Do General Assembly Overtures Really Matter?

by Rev. Dr. Walter Owensby*

The 223rd General Assembly of the PC(USA) met in Saint Louis in June as the highest elected body of the Church to conduct its business and establish policies for the denomination. An item on the agenda of interest to the SLPN was Overture 12-09 – On Responding to the Current Syrian Crisis.

What is an Overture?

The overture process is in many ways the most basic expression of grassroots advocacy in the denomination. It is the way a concern of a congregation (sometimes beginning with a single individual) can become the business of the whole church.  By rule, at least two presbyteries must endorse the recommendations of a substantially identical document asking the GA to speak and act in specific ways. Overture 12-09 was endorsed by 17 Presbyteries and one Synod (consisting of 11 Presbyteries).  And it was passed unanimously by the assigned committee and adopted by the General Assembly without opposition.

Once an overture is adopted by the General Assembly, it becomes the policy of the denomination.

But what does that really mean and what difference does it make?

Presbyterians are pretty serious about “only God being Lord of the conscience.” No church assembly can pretend to speak either for God or for a couple of million individual Presbyterians. But when the church brings together the largest and most inclusive elected body of the denomination, its determination to speak about how to live together in the human community is important.

It’s worth noting, however, that the General Assembly does not have elders and clergy elected to “represent” the interests or perspectives of presbyteries (or congregations, or interest groups) but “commissioners” – that is, persons elected by presbyteries who are “commissioned” to seek the will of God in all the business of the church.  These members of the Assembly may not be instructed on how to vote on any matter considered.

In adopting an overture The General Assembly speaks with differing authority to differing groups.

It speaks to the conscience of individual Presbyterians.  It does not say this is what every church member must believe or do. But it commends analysis and action on social, moral or theological issues to Presbyterians as the serious and prayerful thought of the most broadly representative elected body of the denomination. That counsel should not be ignored lightly! 

It speaks to congregations and presbyteries with that same pastoral and prophetic voice. They are implicitly urged to consider the social judgments of the General Assembly as the voice of the broader denominational community expressing its best thought and spiritual guidance for the mission of the church at all levels.

It speaks to the staff and agencies of the General Assembly.  And when it does, it is with authority to direct rather than merely “suggestion for consideration.”  The structures and personnel of the national denomination are the “work force” charged with sharing the vision and accomplishing the will of the GA – in the hope that it is the will of God.

It speaks to the larger society and especially to those who wield power within it - governments, national and international organizations, corporations and other economic entities, and non-governmental organizations – all of which work with their own vision for the country and the world. The church has no power to compel its vision of justice and compassion.  Its only persuasive authority is the clarity of its vision, the depth of its commitment, the power of its moral outcry and the efficacy of its organizing.

Does all this do any good?

Only if the church – from its individual members, to its congregations, to its bureaucracy – is committed to a mission to make it so. GA overtures can be a part of that process; they can begin with clear and factual analysis that leads to prophetic policies crucial to the life of faith, the integrity of the church, and the well-being of society. 


* Walter Owensby is a retired pastor, mission co-worker, and former Associate for International Issues of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness.


PC(USA)Office of Public Witness

Training Webinars on Grassroots Advocacy

Your congregation may already have a social witness ministry, a social justice committee, or a collection of people dedicated to justice work. The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness (OPW) invites you to organize and formalize a Grassroots Advocacy Team to engage congregants and community members in the creation of public policy and the advancement of a justice agenda in 2018 and beyond.

The Grow the Movement for Justice: A Three Part Grassroots Advocacy Training Webinar series teaches leaders how to harness and exercise community power to build just and faith-driven movements.

Topics include:

  • Building and deepening your relationships with elected officials
  • Creating a strong advocacy team
  • Growing your team: recruiting new members identifying and using people's skills and interests

The webinar series can be accessed at the Presbyterian Mission website HERE.