and meaningful.
As I am writing this, I have personally officiated at over 1500 ceremonies. Sometimes as the groom and I wait for the wedding to begin, I will ask the groom if he is nervous. The answer varies tremendously, but occasionally, the groom will ask me if I ever get nervous. My answer is no. When I was just getting my wedding ministry started and WeddingChaplain.com did not exist, there might have been a few qualms. The weddings I had performed were primarily at small venues like churches, parks, or gardens. Now I feel like a seasoned veteran.
I remember being asked to do a wedding -- and it was the biggest wedding I had ever seen or even imagined. It was a very elegant affair at one of the most famous golf clubs in Atlanta. The guest list was over 400 people. You might say it was top shelf of the top shelf. Most of men wore tuxedos and many of the women wore hats. It looked like the dinner party before the Kentucky Derby with butlers, waiters, ice sculptures, stringed quartets, and silver trays. It was the “Gatsby goes to a wedding” event. The ceremony itself was held just off the tee box of the first hole on a beautiful fall evening with warm, clear southern skies. It was truly a story book setting.
In the weeks leading up to the wedding, I spoke with the couples about their ceremony. They had mentioned to me the idea of writing their own vows. I said that would be fine. They also said they wanted them to be a secret. They did not want to share them with each other nor with me. Again, I had not done very many ceremonies, but I also did not want to appear like a novice. I just said “sure, no problem.” That was a mistake.
The ceremony was just as the couple had planned; everything was perfect. They answered, “I Do,” and I then said the couple has chosen to write their own vows and the bride will go first. At this point the couple pulled out scrolls, literal rolled up parchment paper. I thought, “Wow, this is going to be epic!”
The bride unrolled a scroll, choked back a tear or two, took a deep breath and read what she wrote. It was beautiful, thoughtful, heartfelt, and true. While she did a good job of making it through, many in the congregation including her mother and grandmother did not. They began crying from the moment she began. Needless to say, it was very moving.
Then it was the groom’s turn to read his vows. He unrolled his scroll and confidently read:
“You are hot.”
There was a second or two of silence before he continued.
“And you are also cool.”
That was it. He rolled up the scroll.
Think about this for a moment. Picture this elegant, storybook wedding. The bride was beautiful, radiant, reflecting hours of hair and makeup. The dress was stunning. True, she was hot. But with this vow this bride turned really hot. Meaning her face turned red hot. And I could also see the mother and grandmother turn hot as well.
On the other hand, the groomsmen all thought this was awesome. They grunted and did fist bumps. No one else had that reaction. Some family members made fists, but not congratulatory ones.
They exchanged rings, kissed, and I pronounced them husband and wife. The wedding party walked out following the couple to one area and I dismissed the congregation to the cocktail hour in another area. When I rejoined the wedding party, I was hearing things being said that you never want to hear from anyone. Especially not from your spouse and certainly not on wedding day.
And, by the way, they are still married.
While this is one of my best wedding stories, I began learning a number of things that day and at every wedding since. The first thing I learned is if you want to write your own vows, let the minister read them! But here a few more practical thoughts.
Reciting Vows vs. Writing Vows. That is the first and biggest question. It requires vision and self-awareness. What do you envision that moment to be? Furthermore, what is your comfort level with speaking or reading in front of people? Public speaking is the biggest fear by far. The fear of dying comes in second to the idea of talking in front of people. What you write or plan will be done in front of a crowd of people, plus you will be standing in front of the person you love. The emotions will be at their greatest heights. For some, this is not a big deal; for others, just repeating after the minister is all they can handle.
Religion, Tradition and Creativity. The vows see all of these converge. If you are getting married in a church, synagogue, or cathedral, you might not have a choice. There may be something prescribed that you must say. If you have a choice, then you might combine a personal statement with traditional vows. If it is completely your choice, then you want to consider these things
1. How religious?
2. How traditional?
3. Will we recite the same vow or two different vows?
4. Will we memorize them or repeat after the officiant?
5. Humor or serious?
Vows are for the couple, not for the congregation. The ceremony is a public event. There is a reason you invited 150 of your friends and family to witness this event; you wanted to do something in front of them. The entire service says something to all who attend. But the vows are for the couple. The moment is covenantal, meaning you are entering into a contract and celebrating it ceremonially. While the congregation is a witness, the participants are the couple. When you are sharing vows, these are your promises to your partner. This is what you are intending to do from this point forward.
Use Humor carefully. Humor is a wonderful tool. It is one of the best ways I know to keep the nerves down and the congregation engaged. Humor can keep the nervous groom or bride from passing out. In the rare instances where someone goes down briefly, humor helps get that person back on their feet and makes a tragic moment more lighthearted. While humor is good, you need to be careful. Know the venue, your attendees and know yourself. Make sure what you want to say will work in those contexts. I have learned what works in a rustic barn venue does not always translate to the massive cathedral. If you are going to say something funny in your vows, make sure you are not poking fun at your partner.
Do not make fun of the process. There is a trend with couples celebrating their wedding by making fun of the wedding. To be unique, they downplay or poke fun at the whole official nature of the day. I get it. Sometimes we put too much on the day and the traditions. In reality, nothing magical happens on wedding day. Who you are the day before will be the same the day after, don’t take it too seriously. On the other hand, I have heard people use the vows as a creative time for jokes. For example, “I promise to put the toilet seat down.” “I promise to let you watch football or either Saturday or Sunday… but not both.” These work in small doses. Use jokes in a personal statement and hopefully the humor leads you to saying something more grounded. Vows are timeless; humor is context. When you look back on the vows you said thirty years from now, how do you want that moment to be remembered?
Story vs. Promises. The promises come in the vows, and this becomes the covenant between the couple. Simply put, the vows are your promises to each other. They are not the best time to tell your love story. Often it is the minister who will recount some of the story of the couple. As you are sharing promises to each other, people are watching. You are talking to your loved one –not talking to the whole room.
Do not tell people you are better than anyone else. Sometimes, I will hear couples in their vows describe their relationship in very unique ways. Every relationship is different, and every story is special. But do not say that you have a relationship like no other, or that what you both have is beyond what anybody else has. And certainly, do not compare your relationship to one you had in the past. In that congregation, and later in the reception if you do an anniversary dance, you will see there are people there who have been married 30, 40, 50 or even 60 years.
Keep inside jokes inside. Filling your vows with inside jokes and references that only you know or maybe a few of your friends know makes others feel like they missed something. While it is not a complete no; just be discreet.
Personal Statements vs. Vows. When I hear couples say they want to write their own vows, what many of them are really picturing is writing a personal statement. Sometimes they will write a personal statement followed by a traditional repeat after me vow. Or it will just be the personal statement alone. They might use vow books or write out something that is much too long. Typically a vow says, “I am standing here in front of you today and these are some things I want to say and promise.” If you truly want to write your own vow, make sure the officiant looks at it.
Say something, don’t say everything. Wedding time is special time. Usually, a ceremony only lasts for 25-30 minutes. I have seen ceremonies go for an hour or more and sometimes I have seen five minutes ceremonies. I try to be goldilocks. Not too long, not too short, just right. With that idea in mind, do not use the vows to say it all. You have the rest of your life to say it all. Even in a short ceremony, 4 to 5 minutes is an eternity. Say something, but not everything.
The wedding day is special, but often the whole day is ablur. Will you remember what the minister said? Maybe. Will you remember what anyone said throughout that day? Possibly. Will you remember your vows? Most definitely. Keep that in mind as you continue your planning.