The Philadelphian’s Guide to the Modern Wedding Ceremony

How necessary is writing your own vows? Can our friend marry us? Three seasoned Philly officiants answer all your burning questions.

modern wedding ceremony

Non-denominational celebrant Alisa Tongg conducts a wedding ceremony at Terrain Gardens. Photo by The More We See

As weddings become more personalized, so do wedding ceremonies. Traditions that were once considered non-negotiable have become fully malleable. (In Pennsylvania, one of a handful of states that permit self-uniting ceremonies, you don’t even need to an officiant present to become spouses.) While wonderful, this anything-goes atmosphere can lead to lots of questions for couples walking down the aisle for the first time.

That’s precisely why we gathered Philly-area officiants Reverend Roxy Birchfield and non-denominational celebrants Jill Magerman of Meaningful Milestones and Alisa Tongg for The Vow Round Table—a real-deal discussion of how to construct a modern wedding ceremony that feels sacred, but still feels like you. Read on for their advice.

RELATED: 8 Wonderful Non-Denominational Philly Wedding Officiants

Philadelphia Wedding: My partner and I come from very different backgrounds. How do we even begin blending our perspectives, let alone those of our families?

Jill Magerman: It almost doesn’t matter if you two are interfaith or intercultural. It’s about getting to the core of you as a couple: what’s important to you, who you want to do what, who you need to honor in the ceremony. I’m working with a couple who aren’t religious but are concerned with how their parents are going to handle a non-religious ceremony. I told them to go back to their parents and find out what elements are important to them, so we can use those or adapt them. I think the key is to make other people feel comfortable — that they’re welcomed, that they’re included.

PW: Say we don’t want to follow a traditional format but still want the ceremony to have some, well, ceremony to it. How do we accomplish that?

Alisa Tongg: There are elements you can add — a candle-lighting ceremony, a defined order of rituals, a sign of peace.

JM: In addition to adapted rituals from religions and cultures, think about what is of real interest to you both. Do you want the ceremony to be lighthearted? Serious?

I did an ice-cream-sundae ritual for a couple who were passionate about their ice cream. If a ritual is meaningful because it speaks to who you are as a couple, that may supersede something that is religious but has no real meaning for you.

You can also add a grounding ritual in the ceremony script, where your officiant asks you to close your eyes and take a couple deep breaths. It’ll remind you to take everything in — this is such a fleeting moment, this day, and you want to enjoy it.

PW: How necessary is writing our own vows?

JM: Some couples aren’t comfortable speaking in front of people. They don’t want to be self-conscious about how they’re doing because they want to stay present in the moment. In that case, it’s smart not to write your own vows.

Roxy Birchfield: You don’t want to force yourself to do something because you think it’s popular or you’ve seen it at other weddings. Whatever the choice is, it has to be truth for you. You don’t want to put undue pressure on the moment worrying if people think what you said is funny or endearing.

philadelphia wedding officiants Jill Magerman Roxy Birchfield Alisa Tongg

From left to right: celebrant Jill Magerman , Reverend Roxy Birchfield, and celebrant Alisa Tongg. Photo by Nell Hoving

PW: But if we do want to write them … what’s important to know?

JM: Google is your best friend. People put their vows out there so you can see different tones or styles as a template. I’m not saying plagiarize, but you don’t need to start from scratch.

AT: When couples decide to write their own vows, I notice a particular structure emerges. They normally do two paragraphs. The first paragraph — I’ll call it an appreciation paragraph. It’s kind of a love letter. But vows are promises, not a love letter. So when people send me vows, I say, “This is beautiful, but what’s your promise?” An officiant can help with the editing. The most important thing is that the language feels natural and authentic, because this is the only time you’re actually talking besides saying “I do.”

RB: Also, be aware of the time limit on your ceremony — you generally have 30 minutes. I always advise to keep vows to one to two minutes. Even one minute is a long time to talk, especially if you’re not a public speaker.

PW: Is it really necessary to memorize your vows?

JM: No, but print them out on nice card-stock paper or put them in a vow book. You don’t want to have to worry about unrolling crumpled paper from your pocket.

RB: And send your vows to your officiant. You don’t want to forget them. Sometimes people say, “My maid of honor will have them.” “My best man will have them” — and then they forget them at the hotel.

PM: What mistakes can take 
ceremony-planning off the rails?

JM: The worst thing is when a couple isn’t on the same page. Decide together: Are you going to write your own vows? Do you want a mention of God?

AT: It’s hard to suddenly become experts on ceremony and symbolism, which I think is the problem many couples face when they ask a friend or a family member to officiate. They want their ceremony to feel warm and loving, like when Joey marries Phoebe and Mike on Friends in the middle of the snowstorm, but most friends don’t actually know how to order a ceremony. This is where it might make sense to hire an officiant, or to give your friend who is officiating detailed guidelines on how you want the ceremony ordered.

RB: You need to put serious thought into your ceremony, not just your reception. The language in the wedding industry focuses too much on the reception. When people say they’re going to a wedding, they’re often not even thinking about the ceremony. An officiant’s job is to bring it back to the fact that no, this is the wedding — the other thing is the party after the wedding. The ceremony is the opening door, the anchor to the day, and it should be right.

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