What Would They Know? Sarah Cummings of Engage Celebrants

by | Ceremony Wisdom, What Would They Know?, Wisdom


Polka Dot Bride

If you’re not religious, there is one person you’ll need to hire for your wedding to actually make it a wedding – celebrants! Today we welcome Sarah Cummings who runs celebrant network Engage Celebrants. As a celebrant herself, Sarah has plenty of wisdom to share with couples when it comes to their marriage ceremonies so I’m delighted to have her on Polka Dot Wisdom sharing a piece of it!

Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you based?

I live in Mortdale in southern Sydney. I celebrant all over Sydney and surrounds and will happily travel all over Australia. I’m lucky to be asked to marry people in gorgeous locations in the Southern Highlands, Hunter Valley, Illawarra, Blue Mountains and of course Sydney. This year I even headed out to Cowra to help a couple from Sydney wed in front of their family and friends in the bride’s home town and last year I was flown to the Sanctuary Cove in Queensland to perform a commitment ceremony for a couple who’d married in Vegas – the bride was Swedish and her groom wanted to surprise her with a ceremony in her native tongue.

What influenced your decision to become a marriage celebrant?

I’ve always loved hearing people’s stories and to me a wedding is the perfect time to share your love story with your family and friends (and also to capture it for future generations). I had spent over a decade in financial services, doing a lot of public speaking, writing and organising events. I’m also a born organiser – I’m the one in our family who ends up organising things for birthdays, Christmas’ and funerals.

When our son was born in 2008 we decided that we wouldn’t christen him as my husband and I aren’t religious. We still wanted to mark his arrival and share the story of where his names came from, what we hoped for him in the future and who we’d chosen to be his guardians so we decided to have a Naming Day. When we met with a celebrant to organise everything it became clear to me that this was something that would be perfect for me. It was a good fit for the skills I already had in public speaking and writing and I would get to spend my time meeting gorgeous new people and hearing all their love stories!

My very first wedding was for my husband’s cousin, Rob, and his bride, Julie. 

It’s been over three years since my first ceremony and I’ve now celebranted more than 50 marriages as well as helped couples and families celebrate namings, commitments and vow renewals. A ‘job’ where you get to meet wonderful people with amazing stories, see people all frocked up in gorgeous venues (not to mention the baby cuddles at namings) – life can’t get much better than that!

What inspires you? How do you keep your ideas fresh for each wedding?

The two C’s – couples and colleagues!

When a couple chooses me as their celebrant it’s because they feel that I am the right person to tell their story. There are certain legal elements that need to be included but from there the rule is, there are no rules. I get my inspiration from their love story – how they met, what they love about each other, their hopes and dreams for the future. Even just hearing couples talk to each other gives me ideas on how to best word things. We also draw in aspects of their personal histories, traditions and religious beliefs. I don’t have ‘standard’ wording, rather I turn the couples ideas and stories into a ceremony which truly reflects who they are.

Being able to connect with other celebrants who share my approach to weddings is really important as well. This year I founded a network for young celebrants called Engage Celebrants. We regularly get together and chat about ceremonies we’ve done and ways to incorporate cultural and religious traditions. Although we have a similar approach to creating personal ceremonies we all have our own unique personalities and are therefore chosen by different couples. It’s great to hear how others do things and what has worked for them. As part of the application process I also see each celebrant in action and this always gives me ideas on things I could do better.

Do Australian brides and grooms have a distinctive style?

In Australia over 70% of weddings are civil ceremonies. Our multicultural society means that often a bride and groom come from quite different backgrounds whether that is religious or cultural. Civil ceremonies let them celebrate their uniqueness and bring these elements into their wedding day rather than having to choose one way or another.

Because of this there isn’t really a single distinctive style; although you could say that this personalising of weddings is in a way distinctly Australian. More couples are also including humour in their ceremonies and using this as a way to reflect who they truly are and the love they share. Also I think our ceremonies are less formal than in other countries which is reflective of Australian culture in general.

