A wedding ceremony needs to consist of lots of different elements. Apart from the legal requirements, the ceremony needs to be engaging, personal, fun, exciting, stress free, and above all delivered in a professional manner. After all, the formal commitment of two people in front of family and friends, is the reason for this big celebration you are having today! Stephen from Stephen Lee Celebrancy takes his profession seriously, crafting ceremonies that are highly personal, capturing who you are as a couple. At the same time, he has a wicked sense of humour and warmth, shaping the ceremony to make this occasion what it is – a very special moment in two people’s lives.
What attracted you to become a celebrant?
Money, prestige, celebrity, international travel, endless champagne and the chance to start a new career using my existing skills in a different and exciting way. Only one of the above is true.
Where are you based?
I live in a secret suburb on the Lower North Shore that nobody (usually taxi drivers) has ever heard of and I cover the whole of Sydney and its surrounds, plus the Southern Highlands, Hunter Valley and Blue Mountains. (However, driving home from a wedding outside Sydney with my PA on the back seat means only one thing – CAR-A-OKE!)
Image by Ann Marie Yuen Photography
What, in your previous career prepared you for becoming a professional celebrant?
I’m a TV journalist by trade. It’s given me all the skills I need to be a celebrant. The jobs are essentially the same; it’s meeting people, putting them at ease, interviewing them, writing their story in the best way possible and presenting it in an engaging and professional way.
What advantages does this give you, in being a celebrant?
I know how to quickly establish a trusting relationship with all kinds of people, I know the right questions to ask and the right words to choose, I can work quickly and efficiently under deadline, I know my way around a microphone and I have a massive collection of suits and ties from when I read the news in the UK!
How many weddings do you conduct per month?
Anywhere between 4 and 8 weddings a month depending on the time of year. Sometimes like buses they all come at once. I’ve got 10 in October!
How would you describe the style of your ceremonies? What do you think couples enjoy about your ceremonies?
Relaxed, fun, joyful, informal. Your wedding should be the best party you’ve ever been to with all your friends and family around you. But equally I don’t mean you have to make it a lavish, expensive and showy affair. I love backyard weddings because when you strip away the extras, you’re left with the essence of an amazing wedding – the basic act of two people articulating their love for each other. Some of the best feedback I’ve been given is when a couple told me “You said everything we wanted to say about our relationship, but didn’t know how.” Job done.
Image courtesy of Stephen Lee Celebrancy
What are the personal qualities you bring to celebrancy?
I’m open, accepting, non-judgmental, easy to talk to and ready for anything!
How do you ensure that a couple feels that they are the most important people on that day?
I hope that by the time the wedding comes around, we’ll have enjoyed such a good working relationship (dare I even say friendship in some cases?) that my couples will already have realised how personally invested I am in their ceremony. So the trust they’ve put in me means they’re able to relax, let everything happen around them and really enjoy themselves.
What questions should a couple ask when deciding on a celebrant?
Ask us “How can you make our wedding a unique experience?”, “What can you do to make our ceremony extra-special that other celebrants can’t?” or “How can you make our ceremony easy, enjoyable and stress-free?’Ask for reviews, ask how we work, ask what you can do to help your celebrant create your ideal wedding.
Do you help bridal couples craft their own ceremony? Or do you get to know the couple and write the ceremony for them?
I make a big effort to get to know the stories, personalities and wishes of my couples by talking to them and their family and friends so I can sit down and write a unique, authentic and appropriate ceremony for them from scratch. I don’t ask them to write anything down or fill out time-consuming and stilted questionnaires. It’s much more natural to sit on the sofa for a chat, a few laughs over a coffee or glass of wine. I can ask the right questions to get them to open up, tell me stories and follow up interesting things they say. I can help them focus their minds and words if necessary, but usually putting them at ease is all that’s needed to make them relaxed and eloquent. I’m listening out for the “soundbites” that really sum up how they feel. The ceremony takes shape in my head as I listen to what they say, and that also gives me a clear brief without me having to explicitly ask. Something I often hear is “We’ve never really put our feelings into words or detail before” and it’s such a natural conversation they don’t realise they’re giving me all the information I need!
Once written, I send them the script so they can make any tweaks or edits and give final approval. The only part I can’t write is their vows (obviously!).
I work this way because couples have trusted the ceremony to me as a professional interviewer and writer. You don’t buy a dog and bark yourself do you?
Image courtesy of Stephen Lee Celebrancy
How much control do you need to have, over the ceremony itself?
