UMC Sports Sunday: St. Paul UMC of Marietta is a Small Church with a Big Soccer Program


By Ansley Brackin
Communications Specialist for The North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church

Rev. Mark Nugent of Marietta’s St. Paul UMC wanted to find a way to grow the church and increase their involvement with the community. He found his answer in soccer.

During the repaving of the church parking lot, Nugent said to trustees that he wanted the church to do “something big” to create better relationships with the people of Marietta; so in addition to a new parking lot, trees were cut down to make room for two soccer fields.

The congregation used Marietta First UMC’s successful sports programs, Fuse, as inspiration. They also received guidance from the Associate Director of Children and recreational coordinator, Kelly Duncan. Along with the step by step assistance, their fellow UMC donated soccer goals, aided in painting the field lines, and allowed St. Paul to borrow soccer balls until a fundraiser brought in 50 of their own balls for practice.

With Duncan’s help, St. Paul UMC created a similar program model, Ignite.

St. Paul UMC’s biggest goal was to make the program affordable for every income and every kid. While they ask for 35 dollars per kid, families with multiple children receive discounts and scholarships are given out when needed. The fees collected fund the upcoming season. It goes towards restocking jerseys when needed, trophies, and a party at the end of each season.

Volunteer coaches and assistants are assigned to 3-4 year old, 5-6 year old, 1st-2nd grade, and 3rd-5th grade teams. Each team has their own jersey color, and they practice and play games internally on Sunday afternoons. It allows the kids to be active and involved without an overwhelming commitment throughout the week.

The first season brought in 48 kids, a leap from their expected 25, who played on fields of dead grass and dirt. However, the surprising number of interested children attracted others to pitch in and make the program something spectacular. A lawyer who is not even a church member saw the program’s potential and saw to it that the fields were repaired with fresh grass and even donated fences.

This spring the program consisted of an unexpected 105 children, about the same number of church attendees on Sundays. Now St. Paul UMC has set a goal for 148 children in their upcoming fall season.

Nugent thinks what makes the program a success, besides the affordability, is the noncompetitive atmosphere. Ignite is a fun-based organization.

“Soccer is becoming a popular social sport,” Nugent says. “It helps you tie yourself to the community.”

Now, St. Paul UMC is putting in a third soccer field, which was celebrated during their Soccer Fest on July 26th. They had a ribbon cutting ceremony and barbecue, provided by the supportive law firm. Around 200 people were in attendance, including church members, parents, kids, volunteers, and the program’s many other supporters.

Nugent believes with the proper space and the guidance of seasoned program creator, a sports program is not a difficult thing to create. The church strongly credits Marietta First UMC for Ignite’s success.

“It’s not about finding the desire to do it, but getting past the fear of doing it,” says Nugent of churches who feel they are too small to have a sports program. “Small churches can do big things.”

View more photos in the UMC Sports Sunday Photo Gallery


Do you want to start your own sports program? Here are some tips from Kelly Duncan, Marietta First UMC’s coordinator of Fuse Sports

A little history on Fuse Sports.  Fuse Sports started off with 35 soccer players 9 years ago, and other sports we included the next season.  Now Marietta First UMC has programs for flag football and cheer, basketball, and lacrosse in addition to soccer.  The soccer program has grown from 35 players to 320.  They started by marketing to church members and their preschool.  They alter reached out to local free community publications, such as Brightside and Our Town, and added a Fuse Sports page to the church website.  A lot of growth came from word of mouth and families returning with younger siblings. 

Kelly Duncan’s Tips on Creating Sports Programs

Network with another church or recruit a church member who has knowledge of setting up a program.

Decide who your target audience is.  We started off serving 4 to 8 year olds, and added age groups as the program grew.  We now serve Pre K 3 to 5th grade. 

Market to local preschools and elementary schools.  Send emails to PTA’s, put brochures in the schools, and ask to be included in school newsletters if possible.  Add a sports webpage to the church website, and use free local publications who list community events. 

Borrow equipment to get started if needed, but do get all necessary equipment.  We have soccer balls and goals, we line the fields, and we provide t-shirts for all players, and t-shirts and whistles for coaches.  That makes the program look professional. 

Discuss the plan with church leadership and membership.  People you might not expect will be willing to coach, or donate equipment, or will help spread the word about the program.

Keep it simple.  We play one day per week, one hour per game, six games per season; Sunday afternoons work for us.  There are plenty of ultracompetitive, expensive leagues around so don’t try to re-create one of those.   We have young children who come here to learn the basics and then move on to other leagues, and older children who keep  coming back because they enjoy the sport but don’t want to devote 3 to 4 days a week doing it. 

Decide the fees to charge, and set up online registration.  We offer paper forms too, but most people sign up online. 
Be welcoming, friendly, and adaptable.  We treat our program like a ministry, and we adjust as needs arise.  All are welcome!