Outgoing president of the synod, Rev. Batenburg: “The reduction of the Church is painful, because faith is granted to everyone”

As president, he led the general synod of the Protestant Church of the Netherlands (PKN) through meetings with tight agendas and complicated topics. Reverend Marco Batenburg mainly wanted to help. “Sometimes I thought: if we don’t reach an agreement now, I don’t know what to do.”

Batenburg will miss contacts with foreign churches now that he will no longer be president of the PKN as of June 1. Meeting with sister churches in Germany and Belgium and with wider partners in the World Council of Churches brought him great satisfaction, he said during one of his last days at work at the national service center in Utrecht.

In November 2019, Pastor Gouda, a member of the Reformed League of the PKN, took over as president of the general synod, after Saskia van Meggelen had to resign from her duties for health reasons. Trijnie Bouw from Zaltbommel succeeded him on June 1. Batenburg himself becomes director of the IZB missionary organization.

With what expectations did you begin your work as president of the synod in 2019?

“I realized it would be a difficult administrative challenge: leading the moderators and general synod meetings, plus everything that happens behind the scenes. I wrote the poem in the speech after my election. Easter quoted by Ida Gerhardt, who speaks of bitter tears and sadness. These are no strangers to us as a church when it comes to decline and contraction. At the same time, that poem – which I think is beautiful – also speaks of hope, thanks to the work of Christ. As a church we live and revive from the crucified and resurrected Christ. It was with that understanding that I began to work.”

How do you remember the last few years?

“The heart of the Church, in principle, beats in the local community. Therefore, I am grateful that, in addition to synodal work, he remained connected with the congregation of St. John in Gouda, first with 40 percent and then with 20 percent. The combination of the work of the church pastor and the president of the synod was intense. You have to be on all the time. For example, something may appear in the press that you, as president, have to identify with.”


“Looking back, I am grateful to have been able to serve the church in this place. I am also grateful for a number of things that have been accomplished, such as the first Vocation Sunday we had this year. Many beautiful things happen in the church. Consider also pioneer places or diaconal work. As president I have been able to contribute to all kinds of things. After my departure, that work will continue as usual. “That makes me humble.”

What, in your opinion, are the two most important questions that the synod has had to decide on in recent years?

“What draws the most attention and has also required the most time is the office file. That conversation began with a reflection on what a pioneering position requires of a pastor. It was later expanded to the question: how can we adequately differentiate between types of predecessors? Consider also church workers who do meaningful work and, because of the needs of the church, sometimes in practice the work of a preacher. Reflecting on this was a complicated and slow process. That is sometimes necessary to grow towards something. At the next meeting, when I am no longer president, that process must be completed.”

“In addition to the official vision, there were many other important topics related to the vision statement. The future is yours . In my first meeting on this topic, it was about ‘safe church’: how do we prevent sexual abuse? That is also an important issue. This was also discussed again at the last synod meeting with a decision on a mandatory Certificate of Good Conduct and confidential counsellors.”

Which file gave you the most headache?

“As far as I was concerned, there were no files to cause headaches. Sometimes there were tense conversations where we had to figure things out together: how to get out of this, what’s the right direction? The official discussion was very complicated and at times I thought, regarding the position of the church workers: if we can’t reach an agreement now, I don’t know what to do. But that didn’t hurt my head.”

“I believe that God governs His church through official meetings. “We consciously begin each meeting with a liturgical moment in which we express our dependence on the Holy Spirit.”

Open letter

The central board of the Reformed League responded with an open letter critical of a PKN publication on the Nakba and statements by notary René de Reuver on the climate march. How did you, as president of the synod and also a member of the GB, experience this?

“As president, I knew I was called to serve the entire church. I was not at the synod for a certain direction. Of course, there will be a response when you, as a church or synod, make statements, not only from the Reformed Union, but also from other church leaderships. These reactions sharpen you.”

