Bride Days recently sat down with wedding officiant Dean Merrill and we asked him to share his experience and practical advice that comes from his 26 years of officiating weddings.

What made you decide to become a wedding officiant?
I think it was around 1996 and I was the pastor of a large singles group of young 20 and 30-somethings, and over time, lots of relationships developed. So I was asked to perform their weddings because I knew these couples, I knew who they were. I knew their personalities. I knew their senses of humor, and I knew how they met because I had gotten to know them really well. But in about 2000, I was no longer a pastor in the church and went out on my own so I set out to continue to do weddings because I felt I was called to serve my community.

How did you become known outside of that group?
It started quite simply, actually. I hired someone to build this small, cheesy website and advertised myself as someone who would take a creative approach to a wedding and it just seemed for those couples who weren’t getting married in a church by a pastor, priest, or rabbi that I was a great fit for them. I think it’s also important to understand that many couples don’t have any religious affiliation or place of worship, so when it comes time to get married, they really don’t know what to do. And that’s why many of them decide to go to a courthouse, which I think is tragic – that on one of the best days of their lives, they feel like they have no other option than to get married by the court.

So I had no idea what to expect, but the phone started ringing because there was nobody who was really advertising themselves as a wedding officiant and I just happened to catch the wave of something that was just starting – becoming an independent wedding officiant and surprisingly, thankfully, it’s been pretty busy ever since. There is no shortage of couples who want to get married and that’s been a blessing for me. Marriage has always been a constant. People still fall in love and want to get married.

What are some of the biggest changes you’re seen over the years?
There have been many trends that come and go, but if there is one aspect of the wedding world where I’ve seen the biggest change over the last 20 years has been the growth of the outdoor wedding venue. It’s really great for couples to have the option of inviting their guests to a one-stop shop, if you will. They can have their wedding, cocktail hour, and reception dinner all at the same location. There are some amazing wedding venues in Southern California.

For those who can afford it, it’s really gracious that a couple goes to such great expense to bring their friends and families to such beautiful locations. Just in my area alone, there are probably five or six wedding venues that are absolutely gorgeous. It’s as if they’ve been transported into this whole other part of the world because many of these wedding venues have unique themes. Some have a wine country theme. Others have tropical themes, so guests are kind of blown away when they get invited to one of these wedding venues because their past experiences have been that they went to an indoor wedding and then drove to a reception at a hotel ballroom. Today, really great weddings are not taking place in a hotel ballroom with partitions.

So you mostly perform weddings at these larger venues?
Oh, no, not at all. I do as many small weddings as I do large weddings – probably more. If a couple calls me and starts asking me for my opinions, I usually ask them about their budget. In most cases, they tell me that they are on one. That’s most couples these days. A large majority of couples are paying for the wedding themselves.

I’ll then ask them if they know anyone with a great backyard that they might be able to use as their wedding ceremony and reception location. This is a great option because a couple can control the food and beverage cost, go shopping and buy exactly what they want to eat and drink. Today, couples want to be financially responsible and not go into debt so it’s great for them that they don’t have to break the bank in order to have a cool wedding. I’ve seen amazing backyard weddings with family-cooked meals and a purchased beverage and alcohol bar. If a couple loves barbecue they can order it from their favorite restaurant. If it’s sushi. Sushi it is. Whatever a couple likes to eat then that’s what they should have on their wedding day.

Most wedding venues have a preferred list of caterers they use because they trust them to do a great job. But if you’re doing a smaller wedding at your own private location and have the option of catering your own food and bar, or have a family member who can prepare an amazing meal, then by all means, eat the food you love. Being practical, not emotional, is important when it comes to setting your wedding budget.

Any other trends you’ve seen over the years?
Year-round weddings are now the thing. It used to be that the wedding season was basically from May through October. And now, because of the lack of rain we’ve had here in California, a couple really doesn’t have any fear of scheduling their wedding with a fear of bad weather. 20 years ago, I only did a handful of weddings from November through April. Now, I perform a lot of weddings during those months and it’s simply because couples don’t have any fear of wet weather because we have a whole generation of couples who have never seen it rain here in Southern California. Also, wedding venues tend to give deals in the winter months as opposed to the summer months, so it can be a great option if you want to get married in late fall or winter.

