Jessica Alexander's wedding was everything she had envisioned: a private gathering by her summer house on an Iowa lake. There was a pink and purple color scheme, a butterfly motif and a dessert bar rather than a full meal.
And wearing a short periwinkle dress designed "to show off her legs" was Alexander's minister and bridesmaid, Anna-Megan Raley, a close friend who was ordained online specifically to perform the ceremony.
Raley, a blogger for the Houston Chronicle, didn't even know she had been ordained until Alexander and her mother sprang the news at the bridal shower. They had already paid a $25 fee and filled out a form with her name and address, making her the Rev. Raley.
"I thought it was a joke. I'm sure that I put it on Facebook and Twitter," said Raley. "But I had heard about people getting ordained to perform weddings. So, I said: 'Sure, I'd love to.' "
A growing trend? Definitely.
More and more engaged couples are turning to friends or family members to perform their wedding ceremony. They say it is more personal, relatively stress-free and cheaper.
It is also surprisingly fast and simple.
Getting ordained requires little more than finding an online ministry that performs ordinations and filling out a short form with your name and address. Some websites require a nominal fee for paperwork; others don't charge anything.
Check local laws
Prospective brides and grooms should look into the website and local marriage laws, however, to make sure the ceremony would be valid. Although online ordinations are generally recognized, laws vary widely from state to state, sometimes from county to county. Some states require ministers to register after they are ordained. In Louisiana, parishes ask for a letter of good standing from the church, while Las Vegas requires a four-page application and background check.
Last year, about one in seven weddings was performed by a friend of the couple, according to The Wedding Report, a research firm.
No need for church
Andre Hensley, president of the nondenominational Universal Life Church, which has been issuing ordination credentials since 1962, believes more couples are turning to friends because of the Internet, which makes the process easier, and because of many people's lack of affiliation with a church.
"I've gone to weddings where the ministers didn't know the couple or anything about them. It didn't have a special feeling," said Hensley, who estimates that his church has ordained 18 million people. About 3,000 to 5,000 are ordained every month, a number that has steadily increased over the past 10 years, Hensley said.
It takes about 24 hours for the church to process ordination requests, all of which are reviewed by a live person, he said.
Used her sister
Janis Jones, a 27-year-old Chicago nurse, asked her older sister to perform her wedding this June.
"Neither of us belong to a church, and we liked the idea of incorporating prayers and the religious aspect into the ceremony, but we didn't want to be married by someone we don't know at all and who didn't know us," said Jones, who has been dating her fiance, Eric Strand, for six years.
The couple turned to Jones' sister, Vicky Rappatta, who has been happily married for 10 years, has a background in writing and had always been a motherly figure to her younger sibling.
"I was so honored and so moved that they wanted me to be such a huge part of their wedding. Now, I'm getting terrified," joked Rappatta, who plans to write an original wedding prayer for the couple.
Rappatta said she researched the legality of the ordination process, including checking with the county where her sister will be getting her marriage license.
"The last thing I wanted to do was get a fake ordination," said Rappatta, who got her credentials from American Marriage Ministries, whose website boasts "over 10,000 marriages performed!"
Just in case
Kirsten Nichols, whose October wedding was performed by her husband's cousin, asked a co-worker who is an ordained minister to be on hand at the service -- just in case.
"If you find out after the fact that you are not legally married, it can definitely put a damper on things," said Nichols, who lives in Montgomery County, Md.
Nichols, who is Christian, and her husband, who was raised Muslim, wanted a spiritual ceremony that would "focus on us coming together under God, not on the fact that we are of two different faiths."
At Alexander's lakeside wedding in Iowa, minister-bridesmaid Raley also served as a personal attendant and helped decorate for the reception -- all of which lent an air of comfort and familiarity to the ceremony.
"It helped that she was the one standing up there for us," said Alexander, a fourth-grade teacher who lives in Rockwell, Texas, outside Dallas. "I wouldn't have wanted it any other way."