The pickleball church: Growing St. James UMC

By Wick Doll

SPARTANBURG—St. James United Methodist Church is like many churches with beautiful facilities and declining membership. In the late 1990s, we built a beautiful Family Life Center. Initially it was heavily used with basketball and volleyball contests that catered to the younger members of our church. Gradually, its use dropped off to the point that it was seldom used.

In 2020, the Rev. Andrew Wolfe came to St. James. Wolfe was in his late 30s when he came, and he was a competitive tennis player. The game of pickleball was just becoming popular in South Carolina, and Wolfe asked the Board of Trustees if he could line off one pickleball court in the gym to see if there was any interest.

Orientation meetings open to St. James members as well as outsiders were set up to introduce the game of pickleball. Interest was high especially from outsiders, and open gym times for different skill level groups at regularly scheduled times were set up. Quickly the interest in this sport increased, and a total of three pickleball courts were marked off in the gym.

St. James rapidly became a gathering place for the many scheduled times for various skill levels. With Wolfe’s past tennis skills, he rapidly became a skilled pickleball player and rose to the level he played in a national tournament.

A majority of the pickleball players coming to St. James were from outside our church. No matter their skill level, Wolfe would frequently join them and play on their level. It was a perfect chance for him to meet all these people coming to play pickleball at St. James and show and tell them about our church.

In addition to specific skill level times, there are open gym times, and as many as 50 players may show up. A pickleball website was set up for people who come to St. James, and it now includes more than 350 pickleball players. In order to keep up with the maintenance and utility costs, a voluntary collection box was installed where anonymous donations can be made.

Within the past year St. James has added 10 new members who probably would not have joined the church if it had not been for the pickleball connection. About 10 additional people have started coming regularly to St. James but have not joined yet. It is exciting to see our facilities being used and realize how our church is fulfilling a need. The new members have come into the church and have been willing to share their time, talents and financial gifts.

Last fall, our church restarted our small group program, and the pickleball members decided to form a small group that meets twice a month. This small group consists of 10-12 members, some of whom are not members of our church yet.

After they finish their small group meeting, they all retire to the gym to play pickleball.

St. James UMC is a neighborhood church, not on one of the main streets. It is becoming known as the “pickleball church,” and it’s a joy to see our church found and used by so many who become part of our church family.

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