Our Love-Hate Relationship with Overtures

Overtures to General Assembly are a messy business.  They can polarize the entire assembly months before we meet.  They can leave presbyters scratching their heads, asking, “Is this really necessary?”  They can show our denomination issues we didn’t know we had.  And they can be incredibly helpful ideas, clarifying how we relate to one another in our graded courts.  Whatever the outcome, when an overture is our fault we should admit blame where blame is due.

Overture 11 was my fault.

The overture in summary is to amend BCO 5-3 to allow latitude in the oversight of mission churches (church plants). This is the recommended change:

5-3. The mission church, because of its transitional condition, requires a temporary system of government. Depending on the circumstances and at its own discretion, Presbytery may provide for such government in one of several or more of the following ways:

  1. Appoint an evangelist as prescribed in BCO 8-6.
  2. Cooperate with the Session of a particular church in arranging a mother-daughter relationship with a mission church. The Session may then serve as the temporary governing body of the mission church.
  3. Appoint a commission to serve as a temporary Session of the mission church.

So how is all this my fault?

The Background

When the work was begun to plant a church in Culpeper, VA, the Blue Ridge Presbytery established a temporary session to act as a commission of Presbytery in the oversight of what was then a growing Sunday afternoon Bible study.  At this point, I was happily working as an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Kosciusko, MS, oblivious to what the Lord was doing in Culpeper.  Over the course of a few years, the temporary session—made up of elders from two PCA church in Charlottesville, VA—served as pastors to the Bible study and as a search committee trying track down a church planter.

At this point, 5-3’s third option was functioning well as a band-aid—a temporary fix providing for a long term solution.  Elders were giving of their time to pastor a fledgling group of believers 40 miles north.

Where I Come In

I was called to the work over a year and a half ago.  Upon my transfer into the Blue Ridge Presbytery, I was made the sixth member of the temporary session to Culpeper Mission Church.  Our temporary session transitioned in our style of leadership as I hit the field in Culpeper.  We now had a man from our session living and working in Culpeper providing focused pastoral care, preaching, teaching, and leadership.  At the same time the other 5 elders from Charlottesville continued to provide the same amount of spiritual care they had for years.

The Problem, if you Could Call it That

Through God’s blessing our group grew.  Many of our frequent attenders began expressing a desire to join the mission church as members.  We transitioned into Sunday worship and desired to observe the Lord’s Supper as a part of our corporate worship.  So where is the problem?  The problem was that the work in Culpeper was taking off.  We had one elder in the town of Culpeper totally dedicated to one flock.  But we also had 5 other elders 40 miles away trying to split time between two congregations.

Our solution—which is not new in the PCA—was to ask Presbytery to grant me powers of an evangelist (BCO 8-6).  This solution afforded me the ability to receive members into our mission church and to administrate the sacraments in the absence of the other men on our temporary session.  At the same time, we remained a temporary session continuing to provide the pastoral care that we had provided to the saints in Culpeper for years.  The only hedge that was placed on granting me powers of evangelist was that I could not ordain ruling elders—which I would not do anyway.

It was the best of both worlds.  I could function when I needed to, on behalf of the session.  At the same time, I continued to have the counsel, support, and presbyterial accountability of a group of seasoned elders.

Why an Overture?

The Presbytery did vote to grant me those powers of evangelist.  But a question arose over the clarity of BCO 5-3.  Did the BCO allow for one option only or more than one?  Could you have the powers of an evangelist and a temporary session?  We recognized as a Presbytery that incorporating multiple options was a common practice in the PCA.  We also recognized that a hybrid option allowed us to preserve the Presbyterian polity that we loved while at the same time affording the best pastoral care possible to the members and visitors of a growing but still fragile mission church.

I’m no fan of superfluous overtures.  But I am a fan of overtures that reflect how the PCA is maturing as a denomination.  At its founding, the PCA’s concentration was necessarily on how we bring existing churches into our newly founded fellowship.  The BCO was crafted in part to facilitate that kind of denominational growth.  But since then, the PCA has grown in its desire to be a church planting denomination.  The question that is asked more often in 2010 than it was in 1973 is, “How do we best start new churches?” rather than “How do we best receive established churches?”

I love that we ask that question, and hope we continue to do so.  If we need to clarify a few points of the BCO to do so, then that is a good use of an overture.  Even if it was my fault.