All in on Sports Ministry

“Sports ministry is our biggest outreach at our church,” says Nicole Rullo. That might seem like a big claim to some, but as a staff member at Oro Valley Church of the Nazarene (OVCN), Nicole has plenty of evidence to back it up. OVCN is a church truly dedicated to reaching their community through sports.

Nicole has served as the OVCN Sports Director for the past year. She previously worked as a physical education teacher, also coaching swimming and softball. But Nicole felt burnt out after several challenging years of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. When she was approached by one of the pastors at OVCN about running the church’s sports ministry, it became clear that it was the right fit for Nicole and the church.

There’s always a lot for a new director to learn, but with the enthusiastic support of OVCN’s leadership and members, Nicole has been able to continue to grow the church’s sports ministry and help meet a need in the community.

A Community Focus

Oro Valley, a suburb of Tucson, Arizona, is often considered a haven for active older adults. But before OVCN Sports, there weren’t many sports programs in Oro Valley serving families with young children.

“In our community, that’s what we saw the need for,” Nicole says. “It does help that our pastors have a sports background and are all-in for sports. They see what sports do for kids—for their growth, their mental capacity. So why not add the aspect of learning about Jesus through sports?”

The OVCN congregation has embraced this ministry as part of their church culture since partnering with Upward in 2018. OVCN runs a flag football and cheerleading league in the fall, a basketball league in the winter, and a soccer league in the spring. The church is located next to a local high school, and the Oro Valley Aquatic Center is just down the road. Between those venues and OVCN’s almost year-round Upward leagues, their street is always buzzing with community activities and athletic events.

Nicole says offering multiple sports allows the church to reach different people, but it also gives everyone an opportunity to get out of their comfort zone and try something new. Volunteers and families often participate in multiple sports. People like the overall OVCN Sports experience and keep coming back. They want to be connected to what’s happening in this ministry, whatever the season.

A Positive Environment

Nicole met Amy Snyder when their kids played on the same basketball team. Later, Amy volunteered as a referee for OVCN’s soccer season. When Nicole needed someone to fill in while she went on maternity leave, Amy jumped in and has been making sure everything runs smoothly during the current flag football and cheerleading season.

“We have coaches that really believe in the Upward resources, and that’s helped it be really successful,” says Amy. “There’s a lot of people that I’ve talked to who aren’t members of our church and just really love what we’re doing and offering, and they come back for multiple seasons.”

What keeps people coming back? Nicole and Amy believe a positive environment and the intentionality of their volunteers make OVCN a great experience for families.

Amy says, “Our coaches build an environment for our kids to feel safe and be themselves and make mistakes. They don’t have to be the best, and they can just feel good and see themselves improving, whatever their athletic ability is . . . It’s the coaches and the character building and the looking at the heart of the player instead of the outcome that really keeps the people coming back.”

As a former P.E. teacher, Nicole sees several benefits in kids being part of OVCN Sports and Upward leagues in general. They’re able to have structured play time that isn’t at school and experience what it looks like when everyone on the team is supported. Kids also get a chance to grow spiritually through devotions and hear the gospel preached.

A Team Mentality

OVCN has been able to retain many coaches from season to season and hasn’t had trouble finding coaches. Their church is invested in this program and has shown it by showing up and volunteering.

Of her volunteers, Nicole says, “I ask myself, am I doing enough for them? Am I supporting them enough all the time? Because they’re the ones that are in there. They’re talking to the kids about Jesus. They’re supporting them. They’re doing the devotions. They’re there every day.”

Nicole and Amy try to support their coaches by handling conflicts, giving them training and resources, and doing the hard things so coaches can focus on ministering to the kids. They want their volunteers to know they’re appreciated. Nicole organized a volunteer appreciation breakfast at the end of the spring soccer season this year.

She says, “I asked a couple of coaches to speak about just why they continue to volunteer with us and why they want to be a part of our program. We had a great breakfast, and I talked about the future, what we are doing, and how we are expanding. And we gave them a water bottle and a nice gift as a reward.”

At OVCN Sports, a team mentality is evident everywhere you look—from what coaches emphasize to players to volunteers and leadership working together to an entire church dedicating themselves and making a sports ministry thrive. They are a blueprint for what can happen when everyone is working together to engage a community with the good news of Jesus through sports.

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