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There are rare individuals who come along now and then whose lives enhance the world around them—persons we wish would live forever. Such was the beloved Paul Skiles, who passed away on February 22 at age 85.
Paul was a layman, not a “preacher” in the official sense, but his life embodied ministry for Christ at its finest, impacting those whose paths he crossed throughout his long and varied career.
“I didn’t start out with a specific career plan in church work,” Paul said. “I thought I was going to be a teacher.”
He didn’t realize it then, but Paul Skiles would become a teacher to many.
The early years
Paul was a Nazarene through and through. His mother was at Pilot Point, Texas, in 1908 when the Church of the Nazarene was organized. His father came from a Mennonite Brethren in Christ background, and the young family followed that tradition until Paul’s parents settled in the Church of the Nazarene with their three sons, Albert, Paul, and Richard. Paul was 11 years old.
Paul wanted to be involved in ministry, but he knew he hadn’t received a “call” from God.
“When I was growing up, if you had a call to Christian service, it meant you were either going to be a pastor, evangelist, or missionary,” he said. “I knew God wasn’t calling me to be any of these, so I kept wondering, ‘Why doesn’t God want me?’
“I finally got to the place where I knew God wasn’t calling me in a specific sense, but I figured, maybe He won’t object if I try to find a place to help. So when the opportunity came, I tried to do what I could.”
As a boy growing up in the orange groves of southern California, Paul learned to do two things particularly well—pitch a softball and play trombone. His parents wanted him to play an instrument and a Christian trombone teacher was available for lessons. Thus began Paul’s relationship with the instrument that would greatly impact his life.
Just out of high school in 1944, Paul enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Assigned to the Navy band program, he was sent to the Naval School of Music in Washington, D.C. for further training. He was scheduled to be shipped out to a combat zone at least a half dozen times, but his ability as a fast pitch softball pitcher kept him stateside. Paul led the Naval School of Music to its first softball championship.
Later, he was assigned to the Naval Air Station in Ottumwa, Iowa, where he met Maxine Grim. They were married in 1947. Maxine was the perfect complement to this talented, outgoing young man. She was a homemaker, Christian mother, and Paul’s biggest supporter. They made a great team.
Together they raised two children, Paula, who passed away in June 2011, and was a missionary and homemaker; and Scott, a licensed clinical social worker.
A talent discovered
Out of the Navy, Paul went to Pasadena College where he (naturally) was music major. Upon graduation, he found that sports and music would open doors in the church.
At that time, Paul said he was doing some things musically and was noticed by Ponder Gilliland, who called him to serve in Bakersfield, California. From there, he went to Eureka and Santa Ana, where he was music and youth director, and, he added, “the one who did just about anything else that was needed.”
In 1952, at age 25, Paul Skiles was elected to the general Nazarene Young People’s Society (NYPS) Council, along with two other at-large delegates—Charles Muxworthy, who would become a district superintendent, and Jerald Johnson, who would become a missionary and general superintendent.
Northern California District
In 1953, Paul was invited by George Coulter, superintendent of the Northern California District, to serve as a full-time district youth director. Coulter became a lifelong friend who, years later, headed the denomination’s World Mission Division and eventually became a general superintendent.
Coulter would figure prominently in bringing one of Skiles’ dreams for youth involvement in the church to fruition.
For seven years, Paul directed summer camps on the old Northern California District. The remainder of each year he was on call to all congregations on the district to help with activities for children and youth. Camps he directed at Beulah Park in Santa Cruz, California, served as a turning point in the lives of many young people.
Norm Shoemaker, who served in a variety of ministry assignments mostly involving young people, remembered the first time he saw Paul.
“I’d hardly set my foot down on the ‘grounds’ before I was swept into the spirit of the Northern Cal Camp Meeting—onto the platform to sing in the largest youth choir I’d ever seen—and... ‘Who’s that guy down there waving his arm and playing the trombone—at the same time?’
“Before the weekend was over I met Jesus! Somehow I knew my life would never be the same. The next summer, the ink wasn’t dry on my final exams before I was on my way back to Beulah Park.”
International Institute and NYPS
Paul was a natural choice when the call went out for someone to direct music at the first NYPS International Institute (now Nazarene Youth Conference) at Estes Park, Colorado, in 1958. He also organized and directed International Institutes in ’62, ’66, and ’70 and produced the first truly “international” Institute in Fiesch, Switzerland, in 1974.
He used an ancient softball glove that looked like it had been run over by animals on the ark.
“Kids would ask if they could see it, and that would serve as a point of contact with them,” he said. “I would go to the camps with my Bible and my glove, and, somehow, the kids could tell I was interested in them.”
In the long-ago summer of 1960, John F. Kennedy was about to be elected 35th President of the U.S. That same summer, delegates to the General Nazarene Young People’s Society Convention in Kansas City chose a 33-year-old layman as their executive secretary (the youngest person elected to the post).
Paul led the youth organization for the next 13 years through one of the most turbulent periods in U.S. history. From there, he served as director of Media Services for 16 years and then became director of the Communications Division at Nazarene Headquarters.
But Paul always will be remembered and loved best for his leadership to the young people of the church.
Educator, editor, and preacher Wes Tracy was a longtime friend who served for a championship season as catcher for Paul’s church softball team.
“My daughters were teens when Paul was NYPS executive secretary,” Tracy said. “My girls would have done anything for Christ that Skiles urged them to do. If ever there was a ‘hero’ for young people in the Church of the Nazarene, it was Paul Skiles.”
