Bargaining With God: How to Negotiate With Wedding Clergy

Wedding church budget
Wedding church budget

Couples engaged to be married are eager to save on almost anything -- slice a few dollars off the cake price, haggle with the photographer, talk the caterer down on service fees. But negotiations turn slightly dicier when it comes to clergy.

The median price for a wedding officiant in 2011 was $238, with 21% of couples paying more than $300, according to The price can add up quickly, especially if you are in need of two officiants.

Such was the situation my now-wife and I faced in advance of our September interfaith wedding, which featured both an Episcopal priest and rabbi. Like most people, we were leery about bargaining. After all, you can skip the flowers and the photographer, but you can't very well do without the sacred vows.

"Most people, when they're talking about their rabbi or minister or priest, they're pretty hesitant to negotiate with them," said site director Anja Winikka.

Often, payment to the clergy takes the form of a donation to the house of worship, and beyond the gauche move of taking money away from a parish or congregation, the cost can be a trifle compared with the other wedding expenses.

"People feel a little awkward asking their priest whether they can get a deal on their ceremony when they're spending so much on their caterers and flowers," Winikka said.

I'll Have What He's Having

Weddings come with a built-in surcharge that hinges on this question from vendors, which we heard over and over again: "Do you want there to be any problems on the most important day of your life?"

Our strategy, in turn, hinged on trying to knock a couple hundred dollars off everything.

We met first with the rabbi, who quoted us his standard rate of $700, with the caveat that there was wiggle room if the price would prevent us from incorporating other desired elements into our wedding. A Jewish wedding has a few built-in costs of its own -- a few hundred dollars for the chuppah (the traditional wedding canopy) and a couple hundred more for an artist-designed ketubah (the marriage contract).

We sat on the rabbi's offer until we could meet with the priest, who told us he'd charge whatever the rabbi was charging. But $1,400 would have been a stretch on our budget, considering that we were also renting a barn on a farm for our ceremony and not using either one's house of worship.

That gave us two options: negotiate with two officiants we truly liked and whose services we valued, or break the bank. We noted any savings we managed to glean from the rabbi would be equaled by the priest, thus doubling the discount.

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There was a third option: find another rabbi. But we liked the rabbi we had met and wanted to find a way to fit him into our budget. I wrote him a simple email: "We have been incurring a lot of costs for our wedding. We are wondering if it's possible to pay $500 for your services. We are greatly appreciative of your energy and help and enthusiasm, but we are wary of our small budget."

With the rabbi's prompt written approval and $200 saved, I emailed the priest, who also consented to the $500 price -- voila, $400 back in the wedding fund. We invited them both over for a home-cooked meal in our apartment as a pre-wedding thank you.

At the wedding itself, the priest and rabbi worked together seamlessly to create a meaningful and truly priceless ceremony. Of course, we were still thrilled to have bargained a bit with God in the interest of saving for our marriage.

Tips for Hiring Clergy

Know who you're dealing with. Your power to negotiate hinges in part on whether you are dealing with a rent-a-priest or a Diocese-attached clergyman. If the chaplain is an unattached freelancer, you may have more leverage to negotiate on price. If weddings are a major source of income, he or she may be willing to come down $100 or more to ensure a paid booking for that weekend. It's a little more difficult to negotiate with a member of the clergy whose honorarium will go directly to charitable causes and the church.

Be honest about the requirements and scope of the ceremony. "It's difficult to quote a price for the wedding without knowing the scope off what you want," Winikka said. You are paying for time and talent, and if your officiant is also including premarital counseling and offering you a place of worship to use for your ceremony, be prepared to shell out a few more bills. By the same token, if it's a more modest ceremony with less preparation, the costs will drop accordingly. "If it's a small town church on the corner, it's probably a nominal fee," Winikka said.

Think outside the church! Many people choose to skip the clergy altogether. A 2011 Knot survey found that 61% of couples hired a professional, and 31% used a family member or friend who completed certification. According to Winnika, couples may be looking to save on clerical money by having a friend register on the internet and perform the ceremony. On the web site, she noted, "there are more discussions of 'How can i get my friend ordained?' "

Keep it all in perspective Hiring clergy for a wedding is not strictly a business transaction, so conduct your negotiations with a little finesse. Sure, it's the responsibility of a financially mature couple approaching marriage to protect assets and not overspend, but you also want to keep things in perspective. "It's not about haggling," Winnika points out. "It's not a car. It's a ceremony."