Overtures can feel like something relatively mundane that is built into our ecclesial structure. But it is one of the primary ways of communicating with the whole denomination, so we all do well to be familiar with how they function. Beware, the conversation will get a little technical. If you want to skip to the last (sixth) point, I won’t blame you (*wink, you’ll see why).
First, a very loose working definition. An overture is a request sent to a governing body asking them to do something. A communication is an official message to the governing body but does not include a request for action.
Second, why overtures (and communications)? Because they are the primary, formal way that members of the Christian Reformed Church can influence the denomination’s direction. It’s important right now because there is currently a veritable tidal wave of overtures and communications landing on the agendas for classis meetings related to the Human Sexuality Report. Many of them were deferred to either the Fall 2021 or Winter/Spring 2022 classis meetings due to Synod 2021 being canceled. Those that are adopted by their classis will land on the Synod 2022 agenda. So if you want to keep up with the conversation about the Human Sexuality Report (among other things), you’re going to need to be able to read overtures and communications.
Third, how they get to synod. Both an overture and a communication ordinarily start in a local church (sometimes a classis might develop/commission an overture or communication itself). Usually an individual member or a pastor will write it and send it to their church council. A church council can adopt it as their own and forward it to the classis. The classis can then adopt it as its own and forward it to synod. So by the time it lands on the Agenda for Synod, it is usually no longer an overture signed by an individual or by a church, but by a classis as a whole.
If a person writes an overture or communication and their church council doesn’t adopt it as their own, the person is allowed to then send it to the classis as an individual. If the classis doesn’t adopt an overture or communication from an individual or a church as their own, the person or church is allowed to send it to synod themselves. But no one can send it straight to synod; it would have to be rejected at the council and/or classis first beforehand. So almost every overture or communication you see on the Agenda for Synod has been dealt with in a local church and a classis, whether it was adopted or rejected. This process ensures that every member has an opportunity to have their voice heard, even if they don’t get the support of their church or classis. And this does happen.
Fourth, what happens at synod?
- Communications: Communications to synod are basically received for information. Why? They don’t need a response because synod wasn’t asked to do anything other than to hear it.
- Overtures: Overtures ask for something to happen, so they need to have a response. When there are a bunch of similar overtures, or overtures dealing with the same topic, they are often lumped together so that all the requests can be dealt with together. For example, if one overture were to ask that synod happen every year in San Diego in January and another overture comes to the same synod asking that synod meet in Toronto in September, then both overtures would probably be dealt with together because they both have to do with the date and location of synod. An Advisory Committee of Synod would look at both of them and then give a recommendation that could be a response to both overtures at one time. But however it works, synod must respond to overtures with some sort of action.
I tell you all this because there are a lot of overtures coming to Synod 2022 about the Human Sexuality Report. Many of them include a request that Synod 2022 either adopt or reject Recommendation D of the Human Sexuality Report. All those overtures will probably be grouped together at synod, and a decision will be made that will be a response to all of these requests.
Fifth: what’s usually in an overture? Some overtures are pretty short, but some are multiple pages long. Even the shortest one will have the request for action, and will almost always have some grounds listed.
For example, an overture could be as simple as “that starting in 2023, Synod meet annually in San Diego in January. Grounds (1) it is nice to go to a warm destination (2) church life tends to be less busy in January”
Most overtures tend to have more info, though. There may be some introductory and background information written out about the topic, some history on previous decisions, and perhaps some more in-depth biblical/theological write-up on the particular topic. It may also give longer justification and explanation to the various grounds that get listed later with the request itself. For example, the overture above could include a few pages on how attractive it would be to go to San Diego in January, how various denominations perhaps have their annual meetings in warmer climates to encourage delegates to sign up, etc. I could include some stats on church events that happen in January and how that compares to June. Remember the point of the overture is to be persuasive so anything that is helpful to get synod to act on the request can be helpful.
Sixth, and finally!...a trick to reading overtures: Here’s what I do: I start at the end. That’s where the actual request typically shows up in its most concise form with the grounds/reasons clearly and simply stated. The end is where they get to the point by saying what it is they actually want synod to do with all that information. So, especially if you’re skimming, you could save yourself a bunch of time by just going to the very end and finding out: what is this overture actually asking for? And then go back and read it through that lens. It should help you make more sense of it.
(If you would like to see the actual rules regarding how overtures are received and processed at synod, check out V.B.4 in the full Rules for Synodical Procedure). And, if you have other ideas or tips on reading or writing overtures, I'd love you to share them in the comments below.)