Anyone can do the I do's

Nathan and Elisa Irish and their newly minted officiant, Ringo Roseman.
Nathan and Elisa Irish and their newly minted officiant, Ringo Roseman. (Jeremy Wolfe Photography)

More couples are having a friend get ordained and tie their knot meaningfully, rather than contracting with clergy they really don't believe in.

Posted: July 26, 2012

On a balmy May day on the roof deck of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Ringo Roseman spoke with passion and verve about how Nathan Irish and Elisa Reape are happiest when making each other happy. Clad in a black tuxedo, he pronounced them husband and wife with the ease of a seasoned professional, and got roaring applause from the 80 or so family and friends watching the ceremony.

Not bad for a first-timer.

Roseman, 31, is not a priest or rabbi (he's a bar manager), but he did fill out a short form on the Universal Life Church Monastery website awarding him the designation of minister and allowing him to legally perform the ceremony in Philadelphia. When Nathan, 36, and Elisa, 39 (both bartenders), told him his gregarious attitude would make him their ideal wedding officiant, he jumped at the chance. Although becoming ordained was easier than buying airline tickets online, he took the job very seriously, reading sample speeches and studying ceremony videos on YouTube. (He considered crashing a few ceremonies, but thought better of it.)

"I was absolutely honored because I feel so strongly about them as a couple," Roseman said.

Since Nathan is Lutheran, Elisa is Catholic, and neither is religious, having Roseman, a close Jewish friend, perform the ceremony made more sense to them than hiring a professional, they said.

"Having Ringo do it made it much more personal and much more meaningful for us," said Elisa, who met Roseman eight years ago when she started dating Nathan, his then-coworker.

While the number of people using independent nondenominational wedding officiants has been on the rise for the last 20 years - reasons include interfaith marriage, high synagogue dues, and low church membership - more couples are asking friends to perform one-time gigs to lead their wedding ceremonies. In a do-it-yourself pop culture, couples are now just as likely to design their own outfits, play their own music, and grow their own food as they are to recruit their own officiant.

Although there are at least a handful of online-ordination options, the Universal Life Church Monastery has been the go-to place for friends-turned officiants in the Philadelphia area to get a quick minister's license. (It probably helps that it's the first site that pops up on a Google search for "become a minister.")

The website ordains people of all faiths and reports that since 2010, more than 11,000 people from Philadelphia became ordained through the site, according to Andy Fulton, a public relations assistant with the organization. It has ordained 25,000 people from Philadelphia in the last six years, and nationally it has seen steady increases year over year, with a 6.1 percent increase from 2010 to 2011 (the most recent statistics available).

"It becomes more attractive to have friends and family members perform your marriage ceremony instead of some white-haired clergyman that you have very little in common with," Fulton said.

If couples already have a relationship with a church or synagogue, and therefore its religious leader, a clergy-led ceremony would be a natural fit. But fewer couples are willing to hire clergy just for clergy's sake. After all, although wedding ceremonies can be filled with religious rituals, a legal marriage requires nothing more than a signed certificate by the ordained, whether they went to seminary for four years or filled out a form similar to the one shoppers encounter when making a purchase on Amazon.

"Three years ago I went to a wedding where the clergy had actually baptized the bride when she was a kid - but that's rare," said Phyllis Richard, a local wedding consultant who goes by the name Your Fairy Godmother. "Couples seem focused on having a personal relationship with the person officiating" - which rules out the justice-of-the-peace option - "and if they're not religious, they certainly wouldn't have a relationship with religious figures."

Also, with countless establishments opening their doors to host weddings - from the Please Touch Museum to Long's Park to Eastern State Penitentiary - fewer people are holding their ceremonies at religious institutions.

"Two generations ago, weddings were predominantly performed in churches; now, couples have a myriad of wedding location options available to them and are increasingly choosing to forgo spending time in churches on their wedding day," Fulton said. "Decoupling religion from the role of wedding officiant is an organic continuation of this process."

Money is also an issue. If you aren't religious and think an outgoing friend can do a better job, why spend the money to hire professional clergy, especially when it can cost between $350 and $750? One reason: When religious family members are footing the bill for the wedding, they might not look fondly on the friend-officiating scenario. These days, however, plenty of couples pay for their own receptions, making sure their special day reflects their own personalities.

"Look, we're not 24-year-olds who don't know anything and are listening to Daddy," said Elisa Irish. "I'm sure somebody's parents are dropping a $20,000 check, but that's not us. We live together. We're older. We know what we want."

When couples feel obligated to go through rituals they feel are antiquated, the wedding can lose its celebratory tone, she said.

"There are so many mandatory steps they think they have to fulfill, but it's really nonsense," Irish said.

Mike and Andrea O'Brien had every intention of having a traditional Catholic wedding ceremony. The Jenkintown couple began going to Mass every Sunday and found the perfect little church in Kinsale, Ireland, where the destination wedding was to be held July 4, 2011. But then came marriage-prep classes that the couple found patronizing, followed by meetings with a priest who called their relationship and interest in the church "illogical" since Mike was previously married and Andrea had never been baptized.

"He was thinking it's the 18th or 19th century," said Andrea, 28.

They started to wonder: Why try to persuade a priest they belonged in a church that didn't seem to want them? So after months of planning, the couple scrapped the church wedding, got married at a Kinsale hotel, and asked Joe Kirschen to officiate. Kirschen, Mike's coworker at a publishing company and a musician in an Irish rock band, had a way with words and ease in front of people.

"He's a performer so he's used to crowds," said Mike, 36. "I see him as an older-brother figure, plus he's known us since we first started dating."

Kirschen was far from perfect. After the audience stood to watch Andrea walk down the aisle, Kirschen read feverishly from his script for several minutes without looking up. Finally, Mike whispered to him that he should tell the audience that they could be seated.

But Kirschen soon found his groove and sent the couple off in fine style, winning plenty of support from members of both families.

"We made him an honorary O'Brien at the pub later that night. The first Jewish O'Brien," said Mike.

Elisa and Nic Esposito, a pair of urban farmers with a plot of land in Kensington, wanted to make sure their ceremony and reception reflected their commitment to their community.

Friends cooked, decorated, DJ'd, and even made the bridal gown. The couple found it a natural fit to have friend Angie Norris officiate at the wedding since she is a yoga teacher, host of music shows, and lecturer for nursing events.

"We were going for something a bit more personal and intimate; this is how we achieved that," said Elisa, 30. "We take getting married pretty seriously."

Nic is an atheist and Elisa is agnostic, so having a religious figure officiate didn't make sense.

"I don't understand couples who don't practice religion but go through the motions because they think that's what they have to do," said Nic, 28.

While other newly ordained ministers such as Roseman and Kirschen kept their ceremonies short and sweet, the Esposito wedding ran for about 45 minutes, with sing-alongs and family and friends sharing thoughts and feelings in traditional Quaker style. Norris was tasked with serving as part emcee and part officiant, and her nerves showed as she flubbed a few words at the beginning of the ceremony. But as the event went on, she spoke with poise and certainty.

"When a wedding starts with a whole community singing 'That's Amore,' it gave me a lot of confidence," said Norris. "I thought: 'These people are really game. They are really happy to be here for Nic and Elisa. This is going to be fine. I got this.' "

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