Read as Maureen Thomson talks about her career as a Wedding Officiant. Find her at www.lyssabeths.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I am a wedding officiant and owner of Lyssabeth’s Wedding Officiants.
How would you describe what you do?
We write and perform wedding ceremonies, vow renewals, and commitment ceremonies for couples in Colorado, California and Oregon. Many couples are embracing the idea of getting married outside of traditional channels such as clergy people or justices of the peace. We fill that niche by giving couples access to professional officiant services that are not affiliated with either church or state.
What does your work entail?
As owner of the business, my personal job tasks are very different than the officiants that work for me. I am heavily involved with the marketing, website development, officiant training, sales and customer service aspects of the business.
What’s a typical work week like?
There is no such thing as a “typical” work week. I spend much of my time at a computer–writing blog entries, updating our websites, talking to clients, answering questions, putting out fires, hiring, training, etc. I do a lot of networking with other wedding vendors in the areas that we serve. One of the great things about working from home is that there is fluidity among tasks for business, home and personal. I may be writing a blog entry one minute, or throwing in a load of laundry or taking a walk the next!
How did you get started?
Now, that’s an interesting story. Here it is–as written for our officiant training manual:
Lyssabeth’s found me—with some open-armed receptivity on my part–in the form of a dilapidated Victorian house at 26th & Sheridan in Denver, CO. In 2001, I’d been self-employed for several years, having left my job as a grant-writer and fundraiser to work as an independent contractor. Because my former employer became my primary client, it wasn’t much of a leap. Mainly it was my location and work hours that changed. My commute became a 13-step trek to a desk in the corner of my living room. I became self-employed overnight and immediately fell in love with the freedom and opportunities it presented.
But self-employed does not necessarily mean that one is an entrepreneur; “working from home” not synonymous with “Joyfully Jobless”. I was good at what I did; I made decent money. But there are different types of currencies over and above the monetary. The financial rewards were diminished by the lack of passion, the stymied creativity, the sense of being perpetually beige. In these areas I was impoverished. An inner voice nudged me. I was not being all I could; this was not my calling. Just as one searches for a soulmate in a relationship, so did I seek this for my career. Writing grants was analogous to the transitional man or woman that many of us date shortly after we divorce—good enough to keep me occupied, suitable for a brief flirtation, but not the one with whom I’d be rocking on the front porch in my twilight years.
I’d entered adulthood with sixteen years of Catholic education and a social work degree. I had tried numerous jobs and careers—all of them seemingly discordant. I once owned a housecleaning service–not exactly what Dad had in mind after four years of college tuition, yet it gave me a sense of freedom and accomplishment. I created homemade pampering products for women; bath salts, eye masks, lavender sachets. Fun, but the hours spent working in my basement made me feel like I was in a sweat shop. My most out-of-character career endeavor? A stint as a manager of Dunkin Donuts, where I would have been valedictorian of my class at Dunkin Donuts University had I not sprained my wrist in an zealous attempt to cut 150 dozen donuts in the time allotted to pass the final exam!
Mostly I worked in nonprofits, where I learned to communicate effectively with people in various challenging circumstances. In the late 1980′s, tiring of casework and demonstrating a flair for writing, I turned to creating the agency’s grant proposals. Next, I applied my writing skills to publishing the agency newsletter. Naturally organized and detailed-oriented, it was a logical step to oversee their special events. When our executive director left unexpectedly, I served as Interim Director. It was a crash course in management, long-term planning, accounting and the bureaucracy of government funding.
Still in human services and a twice-divorced single mom, I moved to Colorado from New England in 1995 and later married my third husband. We fell into the sideline of buying and rehabbing homes. (I owned a house, he owned a house, we moved in together and only needed one, so voila—a new income source was born). While I never became a real estate tycoon, I became proficient at wielding a paintbrush, writing contracts and negotiating sales terms.
I often lamented that I was a Jill of all trades yet felt scattered and unfocused. My personal life reflected this. By 2001 my third marriage was on a slippery slope and I was working at what seemed like my thousandth career. I was the perpetual bumbling bee, flitting from flower to flower and never finding the exquisite nectar I sought. My overriding successes were my daughters, Bethany and Alyssa, who had weathered my inconsistencies and were maturing into well-adjusted adults.
