INTERVIEW: Watoto’s Pastor Skinner talks life, leadership transition in church’s 40-year journey

Pastor Gary and Marilyn Skinner and the new leadership of Watoto Church Pr Julius and wife Vernita Rwotlonyo on February 3, 2023. Photo/Courtesy

Kampala, (UG):- It was in 1984 that the Watoto journey began. The founders, Pastors Gary and Marilyn Skinner came to the broken nation of Uganda and planted what is popularly known today as Watoto Church. The church will this Sunday, 23 June 2024, hold a grand celebration at Kololo Independence Grounds in Kampala to mark 40 years of God’s faithfulness in Uganda.

“We shall have one worship service in the morning and the launch of the Watoto Worship Album in the afternoon. Entrance is free so invite everyone and let’s celebrate our Awesome God together. Stay tuned for regular updates,” the church says in a social media post.

The Skinners on June 16, welcomed DailyMonitor’s Esther Oluka and Maria Jacinta Kannyange to their modest but cozy home in Kawuku, Bunga, an upscale residential area to the south-east of Kampala City to divulge how they planned, both surrendered the pulpit and passed on the baton of responsibility to Pr Julius and wife Vernita Rwotlonyo on February 3, 2023.

Below is the full interview

How are you getting on after retiring and handing over office on February 3, 2023? 
Gary: We no longer have that responsibility of getting up every morning and being at office at a specific time, and going through all the functions of leading a great church. We can now get up whenever we want to, have breakfast whenever we want. It is nice, but the real thing is that the door has now opened for us to be able to mentor young leaders. 

God gave us the privilege of becoming great leaders of a great church and there are many young leaders in Africa who just need to be mentored, encouraged, and strengthened and that is what we do. 

Marilyn: We have officially retired from being team leaders at Watoto Church Ministries. However, don’t think one officially retires from ministry, from being a servant of God. It is just different seasons of life. 

For the last 40 years, it was being team leaders at Watoto Church, which meant being responsible for everything. But in February, last year, we transitioned and handed over to Pastor Julius and [wife] Vernita, and you know, the transition has gone very well. 

Surprisingly, we have been kept very busy. Gary has written a book, which is going to be released on Thursday, telling the story of where we began and where we are today. We feel so privileged that we are in this season of life and are able to pass the wisdom we have learned from our years of ministry to others. We are just starting out. 

How did you go about them? 
Gary: I knew that from the very first day we planted Watoto Church 40 years ago that one day I would have to transition. So, in the back of my mind, I have always thought about the day this would be necessary for the sake of the Church. It was almost about 15 years ago that I began a conversation with the pastors and with the leadership of Watoto Church that we needed to talk about transition and some of them said, “Pastor, they don’t….” It seemed like transition is almost like a bad word, in Africa. Someone keeps their leadership until they cannot walk. So, the leadership then decided that when I turn 65 years, I would begin the process of actually handing over, so that when I was 70 years, I would officially hand over everything. 

Marilyn: It is important in every walk of life to always begin with the end in mind, so that is what we did, in 1984. We began with the end in mind. 

Gary: Transition is inevitable. Why not transition in a way that empowers, and [have] both those who are transitioning and those who have transitioned benefit by mutual understanding and agreement and it is healthy. I think that kind of transition needs to take place not just in churches, but also in businesses, politics, and organisations. 

You had a reputation for simplicity during your ministry. Why that lifestyle choice yet you had the option of the grandiose? 
Gary: We are here to serve the people of Uganda and not here for the people of Uganda to serve us. The greatest leaders are the greatest servants. When you serve with humility and simplicity, people will honour you and that is what I experienced. I have received extreme honour from the people of Uganda. 

They were saying, ‘Thank you for being a model to the youth of Uganda. You have helped shape the youth of Uganda.’ We are here to serve the people of Uganda and when you serve, honour comes. It is quite nauseating to me for any leader, of any kind, to try and become very proud, and arrogant. Pastors, especially, need to model humility, integrity and servanthood. 

Marilyn: How do you become a servant? You live a simple life of contentment and self-discipline.

But some people, including journalists, complain that your pastors are also not easily accessible? 
Gary: There are times one should also protect themselves from people who just want to waste time or have other ulterior motives. They [pastors] may refrain from doing a lot of press because their words may easily be taken out of context. There is always a risk involved in talking to the press. But that should not be the case. We should all be accessible. 

The Skinners in their early days when they came to Uganda

Watoto Church is admired for being a centre of integrity. How have you managed to maintain this for the last 40 years?  
Marilyn: I think organisations, whether churches or businesses, always take on the DNA [gene] of their leader. You can teach what you know but will always reproduce what you are. When we were young people, Gary and I committed ourselves to be people of integrity, truth, reliability, honesty and confidentiality, which will serve as pillars of our lives, amid all life’s circumstances. God will always tempt you with wealth, money, fame, and morality. We are human and can easily fall into temptation. You just have to learn to say no. 

