If you ask anyone who's been in children's ministry any length of time to name one of the things they dread the most every week, it's the Saturday phone call. You know what I mean, someone scheduled to serve the next morning is calling to let you know they can't be there this week. Fear and panic start to set in from the first sound of the phone ringing.
Before you panic, first know that you're not alone in this. We've all been there. Now, how can you change your response from "Oh no, what will we do?" to "Thanks for letting me know."
The first thing to remember is that this is God's church, and He loves the kids of your church and this ministry even more than you do. Pause and pray. Thank God for the ministry He has asked you to serve in. Thank Him for this volunteer and your whole volunteer team. Ask Him to help you in figuring out what to do to best serve the kids.
Here are 6 tried and trusted options or what to do when those phone calls come. The first 4 options require some prior planning/ recruiting/ training and the last 2 are always there as a last resort.
Recruit a Sub Team
Sub teams consist of volunteers (still need to be background checked and trained) who want to help but not on a regular basis. And just like subs in a school setting they're available to step in when needed and at the last minute. These could be volunteers ready to step into any age group, or specific subs for each class (this second option ensures that you don't burn out your subs.) These would be people that you, as the children's ministry leader, contact as needed. If you choose this policy, then when a volunteer calls you can simply say, "thanks for letting me know, I've got a sub ready to step in."
Recruit Sub Buddies
A sub buddy is someone recruited by each volunteer (and again this person needs to go through your volunteer screening and training procedures) to take their place in case they can't be there. These are people who may rarely serve, or who serve in other ministries, but are able to fill in as a favor to their friend who serves. If you choose this policy, then when a volunteer calls you can simply say, "thanks for letting me know, do you have a sub buddy ready to serve? Please remind me who they are."
Implement Switch not Ditch
This policy, like the "sub Buddy" policy puts the responsibility on the volunteer as much as possible to arrange their sub. But instead of pulling someone unknown into the class, they contact the teacher from the next week, or a different week, and ask to swap weeks. If you choose this policy, then when a volunteer calls you can simply say, "thanks for letting me know, who have you switched weeks with?"
Having a scheduled floater (along with a switch not ditch policy) is my favorite way of making sure classes are covered. A scheduled floater is simply what it sounds like, an extra volunteer who is already scheduled that week, and hopefully has already read the lesson. This person is on the rotation, and if everyone shows up they are simply there to help wherever a need arises; be it holding a crying baby, helping with a craft in a preschool class, or sitting with an unruly 8 year old. My preference is to still encourage volunteers to switch and have the floater ready for the truly last minute situations.
But.... what if none of these options work? What if we're still shorthanded on Sunday morning? What do I do?
If none of these options are working for you (maybe a holiday weekend), then it's time to move to plan B, C, D or Q... 🤣. Combining classes is often a viable option, and likely if many volunteers are absent, attendance will also be low, but this isn't always true. It's always better to have 20 kids in a room with 3 volunteers, than leaving 1 volunteer alone (remember to always have at least 2 adults in a room). As long as you're in ratio, combining classes can work for you.
A last resort, for the safety of kids and the volunteers who are there, you may need to close a class or cap a class size. Before closing a class, make sure you have in writing the safe teacher:child ratios for each age group so that you're able to communicate this to the parents in your church. For example, you have 2 volunteers in the 2 year old class, and 1 volunteer in the 3 year old class, so you decide to combine classes. But your safe teacher: child ratio is 1:5, so once there are 15 kids in the room, the room needs to be closed.
What do you do? Do you have any other methods that are working for you?