I am often asked that very question when I meet a couple for the first time. It is perfectly normal to want to know the length of a ceremony in order to plan the rest of the wedding day. You can try to set an ideal timeline, and the officiant should work around it, but it is a bit of a shame, and a complicated one, to set a fixed length of your secular ceremony before you even start planning. There are so many factors to take into consideration when assessing the length of a ceremony. And I believe that what the couple wants in terms of content should prevail over the “ideal” length of the ceremony.
Estimating the length of your secular ceremony
It is possible to evaluate the length of your ceremony, but it’s something that usually comes last, once the outline has been decided and the speech has been written. Some couples want a very short or longer ceremony and ask upfront; at that point, it’s up to the officiant to plan the right timeline and to advise the newlyweds-to-be accordingly. For example, with more or fewer speeches, rituals and guest participations, readings, music, etc. It is difficult to assess the exact length of a ceremony.
Some participants will speak longer or faster and other elements can have an impact on the length of the ceremony: emotions which run high during the vow exchange, the manner in which specific rituals are carried out, and music if it’s live. Therefore, it’s complicated to give an exact length. But an experienced officiant should be able to give you a time with a maximum error margin of 5 minutes.
The ideal length of a secular ceremony
To better plan the length of your ceremony and the rest of the day, I usually give a wide margin of an hour. The ceremony may not last one jour, but between the possible delays in starting the ceremony, the congratulations at the end and potential unforeseen events, it should allow sufficient time to provide necessary information to the vendors for the rest of the celebration. In general, you should allow around 45 minutes for a ceremony, depending on its content.
What should we do if our ceremony is short or if we want it so?
No need to panic, it’s not because a ceremony is “short” that it’s any less interesting! Some newlyweds do not want to exchange vows or include symbolic rituals. The main thing to keep in mind is that it should not look like a mere monologue from the officiant. The idea is to punctuate the ceremony with a least one or two participations (if possible), readings and a well-thought-out ring exchange.
The officiant may need to take more time knowing the couple, in order to be able to flesh out their story. The goal is not to pad but to give a certain rhythm to the ceremony so that it does not seem to go by too quickly. Music will probably play a key role. It’s not the length of the ceremony that defines its beauty. Last year, I officiated a very short ceremony (around 20 min) upon the newlyweds’ request, and the enthusiasm and emotions were definitely there, and wonderful memories were created.
What should we do if our ceremony is lengthy or if we want it so?
First, it is important to know that if the ceremony goes over 45 minutes, the audience’s attention will seriously falter, and that you might even lose a few guests if the ceremony is not “lively” enough. Here too it’s all about the rhythm. A ceremony can easily run over if the newlyweds want to include everything: live music, multiple participations, vow and ring exchanges, readings, symbolic rituals, etc. In this case, it’s necessary to make choices and adjust them. The idea is not to restrain the desires of the newlyweds but to find a way to manage and coordinate them at best, to avoid ending up with a ceremony well over 90 minutes. The officiant will know the best compromise to indulge the newlyweds without making the guests fall asleep.
Content & pace before length
Before rushing to know the length of your ceremony, think of its outline, its content and what you really want it to include. Your officiant will help you. If your ceremony has a good pace and if it looks like you, it will seem neither too long nor too short.