By Faith Hoyt
I got my first real Pathfinder experience in August 2019 in Oshkosh, Wis., where I photographed and reported on the Pacific Union Conference clubs attending the International Pathfinder Camporee. The enormity of the event and the excitement of the campers left quite an impression on me. Chatting with shy but proud teens about the new honors they earned and watching the baptisms of countless young people—including the 200 from our union—gave me a glimpse of the impact of this club on their lives. While wandering through four hangars filled with booths, expos, and activities, I learned about the history and roots of this ministry—and about a man named Laurence A. Skinner, the first world Pathfinder leader.
Laurence Skinner loved Pathfindering, and when the General Conference adopted Pathfinders worldwide in 1950, Skinner’s advocacy and encouragement helped build up the programs that we have today. His impact on Pathfindering here in the West—and throughout the world—is very real.
Many remember Elder Skinner, but none as well as his daughter, Donna Warren, whom I had the opportunity to interview this summer. Donna is a native of the Southeastern California Conference and wrote from her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She described her father, his ministry, its impact on the family, and some of the remarkable memories she treasures as the daughter of the first world Pathfinder leader.
Who was Laurence Skinner?
When I asked Donna to tell me about her father, she described a devoted and loving Christian gentleman—a conservationist, nature lover, teacher, and leader. “His smile was the sunshine of our lives!” she shared.
This quiet and dedicated man helped cast a vision for a global movement, and I wondered how his journey started. Looking back to the start of his career, Donna recounts the experiences that fueled and inspired her father’s vision for Pathfindering.
His ministry began with a teaching assignment in an elementary school in the Southeastern California Conference.
“Perhaps it was here that he realized the importance of a ministry for the youth of the church,” she said. “I believe it was in these early years that he realized that he loved teaching.”
After his time in the classroom, Donna’s father assisted in the first Youth Camp in Julian, Calif., and in 1932 he directed the first youth camp in Idyllwild, Calif.
“The sign read ‘J. M. V. Pathfinder Camp,’” Donna said, noting that the word Pathfinder came into use at about that time.
Youth ministry at the local and global level
I’ve heard it said the best ministry leaders are those who worked at the local level. This was the case for Laurence Skinner, who focused on youth ministry in local contexts. From his youth work in the Hawaiian Mission in Hilo, to youth ministry in two local conferences in California, Elder Skinner gained both experience in the field and a vision for what young people needed—perspectives that he took with him when he was invited to come to the General Conference.
“It was when he was Associate Youth Director in the General Conference that he put together the materials and wrote the official Pathfinder Handbook for the world Pathfinder program, which actually started in the Pacific Union Conference years before,” Donna shared.
Prior to the launch of Pathfinders, Donna remembers hearing her father say he wished there existed something like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts for the youth; a program that honored Adventist values on health and diet and respected the seventh-day Sabbath.
“I think he saw this as his mission,” she said.
Her memory of her father’s words reminded me of my own experiences in Girl Scouts and Awana club and the many Sabbath afternoons when I wished for a Pathfinder club within driving distance.
Distance didn’t seem to deter Elder Skinner. He traveled the world conducting Youth Congresses, Pathfinder Jamborees, and other youth meetings in the Far East, Europe, South America, India, Australia, the South Pacific, and the Middle East.
Skinner’s favorite aspects of Pathfinders
From conversations with many church leaders, I’ve deduced that travel drops off their list of favorite things about ministry. This was the case for Elder Skinner. Donna believes the hands-on conducting of nature classes, giving Bible quizzes, promoting the Pathfinders’ goals of completing the progressive classwork to become a Friend or Companion—these mentorship moments where he was directly involved with campers brought her father much joy.
“He was a born teacher,” she stated. “He studied diligently and received much satisfaction by imparting this knowledge to young people with whom he came in contact during the camping experience.”
Additionally, Donna recalls that one of her father’s great delights was the lively campfires every evening where he would “absolutely shine.” She describes how he loved leading the campers in spirited songs and always told a continued story that ended each night with a cliff-hanger so that the campers eagerly waited for the next installment. Oh, to have been a camper at one of those campfires!
Elder Skinner’s role and its impact on the family
Having a dad who visits camps and camporees around the world comes with a cost. Donna’s memories of homelife when her father was away gave me a picture of the sacrifice involved in this kind of ministry.
“While we were always so proud of our father’s accomplishments and the fact that he was doing something significant that he loved, we became aware over time that there were sacrifices that impacted our family, especially our mother,” Donna shared.
During her father’s time in the General Conference from 1947 to 1963, her father’s world travels took him away from home for at least six to eight months out of every year. During this time, Donna’s mother managed everything by herself.
“My sister and I were teenagers, and I’m sure there were many times she missed having my father around to provide support,” she said.
There were many missed birthdays, graduations, and other special events. But Donna mentioned a bright side: occasionally when her father attended camps or youth gatherings that were held in the summer and were within traveling distance, the family accompanied him. “That was always a treat!”
A foundation for youth ministry
Donna remembers one of those summer trips to Camp Wawona in Yosemite National Park. It was around 1940, and her father was the Youth Leader in the Northern California Conference. This trip created some of her all-time favorite memories, which included riding around on a Shetland pony with her sister Jolene.
Talking with Donna about her camp memories made me think of my own favorite memories from Leoni Meadows camp. I realize I still haven’t forgotten the hand motions the staff used when we sang with campers.
If you ever wore the Pathfinder uniform, earned your way to Master Guide, or worked hard for badges, Bible Bowls, and camporees, you can be thankful for the opportunities Laurence A. Skinner sought for young people. His legacy lives on in Pathfindering and in the personal impact of being a thoughtful, appreciative, dedicated father—one with a vision for youth ministry.