As you can see, weddings can be a whole lot of fun! Michelle and Simon wed in Bowral in May. It was freezing cold and we’d just finished the signing (the signatures were rather jolty). This was the moment when I told the guests that we were almost finished – only another 20 minutes to go! There had been so many false starts and funny vows through the ceremony that for some guests it was nervous laughter that I might be serious! 

Do couples request a standard ceremony or are they more inclined to want an individually tailored celebration from you?

I don’t offer a standard ceremony service. I became a celebrant as I believe it is a wonderful opportunity for couples to share their love story and I don’t feel that you can do that by taking a standard ceremony and inserting a few different readings.

Everyone has a different belief of what their wedding day should be.  For some the ceremony is simply a legal requirement to get through before the party. However for more and more couples the ceremony is the heart and soul of their day and they spend as much time getting it exactly right as they spend on all the other elements.

Unfortunately some couples don’t even know this is an option. One of the reasons I set up the young celebrant network, Engage Celebrants, was to try and raise awareness of the opportunities available to couples to make their ceremony unique and the important role a celebrant plays in bringing it together.

How can couples personalize their wedding ceremony?

The possibilities to personalise a ceremony really are endless. Apart from the legal requirements anything is possible. A great place to start is the couple’s story. As they talk about their lives together things tend to pop out. Whether it’s having a friend read out the first poem the groom ever wrote for the bride or starting with the riff from Europe’s Final Countdown to get the guests in the mood for a fun day, it’s about putting the couple’s stamp all over the ceremony.

Many couples choose to write their own askings and vows which is a lovely way to personalise their ceremony. After all only a bride and groom know exactly what their marriage means to them. Often the asking is a chance to let a couple’s favourite passions or quirks shine through. This year I married friends of mine and when Adam was asked to love Jess and support, amongst other things, her love of online shopping he replaced the usual ‘I do’ with a twist. His reply of ‘I do dot com dot au’ had the guests (and Jess who didn’t know it was coming) in stitches.

I also like to include a little about the couple in the ceremony; perhaps how they met, their proposal story or things that make their love work. Although guests may have heard bits and pieces this is a chance for couples to tell their story their way. It’s amazing how often guests come up afterwards saying that they loved hearing the story as they never knew all the details. It’s the biggest compliment I can receive when a guest tells me that a ceremony was such a clear reflection of the couple it was obvious that we knew each other well, particularly given I have often only known them for six months.

I always make sure that couples sign off on everything that will be included though. That way they can relax and enjoy their ceremony not be dreading what they may have mentioned to me in passing!

Can couples who are not church goers, still make their ceremonies spiritual? How would they do this?

Many people are spiritual but don’t necessarily attend a church or partners have different beliefs. Civil ceremonies provide the flexibility to include different religious elements within a single ceremony. I have celebranted weddings where the bride’s priest offered a blessing following the vows and others have included Buddhist blessings in the ceremony. At Kate and Dez’s wedding Dez’s mother read the Lord’s Prayer on behalf of the family.

Lailee reads the Lord’s Prayer at Dez and Kate’s ceremony. Photo by milk&honey photography 

Many couples also light a candle at the beginning of their ceremony to honour those close to them who are no longer with us but there in spirit. This candle can then burn through the entire ceremony and reception.

If you aren’t sure how to include your own spirituality in your ceremony then talking with your celebrant about what is important to you is a good place to start. They can give you ideas and guidance.

Can you describe a typical wedding day in your life as a celebrant?

Most of our work actually happens well before the big day. Usually by the time the wedding day is upon us I’ve already had one or two meetings with the couple to get to know each other and talk about their ceremony, several hours researching and writing their ceremony, often dozens of emails and phone calls working through the finer details, getting their legal documents and keepsake copy ready and then importantly a rehearsal a week or so before the ceremony. Rehearsals are a great way to calm the nerves and also reconnect with your celebrant – it may be many months since you saw them last. A rehearsal gives you a chance to run through the ceremony and ask all those questions you have like where to stand, how you will hold hands and importantly how long to kiss for (the answer is at least ten seconds so all your guests have a chance to get a pic!)