Enter the Victorian. Driving by while ruminating on my future (I was in the gift-basket stage and engaging fantasies of opening a cute retail shop) I noticed the “for sale” sign and investigated. It was empty and needed more than a little TLC. Okay, it was a disaster.
Had I succumbed to rational thought, I wouldn’t have bought that house. There is a time to go with one’s rational process however, and a time to go with intuition. I chose the latter. My then-husband, resigned if less than enthusiastic, acquiesced and I mortgaged our existing properties to the max and bought it. I had to; it spoke to me.
The prior owners had run a Vegas-style wedding chapel out of the home, offering “drive by” weddings. Pay your $100, get hitched—bye! I was intrigued in a can’t-take-my-eyes-off-the-car-wreck way. We began rehabbing—big time. Old houses are not for the faint of heart. I had no idea what to do with the property but it had to be revenue-generating—fast! As we renovated, the doorbell rang incessantly with people seeking to be married. The house was well-known as the “wedding place”. And how beautiful it was becoming! Original tile on the fireplace; century-old woodwork restored to its original luster. I was enthralled.
I was also short of funds. And somewhere in the process my third marriage floundered and died. I ensconced oldest daughter Bethany on the second floor with a couple of college roommates. This helped defray the mortgage—but not enough. Insecurity bubbled up; “you can’t even sustain a relationship or a career—what were you thinking to take on such a behemoth?” I chided myself.
With no other options, I pressed on, attempting to rent the downstairs for private parties, corporate seminars, small weddings–anything with 40 or fewer people. It came time to give the fledgling business a name so I seized on the one area where I felt success—my girls–Bethany and Alyssa. And so, Lyssabeth’s was born.
A funny thing happened on my way to achieving my business goals. As folks came to view the site, I struggled to land bookings. Potential clients expressed interest, but seldom booked…with one exception. People planning small weddings nearly always booked.
So, I went with it. That’s what you do when you’re an entrepreneur. Listen to the messages that you’re given; combine them with hard work, logic and an inherent belief that all is as it should be and go with it. I started marketing Lyssabeth’s as the place for small weddings and the bookings began to trickle in.
Initially, couples had to find their own clergy person or judge to perform their ceremonies. I knew nothing about the possibility or the requirements of getting licensed to perform the weddings myself. I would sit at the top of my red-carpeted stairway and eavesdrop on the services. I was appalled at the sameness of each ceremony. Whether religious or secular, they were all boring. None felt joyous or inspired. “I can do it better,” thought I. Had I not planned three weddings of my own?
A quick trip to the Internet and I was “ordained”—a word that tickles me as I never intend to preach a doctrine. Word got out that there was someone in town creating inspired—but not necessarily religious—ceremonies. Would I perform ceremonies in other locations? When I started booking more weddings than I could handle, I “ordained” an acquaintance, then another. In 2004, I formalized the process with officiant contracts and non-competes. I now have numerous creative and talented Irreverent Reverends with whom I contract to perform weddings.
In 2006, I began to expand Lyssabeth’s into other areas of the country. There appears to be an unmet need, as couples unaffiliated with a house of worship seek meaningful ways to express their love on their most special day.
When I look back upon my seemingly haphazard past experiences I see how each has lead to this point. It finally jelled; I can pinpoint where I learned each skill that I now utilize—be it the nuns teaching me scriptural resources, the people-management skills I acquired during my tenure as Executive Director, the three weddings of my own, my stint in real estate where I learned to negotiate contracts. Even my Dunkin Donuts days taught me things that I now use.
In 2005, I finally met my soul-mate, Jeremy. In 2007 we were married, bringing the circle of my life experiences to its ultimate fruition. He embraces my entrepreneurial dreams, a must-have for me in any relationship. In 2008, we sold my beloved Victorian to prepare for the next adventure in our lives. I’ve substantially cut back on the number of weddings I perform personally–leaving those to my talented and dedicated staff of officiants. My day to day efforts at Lyssabeth’s now focus on marketing, web site development, hiring, training, growth and development and sales. Jeremy quit his full time job in 2009 to work with me on Lyssabeth’s. He performs the occasional wedding, but mostly handles client contracts, money, and other financial and administrative duties.