Gary: If money, power or fame gets hold of you, it will ruin your life. It will hurt your family, relationships. I was preaching in Canada and a man came up to me and said, ‘could you come with me, at the airport? I want to fly you somewhere, tomorrow.’ He is a businessman. He asked me whether I had ever been inside a helicopter and I said, no. He took up his helicopter, flew me around and said ‘Pastor Gary, I want to give you this helicopter because I know you have many campuses [of ministry] and you could fly from campus to campus and will even help you train and pay for a pilot.’ 

I appreciated the gesture but then responded, ‘thank you so much, but no helicopter.’ I declined the offer because in Uganda, it would given me more problems than it would provide me with solutions. 

But in this era where churches and even clergy are caught up in fights even over petty things. How does Watoto keep its head above messy waters? 
Gary: If you look at the record of Watoto Church, we do not criticise other pastors because that is not what we are here for. Rather, we are here to build the church, the kingdom of God, a new Uganda. I do not have to push others down so as to push myself up. That is why we almost got isolated and the attitude was, “Oh that Mzungu [Whiteman] pastor is a bit proud. They do not want to cooperate in anything.” 

There was a time when we would have crusades, they would bring well-known preachers from outside [the country] and fights would occur over the budgets. I did not want to get involved because it is never about those things. So, we kind of ended up being on our own, doing what God had called us to do. I am not here to criticise any other pastors, preachers. That is not my business.  

Marilyn: And the church cannot become political. 

How then is your relationship with the other clergy? 
Gary: I have tried my best to build relationships with other clergy in the city but things have not just worked out. We are not willing to take the time to sit with one another and have honest conversations on what it means to serve God as leaders of any kind. I have really tried on this one and gave up because I was not getting anywhere. Every time we got down to talking about humility, integrity and servanthood, they [other clergy] did not want to stay. 

What is one highlight you are most proud of during your 40 years of service? 
Marilyn: I had a highlight today [Sunday, June 16]. I went to church, in Bugolobi, and the worship was just amazing. The two children who were leading were Watoto children who were abandoned and later rescued as little babies. I thought, ‘Wow, that was worth an investment, seeing those children leading worship’. 

Gary: One time, I took some visitors to a Watoto children’s village. We would take our visitors there and some of our Watoto children were learning music, instruments and so on. They would sing for our visitors. One of the boys shared his story before singing. 

Following his birth in Jinja, he said his mother on her way out of the house placed him inside a plastic bag and dumped him in a rubbish pit before walking away. He lay helplessly in the pit until someone heard him crying. Someone found him before bringing him to our Watoto home. He was later transferred from the Watoto Baby’s home to one of the ministry’s villages. He then grew up through our school’s system. I did not know who he was or his story. He shared his story of how God had rescued him as a baby before proceeding to sing. 

Then I thought, that is what our lives are about. Taking the least and the most unlikely, the lost, lonely, hurting, broken, wounded, rejected and giving them value and purpose. That for me is a highlight. Another icing on the cake was the day I knelt down in front of Julius [his successor] and washed his feet [during the handover ceremony in 2023]. When I knelt down before Julius [and washed his feet], I was saying to him, “all I have done is to serve the next generation to become all what God wants them to be and the way he can also do that is by becoming a servant.” 

The washing of Julius’ feet attracted some bit of criticisms from some sections of the public. 
Gary: It is okay. [The criticisms] do not matter to me. I don’t listen to backlash, or read things said about me. I am not even on social media. It does not matter whether people like or don’t like me. I am not here to please people or satisfy their appetites or desires for gossip. I am going to live my life according to the standards of the Bible. We are not here to be celebrities.  

When Pastor Gary Skinner (left) washed Julius Rwotlonyo’s feet (his successor)

And your lowest moments? 
Marilyn: [Laughs. Do you have the whole day?] 

A thousand times, we wanted to give up. I even initially did not want to come here [to Uganda]. I brought my [three] children to a place where they heard gunfire every single night [before the current regime came to power, in 1986] Thieves would surround our house every single night. People tried to kill us. I exposed my children to these kinds of things. That was difficult. I really wanted to leave but decided to pay the price; now look at where we are today. 

Gary: Nobody succeeds in life without paying the price. It does not matter who you are, if you are successful, then you have paid the price, at some point in life. That is just the way of life. 

What do you enjoy, and dislike about living in Uganda? 
Gary: I love people, the youth [the Church ministers to the young people mostly]. 
Marilyn: Same here. On dislikes, I hate the traffic [and the poor] roads. 
Gary: Same here, I hate disorganisation. 