Most wedding ceremonies are in the early afternoon so on the actual day of the ceremony my morning is usually spent with my family doing whatever we have on that weekend. Before I leave I do a double check that I have everything and then pack the car. I always leave plenty of time for travel – with Sydney traffic you never know when you’re going to hit a snag and if I’m not there then the couple can’t get married. I usually arrive about 45 minutes before which allows me time to set up before the guests arrive. It’s also a good time to catch up with anyone involved in the ceremony such as live musicians, readers and groomsmen and have a quick run through with them of what their cues are, where they’ll stand, etc. When the photographer arrives I like to have a quick chat about the plans – if there are any special shots they would like to get and also if there are any elements of the ceremony that are particularly unusual that they should be aware of. If say the groom has organised to play a song for his bride as a surprise then it’s important the photographer knows so they can be in the right spot to capture the look on her face.

Once the groom arrives I make sure he’s doing ok and doesn’t need anything. If need be I fix buttonholes, line up chairs, whatever is going to help make the day exactly what the couple have planned. When the bride arrives I pop over to say hello (and get to check out their dress before everyone else!) and finalise our cues for her entry. Then the real fun begins.

A lot of the couples I marry have children so there are often unplanned moments in the ceremony. They say never work with children or animals but I’ve done both and think it makes things more fun. I once had three white lambs in the bridal party. Needless to say they were not quiet about protesting their involvement as they walked down the aisle!

Once the ceremony’s over I usually wait around 20 minutes before I start packing away. During this time the guests are congratulating the couple and it’s nice for them to have some background music. Then I say my goodbyes and head home to continue my day. I always find it a little odd saying goodbye. Over the course of the planning I get to know couples quite well and it’s like saying goodbye to a friend but in this case one that you probably won’t see again in the near future. Although I am lucky that many couples keep in touch, sending photos of their day and letting me know about new arrivals in their family!

What are your favourite wedding celebration ideas?

I love hearing the vows couples write for each other – people are so clever! One of my favourites is when vows are written as a conversation with each other, each sharing a line at a time. Having some fun with the music is also a great way to show your personality and also set the scene for the rest of the day. Michelle had several false starts to her entrance including the Imperial March from Star Wars. At first guests thought the musician had made an embarrassing mistake but by the third song they knew it was just Michelle’s cheeky sense of humour shining through.

Incorporating a bride or groom’s native tongue is really nice way to honour their heritage. I speak Swedish and have celebranted a number of weddings where we have included a welcome to guests in Swedish. The non-Swedish member of the couple has said their vows in Swedish to show their commitment to understanding the other’s world. I’m also happy to give other languages a go if I’m given enough time to practice and have included welcomes and vows in Thai and Polish.

 What questions should couples ask when they are choosing their celebrant?

When you start your initial search it helps if you can see a video of potential celebrants as you can get a better idea of their personality than you do from photos and text. Also how they sound is really important. Once you’ve found one or two you like meet up with them if possible or at least have a conversation on the phone. This should give you a good idea of whether they are the right celebrant for you.

Obviously there are some fundamentals you need to check out first such as are they available on your chosen date and will they travel to your location. You’ll also need to make sure that they are professional and will be able to help you create and then deliver the type of ceremony you would like. All celebrants in the Engage Celebrants network have been assessed to ensure that they offer a highly personal service and are confident public speakers.

One of the other benefits with Engage Celebrants is that you know that they have a backup who has a similar style of delivery in case the unthinkable happens. A professional celebrant won’t double book or decide to take the day off to go to the beach but unfortunately accidents and illnesses do happen and if your celebrant isn’t there with your paperwork then your wedding is off. Don’t be afraid to ask what your celebrant’s backup plan is. You don’t want to go to all the effort of choosing and working with your preferred celebrant only to find that they are replaced at the last minute by someone with a completely different style who refuses to go ahead as planned because it doesn’t fit with their standard ceremony.

Price will always be a factor in a couple’s decision and a good celebrant will be comfortable telling you exactly what the costs will be and what you can expect in return. By far the most important thing should be personality though. If you get along with your celebrant then you will enjoy the process of putting your ceremony together. In turn this will make it easier for your celebrant to create something that reflects who you are. On your wedding day you’ll be relaxed and it truly will be one of the best days of your life.

