Photo by Bakerture
This article was written by Bethel Nathan, Owner & Business Coach/Speaker at Elevate by Bethel.
Recent surveys of millennial couples have made it very clear just how much more inclusive they are in their friendships and in their romantic relationships. According to a Pew Research Center report published in 2015, 39% of Americans who have married since 2010 have a spouse who is in a different religious group (compared to just 19% of Americans who married before 1960), and there has been a 5X increase in interracial marriages since nationwide legalization in 1967. Currently, 19% of WeddingWire couples identify as having an interracial marriage, and 18% have said that they include ceremonial customs related to race/religion in their weddings, and these numbers will only continue to grow.
A large number of the 850 couples I’ve married identify as LGBTQ or interfaith or interracial or intercultural (or some combination), and the experience has offered me a good handle on how to approach, discuss, and integrate culture and religion into a ceremony. I always open a discussion on culture and religion during my initial meeting with a couple, because I want to make sure that I am the proper fit for what they want, and because the design and content of their custom ceremony starts from my understanding of WHAT they want, and WHY the couple wants it.
These exact same discussions and decisions about inclusion of culture, religion and traditions that I apply to the ceremony quite often apply to the entire wedding. Décor and design, food and drink, music and entertainment, attire, hair and makeup, even the schedule and timeline… almost every aspect of a wedding can, and usually does, have resonance related to the upbringing, traditions, and beliefs of the couple, their families, and sometimes even their friends. It is imperative that wedding professionals not only have an inclusive mindset, but also the systems and processes ready to implement a celebration that meets the desires of the couple.
Here are 5 ways that help you do both!
1. Don’t assume. I have put my foot in my mouth with assumptions plenty, I promise. Several years ago, I made the assertion that LGBTQ couples come to Officiants like me because they don’t get married in houses of worship. I was speaking with Kathryn Hamm, WeddingWire’s Diversity & Inclusion Specialist, who pointed me to research that revealed that 10% of LGBTQ couples do get married in houses of worship, and cited some personal anecdotal examples. I was a bit embarrassed, but it was a very poignant reminder that while we all have assumptions based on what we have seen, heard and experienced, personally or with previous couples, those assumptions may not tell the whole story.
This is why I recommend that you start the conversation with all your couples from as blank of a sheet as possible, with your assumptions locked away. The best way to make sure that your process is assumption-free (or relying on as few assumptions as possible) is to have an initial set of standard questions that you ask every couple, regardless of any automatic assumptions you made upon meeting them. Plus, be sure to ask open-ended questions to allow them to share what they want. Once they answer, you can ask follow-up questions based on what your experience tells you that you still need to know.
For example, a question an Officiant or DJ might ask is, “Are there any religious or cultural traditions you want to honor or include?” A follow-up question could relate to the “level” to which they want to include them – for instance, the caterer needs to distinguish between having a kosher option on the menu vs. kosher-style vs. the entire menu needing to be kosher.
2. Find out the why. The what is very important but the why is the driver. Honestly, we wedding folks tend to want to help and jump right into ideas or solutions (the “what”), without yet knowing the ‘why’. Understanding the rationale behind a client’s thoughts allows you to make more fitting suggestions. Does the couple want a certain tradition included because they desire it or because they feel they want/need it for family, or even one specific family member? I’ve had couples think that they need to have a traditional Christian wedding – even though they were non-religious themselves – when what they really wanted to do was honor their families and thought that that was the only way to do so.
By understanding the why, you can make sure that what you are suggesting or including will satisfy the couple and the people, or person, it is meant to satisfy. By providing options to your couple for the ‘what” that satisfies this ‘why,’ you increase your value to them, while at the same time making sure everyone is happy or at least satisfied by the solution.
3. Be a solutions person. We as wedding professionals need to be solution providers. And, when it comes to religious and cultural inclusion, I find that, in addition to satisfying family, there are often two points in a couple’s life where the differences in their upbringings can clash: 1) during their wedding and 2) raising their children. As wedding professionals, it’s likely that we encounter the first point regularly, which means that we might have to be mediators, not only between the couple and members of their families, but between the couple themselves, by either having solutions or knowing where to go to find solutions.
The basic rules apply here: listen to both sides, probe with follow-up questions and potential ideas (if you have them), step away and think about it, talk to others who may have dealt with this type of scenario, and then come back to the couple with solutions. The idea is to satisfy both sides as much as possible. And, please resist the “bridal bias” that I see way too often in our industry – you need to make sure to take into account the feelings and wants of both members of the couple.
4. Be a capable match. There is always the balance in our businesses between wanting to say yes and help (and the income that comes from that, too), and wanting to be sure that you are doing right by a couple and their needs. Here is my thought: if in doubt, ask yourself the following question, “Will the quality of what the couple gets from me and my business be adversely affected by my lack of skills or knowledge?” If yes, then maybe you aren’t the best fit for them.
If you reach that point, I always recommend that you be honest with a couple that you don’t have that specific experience or knowledge, and then allow them to make that decision. If you still feel that you can serve them properly, and want to, you can let them know that you are indeed willing to help and happy to do so. Allow the couple to decide if they still want to work with you.
If the couple ultimately determines you are not the right fit, you can always suggest other vendors that may specialize or have experience in their specific request(s). Or, you can look at the solution of partnering up with a colleague to service them together. For example, if you are a wedding planner and an Indian couple comes to you and wants a full Indian wedding, yet you have never done one, should you take it? Without that experience, you may not be their perfect fit, so bringing on the right partner with this expertise could be the perfect solution! You could partner with planner who has experience in Indian weddings so that the couple gets to work with a team that understands not only the what they are looking for, but also the why. And the plus side of the solution is that you get to learn and feel more confident the next time you are asked because you’ll now have that experience
5. Showcase your experience. For everyone’s sake, attracting couples from the get-go who are more your fit, and who you can service and celebrate fully and properly, is a top goal. Therefore, make sure that your service descriptions and portfolio – in places such as your website or WeddingWire Storefront or social media – show past work with a wide range of religious and/or cultural rituals, when you feel confident in your ability to professionally service those couples again.
Keep these tips in mind when engaging with potential clients — I believe it is not only the best thing for society when we are all more understanding and inclusive, but it also turns out to be the right thing for your business.
Bethel Nathan is a San Diego based wedding officiant, business coach, and industry speaker. Combining her years of corporate and small business experience with a love for marrying awesome couples, Bethel built Ceremonies by Bethel, a successful and award-winning Officiant business. And although still officiating, Bethel now has another love… helping others turn their passions into successful and sustainable businesses. Learn more at www.elevatebybethel.com.