The Modern Minister: How Online Ordainment has Created a New Avenue for Entrepreneurs
The cool thing is, I’m the only employee and the sole owner of my business, so I get to do things how I want to. You can definitely make it a career, you just have to promote yourself.
Mathew Anderson, Ordained Minister Based in West Virginia Who Has Officiated Over 100 Weddings
Social media has completely transformed our society, from the way that we communicate with one another, to where we get our news, to the way that we shop. For many of us, all of these tasks are now done by tapping open an app on our smartphones or from a click of a laptop.
This new environment has also given forth to the rise of a new approach to making money. The BBC Newsbeat calls it the “DIY generation:” the digitally savvy self-starters finding new ways to make a living by applying the spirit of entrepreneurship to the new digital world.
Digital platforms allow modern-day merchants and fledgling businesses to market their products and services to wider audiences than ever before, yielding mega-success stories like make-up mogul Kylie Jenner and social commentator PewDiePie, the queen and king of Instagram and YouTube, respectively—both of whom have net worths in the eight figure range.
But this mode of making money is not just reserved for those right-place-right-time individuals who have managed to create empires out of their influence. Social media has been a game-changer for comedians, video gamers, musicians, motivational speakers, make-up artists, small business owners, and other self-starters from a wide array of industries, who figured out how to use it to connect with those that appreciate their niche of products or services.
Becoming an Ordained Minister Online: New Business Opportunities
One particular niche within the wedding industry is having its own brick-and-mortar to digital metamorphosis: the path of becoming an ordained minister.
“The ordination industry and study of ministry has evolved immensely,” said outreach and operations manager at AMM Natasha Anakotta. “Nearly everything has moved online, and that includes ordination.”
You’ve probably heard about online ordination services. About 20 years ago, a handful of churches started to provide ministerial credentials online. The American Marriage Ministries (AMM) is one of a handful of such online ordination websites based in the U.S. These services have become popular largely thanks to demand from couples who want to have a loved one perform their marriage ceremony, as opposed to a traditional priest or minister.
Across cultures, the route of becoming a wedding officiant has traditionally been pursued through religious affiliation (with the exception of government officials like judges being given these credentials by proxy.) But in the 21st century, more individuals are defining their own spiritualities outside of traditional churches.
“People are really pulling away from brick-and-mortar churches, from using mom and dad’s favorite pastor that has known you since you were a kid [to officiate their ceremony], because what does that mean to you as an adult when you yourself don’t go to church and you don’t have that spiritual or emotional connection with that person?” Anakotta said. “Since weddings are the most important spiritual ceremony, and not to mention, legally binding, couples really want their own officiants who will represent them in a way that’s true to them.”
That’s why many are opting to ask a close friend, family member or community member to get ordained to perform their wedding ceremony.
“We traditionally associate ordination with rooms full of incense and men in robes holding blessings. The reality is, at the end of the day, it’s a simple spiritual agreement between a religious organization and an individual or that couple,” Anakotta said.
How Has Online Ordainment Been Received?
But as one might imagine, online ordination hasn’t been well-received across the board; certain groups and individuals have fought the acceptance of Internet ministers, even as recently as last year. In 2019, there was a flare-up of pushback from the state of Tennessee, which tried to ban online-ordained ministers from performing weddings within state lines.
This proposed measure was met with backlash by the community, especially engaged couples in Tennessee looking forward to using their chosen ministers in their upcoming nuptials.
AMM, which had more than 13,000 Tennesseans in its ministry at the time, was at the forefront of the counter-effort, flying its officers to Nashville to try to fight the proposed ban—and to ordain Tennessee residents in person to get them in compliance with the proposed law in the meantime.
“We want folks to realize there’s really nothing to be gained from discriminating against non-traditional or online ordained ministers,” Anakotta said. “Ultimately, we have a great relationship with county clerks and lawmakers.”
Thankfully, a federal judge stepped in to pause the prohibition. Now, online-ordained ministers are accepted in all 50 states.
The Appeal of Officiating Weddings
A significant number of individuals that get ordained online perform just one ceremony at the request of their friend or loved one and never end up officiating again. But others find that performing wedding ceremonies is such a fulfilling experience that they want to replicate it.
”We’ve talked to so many people that have gotten ordained and ended up loving it so much or finding it was a natural fit and turned it into a full blown career,” Anakotta said.
How To Make Money as an Ordained Minister
Mathew Anderson, an ordained minister based in West Virginia who has been officiating wedding ceremonies for the last four years while maintaining his job as a special education teacher, is a prime example. He is so passionate about his new vocation that he wrote a book about his experience called The Nifty Fifty for Shits & Giggles: A Wedding Officiant’s Memoir.
He compares that the feeling he gets when performing a wedding to the rush an entertainer gets onstage: a combination of nerves and excitement. “To this day, I still get butterflies. It’s part of me now and I love what I do,” he said.
Anderson initially got ordained through AMM to fulfill his best friend’s wish for him to officiate his wedding ceremony, but is now licensed to solemnize weddings in nine states. Beyond the feeling of fulfillment he gets from participating in one of the most joyous days in couples’ lives, he also discovered that it’s a lucrative side-hustle.
“Once I had five or six reviews out there, I started to get requests from people saying, ‘Hey, we want you to do our wedding.’ It was crazy,” he said. “It’s been a very wild and very fun journey. My first year it was kind of a trial and error process of finding out what worked for me and what worked for the couple. Now, I’ve done weddings in helicopters, in living rooms… it’s really whatever the customer wants.”