Why target the youth in your ministry? 
Gary: When we came to Uganda from Canada in 1983, the adults looked down on the youth. They were forgotten. Watoto Church is about young people because Jesus believes in young people, who are the hope of Uganda, and Africa. 

You celebrated 50 years of marriage this month. What do you believe has contributed to the longevity of your union? 
So often, especially in the early years of marriage, we try to change people to whom we want them to be. And so what do we do? We criticise and tear down the person. Learn to accept that person for who they are. We are all humans with strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect marriage. You cannot also have a good marriage unless you learn to be a forgiver. 

Gary: Our attitude has always been that of ‘we are married, for life.’ And so, when problems come, we are going to work and talk them through. If we cannot work through those problems, ourselves, we shall get help from some other friends that can help us get through issues. 

And why do you think couples today are easily throwing in the towel?  
Marilyn: Many things, selfishness inclusive. When you are getting married, you have to give up your own rights in order to become one with somebody else. The other issue is the reverse of roles. I am all for women empowerment but do think that the world has taken it a bit too far. 

Gary: We have to recognise the sanctity, beauty and sovereignty of marriage as an institution established by God for the security of people’s lives. So, we must do everything to protect marriage and the family. The attitude right now is that marriage is this convenient thing, that there is life after divorce. If the marriage works out – great – if it does not, there is someone else. We are leaving behind a trail of broken children and broken families by sowing seeds of destruction. This should not be the case. We should be having healthy and thriving families. 

What is your future dream for Watoto? 
Gary: My hope is that whatever we have lived for in the last 40 years is what happens in the next five, 10 or 20 years. That we continue being a church that is filled with the presence of God and is having a powerful and positive effect in shaping Godly character within the people of our church. 

Marilyn: I hope to live long enough to see the transformation of Uganda and Africa, shaping more Godly characters. 

And your fears? 
Marilyn: The Bible says: ‘Fear not. Do not worry about anything. Instead, pray about everything.” So, I don’t have any fear. I am praying every day for the team of God to give them wise minds, understanding hearts and courageous spirits. And so, if the next generation rises up to be like this, why should I fear? 

Gary: There will be challenges, trials, and differences, but if we maintain Godly characters, we can get through any situation. 

About Watoto Church

Formerly Kampala Pentecostal Church (KPC), Watoto was founded in 1984 and operates at Imperial Hotel, now Grand Imperial Hotel. The church started with 75 people and as the congregation began to grow, they moved to downtown Kampala, where the current main location is now. Today, the church has 17 locations in Kampala, Mbarara, Entebbe, Jinja, Gulu, Juba South Sudan and online.

At least 30,000 people attend the weekly services spread across 17 locations in Downtown Kampala, Bweyogerere in Wakiso district, Bbira [on Mityana road], Bugolobi, Entebbe, Gulu, Jinja, Juba in South Sudan, Kansanga, Kyengera, Laminadera [now in Omoro District], Lubowa, Mbarara, Nansana-Gulu, Ntinda, and Suubi [on Masaka road].

Watoto Church ministry targets mostly youth whom they describe as agents of positive change in their respective communities.

Pastor Julius and Vernita Rwotlonyo are the successors of Pastor Gary and Marilyn Skinner. Julius and Vernita are assisted by respective campus pastors and their ministry leaders.

The church is a birth of Watoto Children Village, a project of the ministry caring for vulnerable youngsters in the country including orphans. The villages provide homes and holistic care to more than 3,000 children who receive food, clothing, medical care, and education.  There are three villages spread across Bbira, Suubi, and Laminadera.

As celebrations for the Watoto@40 get closer, this Thursday, June 20, Pastor Gary will be launching his book, Where Faith Lit the Way, reflecting on his journey in the ministry.

About Pastor Gary and Marilyn Skinner

Pastor Gary and Marilyn Skinner during the interview at their home in Kawuku, Bunga, Kampala on June 16, 2024. Photo/Frank Baguma

The couple came to Uganda in 1983 with three young children. This was during the Obote II regime, and at the height of the Luweero Bush War led by Yoweri Museveni. A year later, the couple opened Kampala Pentecostal Church (KPC) in the heart of Kampala City. KPC was later renamed Watoto Church. 

At their cozy and simple home in Kawuku, Bunga, there are neither pictures nor accolades on display; something the couple says mirrors their simplicity in life. “It is a nice house, but a small one compared to what most Ugandans live in. I don’t need anything bigger than this,” says Pr Gary. 

At the balcony, designated beside the living room, is a set of wooden seats on which nestle pillows. A few African artefacts, including a spear, hang on the wall. Down the balcony are a few trees plus a lush, well-manicured green compound, whose edges lead to water extending elaborately into the Lake Victoria horizon. 

Full Interview Script adapted from DailyMonitor

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