Depending on where you are married determines the content. I recently did a wedding in a church whose policy is that the Senior Minister must do at least some part of the ceremony. this couple had very little input into the wording used in the vows. They invited me to do the homily and it was there that I incorporated their thoughts that they wanted to convey to their family and friends.
Most unique ceremony: Last year I did a ceremony for what the Post called "the most hated woman on Capitol Hill" who stopped me in the middle of the ceremony and said, "Is that the ceremony I gave you!?" Startled by the jolting interruption I respond that indeed it was but that I had to improvise to make transitions. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "Okay, you can go on…" (She actually was very nice).
It is the Barney Fife of the wedding industry! I couldn't resist. For some people, the formality of having a minister or civil celebrant officiate is like being coerced to sing the national anthem at a ball game…The usher in the red coat runs down the aisle and screams, "She's not singing…stop the music!"
I understand why some resort to this, but I think as a society who has a major problem with divorce, we should enter marriage with great sobriety and should find solace in the fact that there are professionals who help add a somberness and seriousness to this wonderful merging of lives. We require driving lessons for teens; your pilot has thousands of hours of training, but anyone can get a marriage license without any training or advice necessary.
One of my "secret weapons" that I like to employ in a ceremony that is intended to be non-traditional and when emotion is okay (I love when people cry happy tears!) is to read an excerpt from the Velveteen Rabbit. The simplicity of the story is a subtle nod to our past. It is as though standing at the alter the bride sees the softside of love portrayed in this touching story of what real love is. Read it for your self and find the part where the skin horse and the rabbit discuss what it means to be real.
Another tradition is when the father gives the bride away. I know, I know, very traditional, but most dad's turn into old softies when they give their daughter away and it is something that people enjoying seeing. Don't be too untraditional because some of the elements are there for a reason.
Most people don't know what to do. Go to a pro! What I mean is, turn to someone who is known for producing wonderful celebratory events. My experience at the Inn at Little Washington is that they are so accustomed to special events that you don't have to worry whether the wedding (or other type of event) will unfold as you dreamed. People who are used to doing special events for high end venues understand that a lot is riding on your special day.
As far as a minister is concerned, find someone who speaks with you with great enthusiasm and passion. They will translate that into the ceremony. I disdain boring ceremonies! the way they talk in person is a good indication of what you will get in the ceremony.
Ministers who work with teens and college students often have what it takes, so ask to speak with a Youth Minister if you are fishing for the right person.
Not all ministers are approved. They must be registered with the appropriate authority in their respective state. I know one man who captains a very large yacht and he was approved to do weddings (though he only did one and said that was enough!)
Typically, a church will have a policy as to who can do the marrying. I worked in a church in Virginia Beach that had a very traditional look–beautiful white steeple, center aisle, etc. We had so many requests for weddings that their policy it could be used by member only because they would be doing weddings every weekend. Most denominations do not have requirements for who does the ceremony–but they may have strong requirements about marriage counseling before the wedding takes place since we see so many failed marriages. We find a great need for helping couples understand what they are agreeing to be and do in their marriage.
How far in advance: popular wedding spots fill up a year in advance. However, thinking creatively you can find some great venues which don't require a great deal of advance notice.
(Shameless plug for the Inn at Little Washington): Many couples plan an elopement only a few weeks in advance and the details unfold like a dream.
Depending on how many people are there for the event, I would "re-enact" the event so it feels just as official to folks in MD as in TX. Without the officiate, it will feel like the reception. I suggest you redo the entire event whenever practical.
By the way, that is a good idea. I have seen many couples from different parts of the country re-do the event so all could experience the joy.
I think that it will be difficult to find a civil celebrant (that is, someone who has been approved to do civil ceremonies only) who has the ability to "perform" with such adaptability. Typically, civil celebrants/officiates are "clerical" people who perform the ceremony in a capacity that is closer to a notary. I know someone who does a good job, but by-and-large I would find someone who is accustomed to public speaking–such as a minister.
Lots of great questions! I have truly enjoyed answering them. If you have any questions in the future, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Best wishes to each of you as you pursue your dreams…A word of advice to some of you out there: Don't rush it! Many of the couples that I marry are in their late twenties to late thirties. find the right person by being the right person and you will eventually meet!