You’ve officiated somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 weddings. What are a few pieces of wisdom you would give brides and grooms who are looking for advice.
I guess the first one that I’d like to say is that in the end, it always works out. I know there are a thousand details that need to be covered during the wedding planning process, but I’ve never left a wedding thinking, “Oh my gosh, that was a disaster.” It always comes together. It always turns out great because the bride and groom really don’t understand the massive support system they have on their wedding day. Whether it be from family, friends, bridesmaids, and groomsmen, wedding venue coordinators, photographers, DJ’s and officiants – everyone on their team wants their wedding day to go off without a hitch. We all are working really hard to make sure their wedding day goes smoothly. So my best advice is for couples to rest easy, step back, take a breath, and know everything is going to be just fine. I know that sounds easy when you’re in the middle of the stress, but in my experience, it will all end well.

So helping brides and grooms who are really stressed during the planning process is part of the process?
Oh, for sure. I know there’s always a great deal of apprehension and time goes by really fast when you’re planning a wedding. Before you know it, the day is upon you. It seems like one year turns into six months, which turns into two months, which becomes a month, then a week, then a day – it all happens really fast. It’s understandable to get nervous and sometimes overwhelmed and emotional at the same time.

But it’s quite peculiar and a bit humorous: During the wedding planning process, the bride is usually the one who has the most amount of nerves during the days leading up to the wedding. However, on the actual wedding day, it’s the brides who are the happiest and most at peace. It’s the grooms who seem to be really cool and chill prior to the wedding, but on their wedding day they are way more nervous than the bride. And I think that’s because the bride has that magic glow that comes with being the real center of attention. She looks amazing in her wedding dress and there is not a more confident feeling she will ever have looking and feeling so beautiful on her wedding day. The groom on the other hand – he’s been kind of pushing his feelings aside leading up to that moment, but on that day it finally hits him that he’s going to get married – he’s about to commit himself to this woman for the rest of his life, so he’s a wreck! But she’s been thinking about this moment for a very long time, as far back as when she was a little girl.

Share with me some practical advice you would give to a couple on their wedding day?
One of the things I suggest to a bride and groom on their wedding day is that it’s really important to have positive people surround them in the hours leading up to the ceremony. Avoid negative people at all costs. It’s important to protect yourself emotionally. I always encourage them to appoint a person who has a YES FACE to handle all of the minor details that might come up that they don’t want to deal with. A person who has a “YES FACE” is a positive, can-do, no drama friend or family member who can deal with anything that is asked of them, no matter what it is. They will look at you, smile and say, “No problem. I got it handled. I’ll take care of it!” It’s so important that a bride and groom have a positive presence who can handle any distractions on their wedding day.

Any advice as to things you shouldn’t do on your wedding day?
I always make a habit of reminding the bride and groom to be very present during the actual wedding ceremony because It’s so easy to get distracted. It’s not hard to be thinking of a dozen various details during the ceremony, and if that happens, it’s possible to miss the specialness of the moment because it only lasts 20 to 25 minutes and then it’s over. It’s important to be present and engaged during your ceremony because it’s one of the most important days of your life and you don’t want to miss it. It’s been my experience in my 20-plus years that couples are quite happy and even relieved during the ceremony. It’s an emotional time, but it’s kind of an exhale because the couple is finally in that moment and it’s just the three of us there together. It’s cool for them because it’s the culmination of a journey they’ve taken together as a couple. It’s the beginning of a new season in their lives. The ceremony itself is always a fun and emotional time. It’s fantastic because the time I spend planning the ceremony with a couple always pays off. I’m a huge believer in planning and details as I work with couples prior to their wedding day. I have a saying: “If we plan well, it always ends well”

It’s the fear of the unknown that usually causes couples trouble. But I think my job during the process is to remind them, “I know you might be nervous, but I’m not nervous because I can see the end when you can’t. I know how this is going to end VERY well and we’re going to have an amazing wedding.”

About Dean

Dean Merrill brings 26 years of experience as a wedding officiant in Southern California. His creative and professional approach to performing weddings comes from a unique blending of talents he utilizes in every ceremony in which he officiates. He is currently the preferred wedding officiant for Southern California’s #1 rated wedding coordinator, Bella Vita Events.