Bonnie Sanchez, another AMM minister based in Florida is a highly sought-after wedding officiant with six years of experience under her belt. She decided to leave her government job of 15 years to pursue the path of officiation full-time after attending a wedding that was performed by a rather unenthusiastic minister and thinking, “I can do a better job than that.”
She gained her ministerial credentials with AMM and hasn’t looked back since. She shares Anderson’s sentiment about the euphoric experience she gets when marrying a couple.
“It’s the most exiliterating high and so empowering—when you go through it and you have a successful performance,” she said. “You are experiencing love from the couple and the people there to celebrate one of the most special moments in their entire life.”
Both Sanchez and Anderson said they appreciate that the career gives them the opportunity to travel to different areas of their region and meet different people. Sanchez has performed weddings throughout the Gulf Coast, where she relocated from Las Vegas a few years ago. Now she’s seen some of the area’s most beautiful attractions. Anderson also enjoys being on the road, and has gone as far from home as New Orleans to perform a ceremony.
How Much Can You Make as a Wedding Officiant?
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the job? The ability to be your own boss.
“The cool thing is, I’m the only employee and the sole owner of my business, so I get to do things how I want to,” Anderson said. “You can definitely make it a career, you just have to promote yourself.”
But the amount of money you make as an officiant depends on how much ambition you have. In his very first year, Anderson performed seven weddings. The second year, he performed 43, and last year, a whopping 70—all while holding down his job in education.
Sanchez has performed 725 weddings to date, an average of 120 weddings per year since she started. Taking a different approach than Anderson, she devotes herself to officiating weddings full-time. So, she is able to work around the clock, and often ends up performing more than one ceremony per day.
Newbies charge in the $200 range, while experienced, well-regarded pros can ask for $500 or more per gig. On a part-time basis, one could perform six weddings per month. At a rate of $500 per ceremony, that brings in about $36,000 per year before taxes.
One’s ability to make money is also dependent on wedding season. Some months are more popular for weddings than others, and that varies depending on where in the country you live. In Florida, the wedding season lasts from November to May, during which time, Sanchez said she performs up to 15 or 16 weddings per month. But during slower months, an officiant may only perform a few ceremonies.
In the wedding officiation business, there are pros and cons to working part-time versus full-time. Performing weddings on the side of another job, like Anderson, allows you to maintain a stable income, but somewhat limits your availability and revenue potential. The full-time approach enables you to take on more gigs, but as is true with starting any business, you are responsible for bringing in clients and making ends meet.
“I started out with low pricing and then people began booking me like crazy. Then I was able to charge a bit more,” Sanchez said. She still sets her rates below market simply because, as she says, she’s just grateful for the experience. Keeping her pricing on the lower end also attracts more couples so she can pack in as many weddings as possible. In the end, she brings home about $40,000 per year before expenses on an average year.
Getting the Ball Rolling
Sanchez says that she’s found success by creating a website that uses relevant keywords, investing money each month in Google Ads, and listing herself on websites like The Knot and Wedding Wire, which charge a fee to officiants to be listed within their search engines.
Anderson says couples usually contact him through Facebook, Instagram or the portal on his website. Sometimes they find him organically, but he also uses the social media platforms’ advertising options to increase his exposure to potential clients.
A little digital marketing helps get your services in front of the right eyes, but it’s also about putting in hard work and building a good reputation. There’s more to the job of a wedding officiant than simply showing up at the venue on the day of the wedding and reading from a script.
“Every couple I work with, I try to either do a Facetime call or I meet them in person before the wedding,” Anderson said. “A lot of people don’t realize the work that goes into it and coming up with the ceremonies. Not every couple is the same—they want different things.”
In these meetings, officiants ask their clients questions about what kind of ceremony they are envisioning and tailor their ceremony templates to fit their needs and personal style. Some couples may want to write and recite their own vows, while shyer couples often prefer the officiant to speak more. Special requests are also common, such as including a family relative in the ceremony in some way.
Anderson enjoys the process of customizing ceremonies for couples, but says that being a “people person” is a mandatory part of the job. “You get questions not only from the couple, but from the parents and grandparents. I’ve gone against moms and grandmas who want to have their input included,” Anderson said. “It’s really about how the couple wants to do things.”
Challenges of Officiating Weddings Across State Lines
The perks of becoming a career wedding officiant are apparent: a feeling of fulfillment, traveling to different beautiful locations, and having a flexible, non-traditional schedule; however, as with any career, there are challenges.
Educating yourself on the marriage laws in each state in which you want to do business is complicated and takes some time to learn. Because each state has different marriage laws, there may be different rules for officiants, such as whether or not you need to register your ministerial credentials with the state government to legally perform weddings, or where you are allowed to perform weddings and where you need to obtain permits.
As an officiant, you should be armed with this knowledge. Sanchez says that reaching out to other officiants outside of your area is a helpful way to learn the ins and outs of the job. AMM also has a library of information about marriage laws and tips for officiants to help them navigate the process.
For those looking for a career off the beaten path, officiating weddings is the key to a life filled with unexpected adventure, human connection, and meaning.
“Make it your own, research, create your own story,” Anderson said. “I don’t consider it a job, I consider it a hobby because I have so much fun.”