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Joel Vande Werken Appointed as Interim Associate Director of Synodical Services

June 5, 2024
Joel Vande Werken
Joel Vande Werken

The memory of his good friend Scott DeVries will be on Joel Vande Werken’s mind as Synod 2024 kicks off on Friday, June 14, at 8:15 a.m. in the chapel on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Recently named interim associate director of synodical services, Vande Werken has stepped into a role filled by DeVries, who served as director of synodical services before passing away on Apr. 27, 2024, from an aggressive form of cancer. DeVries received his diagnosis on March 18, just less than six weeks before his death.

“I knew Scott well. He was one of those people you keep in touch with,” said Vande Werken, who had met DeVries when they were studying at Calvin Theological Seminary together.

Before serving as director of synodical services, DeVries studied mechanical engineering and then switched to earn a master of divinity degree at Calvin Seminary, after which he pastored two churches in West Michigan, served as classis ministries coordinator for Classis Holland, and spent five years working for the denomination as project manager of Connections – an initiative aimed at bringing together denominational ministries and developing closer relationships with classes and congregations.

“Whenever I was in Grand Rapids, I would call Scott, and we would have coffee together. We had similar interests and long talks, especially about his values and approach to denominational ministry,” said Vande Werken.

As their friendship grew, it became clear that they shared similar visions and goals. In addition, both were keenly interested in how God is at work in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. 

“Scott was conscious of the challenges facing the church and of the role he played in seeking to help the CRC navigate through those things.”

Besides having a deep love for the church and his family and for the Lord, said Vande Werken, DeVries had a keen sense of humor. His smile and apt comments, on important matters as well as in day-to-day observations, helped to mark his personality. And those are among the reasons he is missed.

“I truly miss Scott. God called him home a lot sooner than any of us would have hoped,” said Vande Werken, who was asked by Zachary King, general secretary, to help out with the work of Synod 2024 during DeVries’s anticipated time of treatment for cancer. As DeVries’s cancer progressed, Vande Werken was approved by a committee for the role, and then soon after DeVries passed away, the Council of Delegates appointed Vande Werken to take on this interim position.

“While I'm doing significant parts of Scott's job related to synod this year, my position has largely been intended to help get the denomination through synod. The longer-term plan has yet to be determined.”

Vande Werken served as pastor of a church in New Jersey for several years before relocating to serve as pastor of Fairlawn CRC in Whitinsville, Mass. Almost from the start of his ministry, he said, he has been involved in classical business and then in denominational matters. He also has served as a delegate to synod several times, and he chaired the Church Order Revision Task Force that is reporting to Synod 2024 (see Agenda for Synod 2024, pp. 63-166). 

He continues to serve as the pastor of Fairlawn CRC while he also steps into the synodical services role.

In this role Vande Werken will help to make sure that synod runs as smoothly as possible, supporting the work that officers and delegates do to manage the intense flow of paperwork dealing with background information and motions and countermotions that come through synod. He and others in the synodical services office also have the task of orienting new delegates to their duties at synod.

“We meet with delegates on the night before synod starts and talk to them about procedures and practical details of why we are all there and what things God is doing as we are going into this space,” he said.

With 21 overtures deferred from Synod 2023, as well as 48 new overtures and 28 communications from classes, councils, and individuals, the Agenda for Synod 2024 (along with the Agenda Supplement) is full.

While the issues of human sexuality and related matters are high on the list of Synod 2024, other important topics must also be addressed, said Vande Werken.

“It’s not just one issue. There are lots of other things, such as how best to organize the church and how best to equip leaders to serve the church,” he said.

In a way similar to how his friend Scott DeVries approached the work, Vande Werken sees the need to be patient and allow God to work through the meetings, he said.

“I believe there is a strong spiritual aspect to the work of denominational bodies. I believe God will work through the challenges,” said Vande Werken.

There are seasons in the life of the church, he added, when strong voices and opinions arise on all sides of an issue – and that is especially the time to slow down, pay attention, and pray, asking God what he wants his church to pay attention to. 

“It’s a time to witness to God’s grace and trust that he will lead and guide us forward,” said Vande Werken.