At the risk of sounding like a James Bond villain – total control! I believe writing your ceremony is only part of my role as your celebrant. Big events like weddings need expert planning and oversight; you can’t leave anything to chance and you only get one shot. When the day comes, I want to ensure everything goes without a hitch. That means me taking personal responsibility for everything ceremony-related; from the music to the mother-in-law. Think of your wedding as a movie; as well as scriptwriter I am also producer, director, sound engineer, props manager and crowd controller! Nothing happens until I have seen and spoken to everyone involved. Having a tight control on proceedings is the only way to ensure it happens effortlessly and cleanly.
What advice would you give the members of the bridal party?
Don’t phone me to say you secretly hate the groom (yes that happened). Some things I’d rather not know!
Why do professional celebrants (who make celebrancy their whole business) charge the fees that they do?
A recent survey carried out by CoCA (the Coalition of Celebrant Associations) found that the average celebrant is a retired woman in her 60s living in Victoria and conducting less than 10 weddings a year.
At the cheaper end of the market, you’ll find those who see celebrancy as something of a civic duty; a nice thing to occasionally do for people in their spare time for a nominal fee. At the higher end of the scale, you’ll find the career celebrants where you’re paying for experience, skills, higher levels of service and for someone entirely focused on celebrancy, investing the necessary amount of time and effort into running a professional business. As with everything, you get what you pay for.
However, it’s also about putting proper value on your skills. I believe by their nature, many celebrants are more altruistic than business-minded. In the CoCA survey, I was disappointed to read that most celebrants who create individual ceremonies only seem to be charging between $100 and $250 more than the cookie-cutter Registry wedding. This does a disservice to them, to the industry in general and ultimately to our couples. A great ceremony takes a lot of time and effort to produce and requires valuable professional skills; more celebrants need to put an appropriate price on their talents. Because there are many celebrants, work is spread thinly, so often people drop to bottom dollar just to get business through the door. But that keeps prices artificially and unrealistically low, and let’s be honest, if someone isn’t getting paid very much, they’re not going to be particularly invested in your wedding.
Image courtesy of Stephen Lee Celebrancy
What sorts of ceremonies do you conduct for same sex couples?
Because our Government insists on dragging its feet over marriage equality, sadly there’s only one choice – a commitment ceremony. However, I believe most same sex couples wanting a ceremony are holding off for now, waiting for the law to change. There are a few couples who (quite rightly) refuse to put their lives on hold while politicians squabble, and they will either have a ceremony anyway or go overseas to marry legally. When the law does change, I expect a flood.
How do you write a ceremony that is suited to a same sex celebration? What are the differences from a straight wedding ceremony?
In some ways there is no difference at all; in other ways it is completely different. Some language and traditions aren’t appropriate, so be sensitive and considerate. For example, I always ask how people describe each other; bride or groom may not be the right words to use. Don’t ask ignorant questions like “So who’s the bride?” Don’t impose your own preconceptions. Family dynamics sometimes need careful navigation. Some same sex couples don’t want to conform to a heterosexual tradition, while others see that as a way of embracing equality. But at the end of the day, it’s still just celebrating the love between two people. Sexuality and gender are not the focus.
What is so enjoyable for you, in conducting commitment or wedding ceremonies?
Acting as an enabler to help people express and celebrate the love they share in their own unique way is a massive privilege that gives you immense pleasure and satisfaction. I realise how terribly cheesy that sounds.
Any special stories to share that particularly touched you?
I conducted one of the first legal same sex marriages in Canberra when the ACT enabled it’s Same Sex Marriage law – which lasted only a few days before the High Court repealed the legislation and the marriages were declared void. I’ve never experienced a wedding like it before or since. There was such an intense atmosphere of joy, celebration, relief and of something long-awaited finally made real. When I introduced myself as a legal same sex celebrant, the cheer was deafening. I’ll never forget it.
And a few weeks ago I conducted what I call “My Big Fat Geek Wedding” where we weaved an impressive array of geekdom into a ceremony. We had Lightsabers, Pokemon, Harry Potter, Aladdin and Lord of the Rings elements – everything the couple loved. The bride and her friends even recorded an acapella song to play during the signing because she’d always wanted to sing at her own wedding. That was a lot of fun!
Image by Dan Au Photography
The things I love about Sydney are…..
The people, the sunshine, the environment, the quality of life, the work/life balance, the opportunities – but mostly the food.
Favourite restaurant, or place for Sunday breakfast?
Take me to Arisun and feed me Korean Fried Chicken until I beg for mercy. And that includes Sunday breakfast.
Thank you Stephen for sharing your story. Confident, caring, professional and articulate – Stephen makes your wedding day incredibly special. To find out more about Stephen Lee Celebrancy visit the website.
Headshot by Frank Farrugia Photography