“We have been working on an update to a note on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for quite some time. The unbreakable bond with the people of Israel is not at all in question. Meanwhile, we realize that we have sometimes been too silent on some issues, such as the Nakba. Everything you say about it provokes reactions. The debate, which sometimes plays out on a knife edge, takes you a step further.”

“There have been many versions of the new memo your kingdom come , which has not yet been finalized, on the Church’s attitude toward Israel and the Palestinians. We have always been in conversations about this, with the Reformed Union, but also with other partners inside and outside the church. Everyone has their own perspective, even within fashion showcases. Ultimately, the challenge is to speak with one voice to the outside world. “I never felt broken by it.”

church face

As president, you and the scribe formed the face of the church. Was your role in this too modest?

“We have a job description for the job of secretary and president. The emphasis for the president is on the administrative process and for the secretary more on the public appearance, although sometimes we divide the topics. When I took office, the secretary had already been in office for several years and was therefore well known, which made the media turn to him more quickly. When they asked me about something, I tried to assume my role and speak. But in the end it wasn’t about my personal visibility.”

It recently emerged that the number of PKN members has fallen by almost a third in ten years. What does that do to you?

“These are not just numbers. As a minister of the church, you know people who, for example, have taken catechism courses, but have abandoned them. In the pastorate you hear stories from parents and grandparents about children and grandchildren that they no longer see in church. That is very sad.”

“At the local level it is very different, but in the Protestant Church there are communities in which no child has been baptized for years and in which no new generation is prepared to take over. But a small church is still a church, where worship continues and diaconate and pastoral care take place. At the same time, the contraction hurts, because you grant faith to everyone. That can lead to prayer, also for new growth and flourishing.”


How do you see the future of the Protestant Church?

“I can’t look into the future, but the fact that the church belongs to Christ gives me hope. The Protestant Church may become even smaller, but His work will continue until the last day. Fortunately, we also see new initiatives emerging, such as pioneering places and municipalities that think about how they relate to their city or town. It is important to continually recharge and focus on Christ.”

How do you see the relationship with two other large ecclesiastical associations, the Roman Catholic Church and the Dutch Reformed Churches, respectively?

“As a Protestant Church, we explicitly seek contact with other churches and want to collaborate wherever possible, for example in the Council of Churches. “Not only do we need each other during this time, but we also believe that we are given to each other.”

“As far as the Dutch Reformed Churches are concerned, I can imagine that we will become closer in the coming years. We work constructively with the Roman Catholic Church wherever possible. We should not take for granted the break that occurred 500 years ago, but the differences with the Roman Catholic Church are greater than with the NGK.”

If it were up to you, in ten years time would the PKN and the NGK still be two independent church associations?

“I’m not talking about that. But I do hope that people who share (or largely share) the same confession will know each other and want to serve Christ together. If that led to a merger, that would be wonderful as far as I’m concerned. But something like this has to grow, and if that takes more than ten years, so be it. I also want to have a broader vision, because there are more Protestant churches.”

New feature

You become director of the IZB. Didn’t you have the desire to become a pastor of a church again?

“The job of a church pastor is very nice. I have done it with heart and soul, even if only in a small way, in recent years. Furthermore, administrative work has become a kind of common thread in my work. I think I’ve received gifts for that. He was willing to become a church pastor again, but then the vacancy arose at the IZB. I couldn’t get rid of it and other people told me that too. Finally that path opened. I’m grateful for that. At the same time, I hope to continue serving congregations by leading on Sundays.”

What do you say about IZB?

“I myself have received a lot from the IZB. For example, our municipality of Gouda has followed a Focus process. This is aimed at how you, on the one hand, become personally rooted in Christ, but at the same time also reach out to the people around you. I have also benefited greatly from IZB-Areopagus, which encourages pastors in their sermons. The IZB continually emphasizes that missionary work is at the heart of the church. You wish everyone the riches of life with God and Christ. “I think it is fantastic that the IZB is committed to this and I hope to be able to contribute to it in the future.”

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