The Process of Passing an Overture

Students in American Government classes usually spend time learning "How a Bill Becomes a Law." This article takes a look at a similar process in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Helpful reading ...

Helpful terms ...

  • simple majority - more than half of the voting members
  • supermajority - a larger than normal majority, such as a 2/3 or 3/4 majority

The most commonly discussed Overtures to each year's General Assembly seek to amend the Book of Church Order (BCO) but there are other types of Overtures. This article focuses on the process for passing an Overture to amend the BCO with notes about variations for different kinds of Overtures.

Step 1: Overture is Drafted

Anyone may participate in the writing of an Overture. Most commonly, they are written by pastors and elders. More information on what Overtures include here.

Step 2: Overture is Submitted to Presbytery

Although anyone may help to draft an Overture, only a member of Presbytery may make a motion at Presbytery. This means that if an Overture doesn't have the support of at least one pastor or elder at Presbytery, it will not be submitted to Presbyter.

Once the Overture is submitted to Presbytery, the Presbytery deliberates and votes.

Step 3: Overture is Submitted to General Assembly

If the Overture passes by a simple majority (more than half the voting members approve it) it will be sent to the General Assembly from the Presbytery.

If the Presbytery does not approve the Overture, it may still be submitted to General Assembly by the church session or individual who wrote it.

Step 4: Overture is Referred to the Overtures Committee

The Overture is given a number (more on how Overtures are numbered here) and then assigned to a Committee for its recommendation.

In the case of Overtures to amend the Book of Church Order, it will be referred to the Overtures Committee. Overtures for other purposes may be submitted to other Committees.

Step 5: Overtures Committee Makes a Recommendation

The Overtures Committee is tasked with making a recommendation about the Overture. You can read in more detail about these recommendations here, but a simple summary is that the Overtures committee can recommend that the General Assembly ....

  • Approve the Overture
  • Approve the Overture as Amended (if the Overtures Committee amended it)
  • Reject the Overture
  • Answer with Reference (another Overture covers the same changes better)
  • Refer the Overture back to the author(s) for more revisions
  • Refer the Overture forward to next year's General Assembly

Step 6: Overtures Committee Reports to the General Assembly

During the business meeting of General Assembly, during the Report of the Overtures Committee, the Assembly will vote on the recommendations made by the Overtures Committee.

If the Assembly votes "yes" on the recommendation for an Overture, their proposed action will take place (approved, rejected, answered with reference, referred back or referred forward). 

Here is what will happen if the Assembly votes "no" to each of the following kinds of recommendations:

  • Approve (as amended) - the Overture fails
  • Reject - the Overture is sent back to the Overtures Committee for further consideration and possible amendment (likely the Overtures Committee would then recommend it be referred forward to the next General Assembly as the Overtures Committee report happens on what is usually the last day of General Assembly and the Committee is unlikely to have enough time to make a considered second recommendation)
  • Answer with Reference - someone may make a substitute motion that this Overture be approved on its own in addition to whatever Overture was considered a better option
  • Referred Back or Referred Forward - the General Assembly hardly ever disagrees with these recommendations from the Overtures Committee because the result would be that the Overture would be sent back to the Committee for another recommendation. The initial recommendations already indicate that this years Commissioners do not believe they can consider it well (either because it needs more work or because it needs more time and would be better handled by the next General Assembly)

Below is a chart that summarizes the information explained in more detail above.

Overtures on other topics such as forming a Study Committee or changing Presbytery boundaries, a simple majority on the floor of General Assembly is all that is needed for the Overture to be finally approved.

Overtures that seek to amend the Book of Church Order or the Westminster Confession of Faith have a few more steps before they are finally approved.

Step 7: Presbyteries Ratify Overture

Any Overtures to amend the Book of Church Order that pass on the floor of General Assembly will be sent to the Presbyteries for approval. Each Overture must be approved by two-thirds of the Presbyteries.

Note: For Overtures to Amend the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Larger or Shorter Catechism, a three-fourths supermajority on the floor of General Assembly and approval by three-fourths of the Presbyteries is required.

Step 8: General Assembly Approves Overture

Overtures that are approved by two-thirds of the Presbyteries are voted on one last time in the following General Assembly during the Stated Clerk's Report early on in the main meetings of the General Assembly. An simple majority at the second General Assembly finally approves the amendment.

Note: For Overtures to Amend the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Larger or Shorter Catechism, a three-fourths supermajority on the floor of following General Assembly is required.

Step 9: Book of Church Order Updated

Once a year the Book of Church Order is updated to include any approved amendments. In the PDF Copy of the Book of Church Order, newly updated sections are underlined and marked for clarity.

Quick View Charts

Here are two infographics that summarize the process of amending the Book of Church Order in simple titles and then with more details.

About the author 

Lynna Sutherland

Lynna has been in the PCA since 1982. Four generations of her family have participated in PCA church planting. Lynna has been around long enough to see the good, the bad, and the ugly and her particular calling is to equip the people in the pew to understand their church government and to advocate for victims of abuse in the PCA.

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