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  • Writer's pictureZach Michaud

What is the Difference Between an Officiant and a Celebrant?

You will notice on my website that I use both terms. Officiant is the term for anyone who officiates at a service or ceremony like a wedding, naming/blessing, or funeral. This is often a religious leader. And unless you have asked your cousin or good friend to get the Universal Life Church’s online ordination for a wedding, when you think about officiants, you probably think of religious leaders or a Justice of the peace. Many celebrants, like me, call themselves officiants because we know it’s a term with which the greater culture is familiar. We are quick to differentiate ourselves, however, because we want you to start dreaming of a ceremony that would move you and break you out of the confines of the ceremony you think you have to have.

Celebrants are master co-creators and performers of ceremonies that reflect the needs and beliefs of the people they are honoring. As professionals, Certified Life-Cycle Celebrants® abide by a code of ethics, a nondiscrimination policy, and many are Celebrant Alumni Association Members, which means they are always networking and learning to better their skills. When I think of an officiant, I think of someone who has a script (or maybe a choice of three) that they plug your names into. They show up ten minutes before the ceremony, perform their part, and sign any legal documents they have to. All of the celebrants I know meet with each client for a free consultation, gather information through thorough questionnaires, and offer unlimited calls and emails during the creation process. They coordinate with any other people of importance to make sure everything goes smoothly, and will generally show up 30 minutes to an hour early to make sure there are no last minute questions and to be ready for any last minute changes.

Celebrancy has been around since the 1970’s and began in Australia and New Zealand where today the majority of weddings, funerals, and family ceremonies are performed by celebrants. Since then, the concept has taken off over the world, including in the United States which houses a school in New Jersey that offers online classes. The classes give celebrant students a strong base of knowledge in world religions and cultures, mythology, and all facets of ritual and ceremony.

At first, I was skeptical about taking online classes from an “institute” out of New Jersey. But I was truly interested in ceremony work and wanted to offer that work to my community with some kind of credentials to my name. Seminaries did not appeal to me. I first encountered the Life-Cycle Celebrant® world when I attended a conference focused on death at Reed College a few years ago. The woman who introduced the keynote speaker and who, I found out later, was one of the organizers of the conference, introduced herself as a Life-Cycle Celebrant®. She held the space so well, was amazingly professional and poised, and spoke so sincerely. If she went through the celebrant training, I was willing to proceed through my skepticism.

Am I ever glad I did proceed because I have been able to work with faculty and fellow students who come to this work heart first, thinking about bettering their communities through the power of ritual and ceremony. According to the Pew Research Center, about 75 percent of Americans identify with some form of organized religion, but only about 30 percent attend services at least once a week. People are not finding their ritual and ceremony in the church, but they are not sure where to find it anymore. They want to have meaning in their lives and they have some kind of belief, but their place of worship might be alienating them with arcane and discriminatory practices.

Trained celebrants meet people where they are, focusing on the honoree and creating a ceremony that is moving and affirming, that bonds families and communities across generations. That I take the time to get to know my clients, to listen to their desires and fears around ceremony, give them permission to feel into their true feelings around ceremony, gives them such relief. They sit in a consultation or I see them on the day of their wedding and I notice their shoulders relax and their breathing calm because they know they have been listened to. They’re not going to get any surprise sermons or lectures from me. They are going to have anything but the boring, let’s-get-it-over-with ceremony they thought they were going to have before they met me!

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