Sports Ministry Attracting Younger Families for One Church Outside of Houston
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
There’s a field of dreams in Katy – well three of them. The soccer fields at Holy Covenant UMC started with one pastor’s vision and turned into a fixture in the neighborhood, bringing together children and their parents for discipleship, outreach, practice and, of course, weekend matches.
Amy Garcia, director of family ministries, remembers when the church’s former pastor first had the idea for a soccer league. “He planted a seed that he wanted to start this program,” she said. “But it seemed impossible.”
At the time, there was a field on the church campus but it was mainly unused. There were also a few undeveloped areas but turning them into level, playing turf seemed daunting.
Still, Holy Covenant dove into the project. “That first year was difficult,” Garcia said. “We were leveling the land we had and bringing in turf. We had to get a lot of church members on board, because it takes a lot of people to pull this off.”
The churches also needed coaches, assistant coaches, referees and even volunteers to run the concession stands. Church members stepped up to help out. Brothers, and soccer players, Brad and Ryan Nugent became team commissioners.
The program is offered through Upward Sports, a nonprofit that helps churches build sports ministries in soccer, basketball, flag football and cheerleading.
Players came from the neighborhood and the church’s preschool. Anyone ages 4-years old to those in fifth grade are welcome to register.
Practices are scheduled once a week and games are played on Saturday. There is also time for devotion and prayer before each game and during practice. “Our motto is play with purpose,” Garcia said. “It’s about a lot more than soccer.”
Players are rewarded with gold star stickers for demonstrating the virtues they’re learning about out in the field. For example, they can earn stars for being a good sportsman or acting in a Christ-like way to their teammates. Coaches are more likely to recognize players when they’re supportive of their team or exhibit self-control – than for their ability to win the game.
“We’re competitive, but it’s more about learning technique, athleticism and a better understanding of the sport,” Garcia said.
Kalin Nugent served as an assistant coach at first and has since become children’s director at Holy Covenant. She explained that the soccer program is able to serve on the ministry on many levels. There’s outreach to the community, prayer on the field and development of Christian values in the children.
“This is all encompassing,” she said. “It’s rare for a church to do something like this that checks all of those boxes.”
Nursery director Beckey Hendry said parents also benefit from fellowship while watching the matches. “Sometimes they don’t get a lot of time in the day to talk to other adults,” she said. “They make friends this way.”
Nugent added that a number of the players come from the neighborhood and would otherwise never walk onto the Holy Covenant campus. “More than half don’t claim a church home,” she said. “They can find that home here. Soccer is a bridge.”
The first year of the program, about 59 children showed up to play soccer. Last year, there were 94 players. Already, 73 have registered for this season.
Senior Pastor Fred Willis said that smart growth is essential. The church wants to be able to accommodate the teams with their three fields and have enough coaches and volunteers to care for the players. “Our drive is to grow at a manageable rate,” he said. “It’s a balance.”
When Willis was appointed to Holy Covenant three years ago, the Upward Soccer program was already in full-swing.
“Having a sports ministry is a unique niche,” he said. “Not just any church can have it. Upward is an organization that can help. It’s really well organized and gives you the tools to make it happen.”
Willis enjoys seeing the soccer players on campus and their families return for church events, like the Fall Fest. “They continue to be connected into the life of the church and interacting with the church,” he said.
Nugent said that some of the children from soccer have also joined Holy Covenant’s Sunday school. “There’s obviously a deep connection with our church,” she said. “And the people coaching them are church members. We’re out there showing them what kind of church we are and what kind of church family.”
Willis said that the church provides a safe environment for children to enjoy soccer – and they benefit from the love and care of the congregation. “Our members, young and old, are cheering them on,” he said. “They can walk in knowing they have people willing to be there for them, without asking for anything in return.”
Nugent added that the teams are open and inclusive. Kind words are encouraged to model good sportsmanship. Players with special needs or emotional issues are often accommodated as well, paired with a coach who can help them.
“They’re given a space to play, and that’s crucial,” Nugent said. “I think that’s part of what makes us so special.”
Recognizing what happened once the church built the fields -- and the players did come -- Holy Covenant encourages others churches to try it too -- whether it’s with soccer or another sport
“If there’s space available, it’s something I’d encourage any church to try,” Nugent said. “It’s an easy and rewarding way to reach out to people in your neighborhood. From game one to the final game, the difference in the kids is amazing. And soccer is just secondary.”