With the many decisions Ashelynn Brooks had to make for her September wedding, one was fairly easy: Who should officiate?
The Rosedale resident, who worried about stage fright and stumbling through her vows, decided against enlisting a legal official or clergy member. Instead, she chose someone who made her and her husband feel at ease at the altar — her best friend's father, Paul Goins.
"It's an awesome experience," said Brooks, 26. "You have the support of the person. It was more like standing there with family. It was more intimate and much more personal."
A large and growing number of couples are opting for a family member or friend to preside, especially if they're looking for a personal touch or a religiously neutral ceremony. The shift seems linked to younger Americans' changing relationship to organized religion, say experts and those who have participated in such weddings.
Forty-three percent of couples in the United States had a friend or family member act as their wedding officiant, up from 29 percent in 2009, according to the 2016 Real Weddings survey by wedding website The Knot.
Ann Duncan, an associate professor of religion at Goucher College, pointed to a shift in feelings toward religion.
"There are an increasing number of people who are marrying someone who is of a different religious perspective or affiliation than themselves, so sometimes choosing a third party instead of someone from within their respected traditions is a compromise," she said.
Even moreso, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, sometimes referred to as the religious "nones," especially among younger people, Duncan said.
"There are a lot of folks who maybe still believe in God, still have some form of religious or spiritual practice, but are not formally connected to a particular religious denomination or community, and so they need somebody else to provide that service," Duncan said.
Last year, 25 percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation, according to the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute, making the group the largest "religious group" in the U.S. Compare that to the end of the 1990s, when the figure was 14 percent.
Similarly, a 2014 Religious Landscape study by Pew Research Center showed that 22.8 percent of people considered themselves religious "nones," up from 16.1 percent in 2007. Of the unaffiliated, a large number were of prime marriage ages: 35 percent were ages 18 to 29, and 37 percent were ages 30 to 49. People ages 50 and older accounted for only 28 percent.
Stephen Ruckman, 37, of Bolton Hill, has performed three weddings for friends and family members, and in each case, "they were people who either themselves were spiritual but didn't identify with an organized religion or a particular church" or "weren't particularly spiritual themselves [but] recognized a wedding was a moment that lent itself to that kind of spiritual atmosphere."
Popular websites, like the nondenominational Universal Life Church and American Marriage Ministries, have been turning individuals into ordained ministers in minutes.
Karrie Riordan, 35, of Locust Point, and her husband chose their friend Rocco Loverro, 31, to preside over their November wedding in New Orleans.
"Neither one of us are super religious, and a ceremony is such a personal thing. We were more comfortable with having someone who was a friend that really knew us ... [Loverro] was the perfect person," Riordan said.
Loverro, a Federal Hill resident, had already been ordained by the Universal Life Church around five years ago in order to marry another couple.
The steps were simple. He created an online account and confirmed that he was over the age of 13. Within seconds, he was ordained at no cost. Additional options were available, including an ordination credential ($8.99), and packages that provide credentials, literature and even a parking pass ($29.95 to $140).
According to Ben Hur, deputy licensing clerk at Baltimore City Circuit Court, Maryland law requires ceremonies to be officiated by an authorized official of a religious group, a court clerk, a deputy clerk or a judge. Baltimore City and many other jurisdictions in the state don't require proof of ordination.
Laws, however, can vary by county or state.
For example, in Washington, D.C., officiants must show physical proof that they are ordained. In Virginia and some places in Pennsylvania, online credentials from sites like Universal Life Church are often rejected.
According to Loverro, knowing state laws and regulations and how they pertain to performing a marriage is crucial, but much of the responsibility for those presiding lies in creating a memorable ceremony.
His advice: "Do your research. There's so much available online. There's religious scripting; there's all these different ways to build the different sections of a ceremony … Really go out there and read a lot of things that other people have done and that kind of helps with the voice you want to have," said Loverro, emphasizing the importance of offering suggestions and getting input from the bride and groom.
"But don't rely on them to decide, because I've found it's really overwhelming for people with all the other stuff that goes into a wedding," Loverro said.
Riordan said she supplied Loverro with background — stories of how she and Johnson met — for inclusion in the ceremony and picked out readings that she liked for Loverro to use at his own discretion.
"It worked out perfect. He was super helpful. He printed out vows and pasted them into a journal, so we didn't have to hold a piece of paper. ... He did a great job officiating," Riordan said.
Goins, Brooks' family friend and officiant, did extensive research, sourcing scripts from online and speeches from other weddings he attended.
"I studied ... When I went to weddings and they had the same type of service, I would go and talk to someone who did the service, and say 'Will you share that with me?" said Goins, 50, of Dundalk, who has also presided over weddings for family friends and someone he coached in soccer. His nephew Jason Stricklin's wedding was the first he officiated.
Stricklin, 38, of Dundalk, said he and his wife were planning to marry in a church, but Goins offered to officiate their 2014 wedding after Stricklin's father died.
"He wanted to do that as a special something for my wife and I," Stricklin said, adding that it made things more personal and "a lot less stressful because he was a family member and he knew us so well."
"Every [wedding has] been different," Goins said. Some people have requested love locks; others have asked for prayers or rituals, like the blending of the sands. And everytime, Goins' job, he said, is to deliver.
Still, Kirsten Blom-Westbrook, 49, of Arcadia, says she always recommends a trained professional.
"If you're doing it for a family or friend, you have to recognize they're still going to expect a really fabulous ceremony ... You want someone who can deliver," said the celebrant, who has presided over around 2,200 weddings and was one of the first clergy to perform same-sex marriages in Washington.
Similar to Loverro and Goins, Blom-Westbrook originally pursued ordination through an online university to marry her friends. Through it, she found her calling, later pursuing an 18-month long-distance learning program in Pennsylvania. Today, Blom-Westbrook's expertise expands to funerals, baptisms and other events where blessings are requested.
"If you're not comfortable standing in front of a crowd and being somewhat of an authority figure, and properly yet gracefully guiding people, then it's not for you. If you don't have an easy flowing pattern of speech ... if you get nervous or stage fright, it's not for you," Blom-Westbrook said.
For the couple, "The officiant is the only necessary part of a wedding day ... You don't need a whole lot of fancy stuff," she said. "But you need someone who is going to cater to what you want."
While many officiants will aim for perfection, Loverro said there's something charming about the unexpected moments.
"They remind us that this is a human occasion in the most traditional sense, and these imperfections add some levity to the ceremony," he said.
Most officiants who are friends or family members don't charge for their services, according to Goins and Loverro. For them, there is something more rewarding involved.
"I love having done this, especially the fact that they are friends of mine and couples I've known for years," Loverro said. "To play a role like that and being able to look out over friends and family that we share, it's definitely a privilege."