What is your number one tip for brides and grooms?

Get started on your ceremony early enough that you can actually enjoy the process as well as the day itself. Putting together your ceremony is a great chance to talk about all those things you don’t often discuss with each other like what first attracted you to them, what you love about each other and why you are getting married. Couples often tell me that their meetings with me are one of the only times in their wedding planning that they get to spend just the two of them and it’s really nice for them to have that escape.

I would recommend booking your celebrant as soon as you’ve set your date and get started on your ceremony. You can always fine tune it closer to the date but the last month before the wedding will be filled with decisions about flowers, seating plans, menus and the like. You don’t want to feel like writing your vows, the very heart of your wedding, to be just one more thing to tick off the list.

What was your most memorable wedding moment?

There have been so many amazing moments – many filled with laughter and others with tears. Hearing couples share their vows always gives me goosebumps. The emotion in those words makes it clear that their marriage isn’t just a piece of paper but truly marks a new level in their commitment to each other.

Recently I married Ang and Mark in a ceremony that included their gorgeous boys Dylan and Kyle. When Ang was sharing her vows everyone was laughing. Her vows were not really traditional but they weren’t that funny! I couldn’t see it from where I was standing but it turned out that Dylan and Kyle were acting out each line of the Ang’s vows as she was saying them! They then proceeded to do the same as their dad shared his vows. People joke about celebrants using interpretive dance in their ceremonies but this time it worked a treat. To me it was a real reflection of how this marriage wasn’t just about Ang and Mark, it was their whole family making these commitments to each other. Their family is one filled with a lot of laughter and love and their ceremony reflected that.

5 things a bride must get right?

Apart from picking the right groom of course!

  1. Your wedding is really one big celebration of the love that you share with your groom so that’s what it should look like. Whilst for many couples it is important to consider the wants and needs of family members and friends at the end of the day it isn’t their wedding. Put your own unique stamp all over it whether it’s having your mum walk you down the aisle or declaring your love in song make sure you’ll be able to look back in years to come and know that you celebrated your love in a way that truly reflected you both.
  2. Make sure you choose suppliers you actually like, in particular your celebrant and your photographer/videographer. If they are your type of person they are also likely to have similar styles to you and you’ll be able to communicate well. If there is any animosity in the relationship it will show through on your wedding day and in your photos.
  3. Should the bride stand on the right or the left? I say ‘What are you doing with your hair?’ The ‘traditional’ position of the bride depends on which country or religion you look to. In an Australian civil ceremony there is no right or wrong answer. However if your ‘do includes a gorgeous sweeping fringe on the side of the guests then they won’t be able to see your eyes light up as your groom says his vows to you. Equally if you’ve spent days deciding on exactly the right stunning hairpiece to match your gown then let’s make sure all of your guests can see it as you marry your love.

Yvonne and Ian’s guests were able to fully enjoy witnessing this intimate moment between bride and groom because we positioned Yvonne on right where her hair was pulled back with a stunning hairpiece. Photo by David from First Light Photography 

  1. Don’t plan to be more than 15 minutes late. Having your guests, not to mention your groom, standing in the sun in 35 degree heat for an hour so that you can make a grand entrance will not endear you to them. You are going to be the centre of attention for the whole day no matter what time you arrive so be on time. We all know that sometimes things crop up – cars get caught in traffic, babies decide it’s the perfect time for a feed. These things people understand and allow for but just choosing to keep people waiting shows a lack of respect for your guests and vendors alike.
  2. Have fun! Planning a wedding can be stressful but remind yourself regularly why you are doing it all – to marry the love of your life. Try to book in some time a day or two before the wedding for just the two of you to have lunch or go for a walk. On your wedding day accept that everything probably won’t go exactly according to plan but it will still be an amazing day.

 Thanks for joining us today Sarah! You can find more of Sarah and the celebrants she works with by visiting the Engage Celebrants website.

All images unless credited courtesy of Sarah Cummings

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