In 2009, we moved to beautiful Oregon and established locations in Oregon to add to our sites in Colorado and California. In 2011, we decided to make our lives location independent and we have become full time travelers with no fixed address. Wherever we hang our hats, you can generally find us on the front porch—contently rocking away for long hours brainstorming ideas for Lyssabeth’s and reveling happily in her growth.
What do you like about what you do?
The variety, the chance to create and grow something meaningful, being my own boss, the flexibility of work hours, the fabulous people who are our customers and officiants, problem-solving, the fact that my husband and I work on the business together. Also, the ability to run my business remotely means that I can be anywhere in the world and still run the business.
What do you dislike?
Being on call 24/7 in case something goes wrong. There are no do-overs for a wedding day, so we have to be meticulous in making sure that we show up on time and do a good job. With 40 officiants out there in the field, that can be a bit nerve-wracking sometimes. And there is the occasional Bridezilla! Also, as a wedding officiant, you work a lot of weekends. This might be a deal-breaker for some.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
By payments for client services.
How much money do Wedding Officiants make?
Wedding officiating can be either a full or a part-time income. (For me, because I own the business, it’s a full-time venture that can easily support a couple or a family–a range of $90,000 to $250,000 or more depending on the region you serve. But since most officiants start out on their own and not running a wedding officiating business, we’ll stick to that aspect for purposes of talking salary.) A wedding officiant (again–depends on the area–New York City will command money more than a small town in rural Kansas) should average about $50-$100 per client hour.
Officiating can be a part-time (weekend) supplement to other forms of income or a full time gig. How much one makes is dependent upon how many hours one wants to work.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
I started out charging about $250 per wedding. That was in 2002. Having just gotten married myself, I knew what we had paid our officiant so that helped give me a baseline to go by. Nowadays, one could command $300-$400 in most areas of the country as a beginner performing a simple ceremony.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
No formal education, although I have a degree in Social Work which definitely comes in handy! You must be authorized to legally marry people in the state where you will be performing the wedding. This varies. Some states require officiants to be a notary, some accept online “ordinations.” The best resource to determine this is generally any County Clerk’s office in the state.
Skills required include:
excellent verbal and written communication skills
ability to think fast on your feet
love of public speaking–and a talent for it (Toastmaster’s is great training for this job!)
marketing skills and an ability to network
an entrepreneurial spirit
basic computer skills
attention to detail
able to connect with clients (i.e. brides/grooms) on an emotional and intuitive level
it helps if you love weddings!
What is most challenging about what you do?
Giving clients what they want while educating them on so many aspects of their wedding day. Our clients don’t get married “often” so they are–for the most part–pretty “wedding naive.” Often it’s a juggle to respect their wishes while educating them on what is actually possible. A mountain-top wedding in December might sound really unique and romantic to some couples. But we know that the wind and snow will be blowing like crazy! The trick is to let them know this without sounding like you are bashing their dreams!
The other challenge is financial. This is a seasonal business. The season depends on where you live, but for the most part, spring, summer and fall are busy months and winter is dead. If this is your main means of income, you’ve got to budget for the “off” months. Of course, it’s nice to have built-in down time too.
What is most rewarding?
The look on the couples’ faces when they exchange vows. The thanks and praise for a ceremony well-performed. Knowing you’re helping to fulfill a couple’s dreams for such an important day.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Take the time to learn and observe. Find yourself a mentor who is willing to train you. It’s not as simple as throwing up an ad on Craigslist saying “I officiate weddings.” Refine your public speaking skills to the max. Realize what your time is worth and don’t compromise. Charge a fair rate for your services. If you don’t respect your time, neither will anyone else.
How much time off do you get/take?
As the owner of a wedding officiating business, I need to be on call 365 days a year. That doesn’t mean that I can’t go away or relax. It just means I always have to be able to communicate with people in case of emergency. Since those are rare, I am pretty free to come and go as long as I have my cell phone handy. As far as the officiants go, they can set their own hours and take as much time off as they want–and can afford!
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
That we are members of the clergy. They call us “ministers.” Many couples start off by apologizing to me about the fact that they don’t want a God-element in their wedding ceremony. I have to educate them that we’re all about creating a ceremony that reflects their values. Religion doesn’t come into play unless they want it to.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
Keep growing! We love what we do and the more couples we can reach, the more people to whom we can provide this professional service!
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
No two couples are ever alike, so doing this job keeps things fresh!