Ping… Ping… It’s Saturday night. You hear the familiar sound coming from your phone, signaling an incoming text. But, since you are a Children’s Director, you don’t even want to look!
One of the most difficult (if not exasperating) parts of leading a children’s ministry is the last minute cancellations of volunteers. There’s no magic pill to avoid this, but let me suggest some best practices regarding volunteer absences.
Communicate with Volunteers During the Week
Certainly we all have Sundays where people call out, but a lot of the “last minute” calls can be avoided by having regular communication with volunteers throughout the week. This doesn't mean bombarding them with emails, but it does mean an open line of communication so that if a person has a reason to be out, they can let you know earlier in the week instead of Saturday night. Of course this won’t apply for those who get sick at the last minute, but it helps for those who might forget to mention their upcoming business trip or vacation.
Sub List –vs– Floaters
It’s never a bad idea to have a list of substitute volunteers, but from our experience, it isn’t the most dependable way to fill a role. If you get a cancelation call on a Saturday night, then you’ll be calling a sub on a Saturday night, asking them to fill in at the last minute. Or, even worse, when you get a call Sunday morning from a parent whose child woke up with a fever, you’ll really be scrambling to get a sub who is able to arrive on time and be prepared to fill in. Consider having floaters instead. Floaters are already on the schedule. They have already prepared to lead a small group (and craft and whatever else you have planned). They simply float to wherever the need is. And if by chance all volunteers are present, the floaters help you get ahead with tasks like writing cards to absent kids, stuffing visitor bags or cutting out crafts for the following week. Floaters are really jacks-of-all-trades who enjoy doing different tasks from week to week.
That being said, if you do use a sub list, make sure you are in contact with these folks regularly. Keep abreast of what days and times are best for them to serve. And here’s a great tip: When communicating with your sub list, always email one-on-one rather than a group email, because in a group email everyone will wait for the others to say yes first! Also set a time and date for when you need them to reply.
Create Alternate Plans
We all have our ideal Sunday or Wednesday scenario, but let’s face it: there will always be those weeks where 20 people call out with strep throat. Those kinds of weeks cannot be avoided, and no one has that many floaters or subs. But you can have a plan. On these occasions, you’ll need to invoke plan B (or C).
If you have a handful of leaders out with no subs or floaters to fill their spots, go to Plan B: combining small groups where necessary. Remember, it’s far better to combine two small groups so there are at least two adults with the group, than to keep groups small with only one adult in a group. When adult numbers are really low, and you can’t have two adults to lead a group, then keep groups in separate corners of one large room rather than splintering off into separate rooms. Everyone is safer when everyone is out in the open.
If you’re having one of “those” weeks, and there are lots of leaders out, you might have to go to Plan C, which would mean everyone stays together for the entire gathering: large group lesson, large group activities, and worship. Click here for a list of ready-to-use, no-prep Plan C ideas. And if you are combining several age groups together, enlist some of your older kids to help with the younger kids. Have them sit together during the lesson to help young ones listen; have them help with activities that might be a stretch for little ones. Older kids love that you trust them enough to ask, and there’s nothing cooler for a young one to have a big “buddy.”
Plan N would be a Bible-based video. I say “N” because this is the Nuclear Option! It is extremely rare for us to play a video. We are all about teaching the heart of God and building relationships with our kids. But if you are out of leaders, you may not have a choice. Don’t get caught off guard: Make sure you have a fresh video (and the means to play it) ready to go.
Cultivate a Contagious Environment
The other thing to keep in mind is making sure your ministry is a fun and fulfilling place for the people who serve. Create an environment where your volunteers don't want to miss. Love and laughter should abound. And when the content is Biblical (not watered down, albeit kid-friendly) your leaders will be fed along with the kids. During our first week back at our Wednesday night program in January, after having several weeks off for Christmas, I was blown away with how many people said how glad they were to be back and how much they missed being there. By making it fun and rewarding for volunteers, they are more likely to figure out a way to show up.
This past Sunday in our nursery, we had one of those weeks where lots of people called out sick on Saturday. Our nursery Coordinator sent out an email to each of her nursery volunteers and asked for extra hands. She had so many people show up that she actually had to turn workers away. That is a perfect example of a team spirit and creating an environment where people can't wait to help.