Paul said his concept of ministry was to channel the energies of youth into the total evangelistic mission of the church. With this idea in mind, he proposed the original concept of what became Youth in Mission to then World Mission Executive Secretary George Coulter.
“When I look back, some of my most satisfying moments are when I notice, scattered around the church, young people of that era who are continuing to serve in significant ways,” he said years later.
An expanding influence
Retired minister and former Trevecca Nazarene University president Millard Reed served as Paul’s pastor at one point and was involved with him as a member of the NYPS Council, General Board, and Nazarene Publishing House Board.
“In all of these situations,” Reed said, “I found Paul to be a man of devotement to his Lord, his church, and his people—always with a bright mind and an extraordinary gift of articulation. Again and again, he would provide paragraphs that would cause me to say, ‘I wish I had said that.’
“Few have served the church with greater consistency and skill. My life has been enriched by his example.”
Paul’s accomplishments didn’t end when he left the area of youth in 1973 to become director of Media/Communications. He took what then was largely a production company for slides and audio materials and shaped it into a division capable of handling film, video, still photography, and more.
He was responsible for creating the award-winning “Welcome to the Church of the Nazarene” campaign.
When Paul started “doing his thing” in the late ’50s and ’60s, there were not many youth ministers in the denomination. He was an adult (and a “cool” one, at that) who was willing not only to talk to young people, but also to grab a ball and play with them. He engaged them in serious conversations about their lives and challenged them to be active in service for God, not in some distant future, but today.
When Paul retired in 1995, he spoke of his philosophy of ministry, saying, “I still think there is value in honest confrontation with biblical truth. There are a lot of open and serious kids out there who are searching for the truth. To those who would minister to them, I can think of only one thing to say: ‘Be believable.’”
These are thoughts from a man who was known for his verbal and written talents, but whose life spoke more loudly than his words—about things like honesty, integrity, compassion, and a willingness to reconcile others to God and to one another.
The Church of the Nazarene had elected 30 general superintendents by the time Paul retired. He served with 19 of them and on almost every committee at Nazarene Headquarters during his 34 years in Kansas City. He was known for his congeniality and willingness to work for consensus.
“I like to think that I have made a contribution at Headquarters by my tendency to respect the opinions and viewpoints of others,” he said when he retired. “At the same time, I have tried to seek to nurture the development of colleagues to whom I have a responsibility.”
“Paul was a model in so many ways,” longtime friend Jerald Johnson said. “That he was an exemplary churchman, no one will dispute. He was, without question, ‘Mr. Nazarene.’ Furthermore, his life reflected all the church believes and teaches. For these and other reasons, I have not just treasured the friendship, but have endeavored to emulate his life.”
Paul’s office at Headquarters was not filled with honors and awards, rather it was decorated with photos of Maxine, his children, and grandchildren. There were mementos of trips to other lands where he directed retreats. And then—on the credenza, bigger than life—was a battered softball glove, bronzed to keep it from falling apart.
A lasting legacy
That tattered glove was a metaphor for Paul’s life—a reminder that he used the gifts God provided, worked hard, and contributed all that he could to nudge others just a little closer to Jesus.
“In looking back, it is interesting that I didn’t plan my career,” he said when he retired. “I just tried to do what was there to do, and that led to other things.”
During the 2009 Global NYI Convention, the Paul Skiles Endowment was launched in honor of the ministry and leadership Paul brought to the Church of the Nazarene. More than US$12,000 was raised to go toward furthering the development of global youth ministry.
“Paul Skiles was a ‘giant’ among youth leaders in the Church of the Nazarene,” said Gary Hartke, current NYI director. “Paul's visionary leadership resulted in the beginning of strategies that are still being used.”
In addition to the creation of what is now Nazarene Youth Conference, Bible Quizzing, and Youth in Mission, Hartke said Skiles led the development of widely used youth ministry resources, a Department of Youth was created within the General Board, and the General NYPS Council was expanded to include leadership from outside the U.S.
“His impact lives on,” Hartke said.
Paul’s pastor at the end of his life, Phil Hamner of the Overland Park, Kansas, Church of the Nazarene, will remember Paul in a unique way.
“Paul opened up his church life to me as a sort of oral history of Nazarene youth ministry,” Hamner said. “The stories became a way of passing on a faithful witness to the work of the Holy Spirit in earlier days. It seems to me now that Paul was attempting to impart to me a passion for young people and a hopeful optimism for what God could do in the heart and life of youth given fully to God.
“Paul taught me to love the best out of everyone, and to offer the very best of Christ to anyone in need,” he continued. “As the years went by and his illness moved to a new level of warfare, my conversations with Paul became a reminder to him of all that Christ had done in and through him.
“On his good days he could speak of mercy, peace, and grace quite clearly. On his weaker days I reminded him that God promised to make all things new, and that included him.”
J. K. Warrick, chair of the Board of General Superintendents, spoke of the broad influence Paul’s life had on others.
“Paul Skiles was a great inspiration to me at International Institute when I was a teenager and when I was on the Northern California District,” Warrick said. “He had a tremendous influence on a generation of young persons, many of whom are leaders in the church today. The Church of the Nazarene owes a great debt to our esteemed colleague.”
One of Paul’s favorite verses was Ecclesiastes 9:10: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”
And those who knew Paul watched him live life by that creed.
To contribute to the Paul Skiles Endowment click here or mail your contribution to:
Paul Skiles Endowment
Church of the Nazarene Foundation
17001 Prairie Star Parkway
Lenexa, Kansas USA 66220