What to Do When Your Volunteers Cancel


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.  


>> Want 42 pages of help training your volunteers? We've got you covered! << 


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. See Plan C ideas belowAnd 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 KidzLife 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.

Learn other helpful tips on how to train your volunteers!


Ideas for "Plan C" 

Try these no-prep supplemental activities that can be used any week you are really short on leaders, and kids need to stay in one large group.  


Say it Again Sam: Before you teach your lesson, tell kids to pay super close attention; you’ll be asking one of them to reteach it after you. After you teach, ask if there’s anyone who can retell the story. They can only tell the parts you told, and can’t add anything extra. After the child tells the lesson, affirm how well they did, and then ask the remainder of the kids if there is anything that was left out. This repetition is great for retention. And when kids tell it, it’s extra fun too.  

Going Deeper: Here are great questions you can ask after virtually any Bible lesson: 

  • What did you like best about the story, and why? 
  • Do you have any questions about the story? 
  • What do we learn about God in this story? 
  • What do we learn about people in this lesson? 
  • How are you like or unlike (each person in the story)? 
  • How does this story make a difference in your life? 
  • What do you think God wants you to do about this? 

If needed, incentivize participation with a tiny treat (even one m&m or Skittle will work) for every answer given.  

Charades: Pick out a few characters or situations from your lesson (or past few lessons). Ask for a child volunteer who can come up and act it out for the group. Whisper the character or situation to your volunteer. The first child to guess correctly gets to act next. This game works Pictionary-style on a white board or large paper. 

Review: You can (naturally, automatically) prepare review questions in advance. Each week while prepping for the Bible lesson, you or your Bible teacher get in the habit of typing out a few questions pertaining to the heart of the lesson. (Tip: Send them to your phone each week so they are always with you.) It should be simple to search back a few weeks and ask questions. If you stash a bag of Starbursts somewhere in your venue, kids will be eager to answer questions in order to earn a piece.  

Ask a Pastor: Tell kids they are free to ask you anything about the Bible and God’s kingdom. If kids are older, give them a few minutes to write their questions on index cards before you collect them and answer for the group (this way questions are anonymous and you can make sure they are appropriate for all ears). This is a great exercise to dispel myths and to hear where your kids are spiritually.  


If everyone remains in one large room, taking individual prayer requests might take up more time than you have. Here are a couple options: 

Prayer Circles: Separate kids into groups of around 12 or less. Have them get into a circle to pray. One person will start off by lifting up their requests, then tap the person next to them to signal that it is his/her turn to pray. That person prays, and then taps the next person. If a child does not want to pray out loud, they simply tap the next person. When the prayer makes its way back to the first person that prayed, he/she closes.  

Prayer Cards: To handle prayer requests when you can’t splinter off into groups, hand each child an index card and pen, tell them to write down a prayer request and pass it to the child on their right. Take a few minutes to have kids pray for each other’s requests before you pray over everyone, and collect the cards to pray over during the week. (This will even work with little ones if you have enlisted the help of older kids to be their “buddies” for the morning.) 


Twinning: This is a fun mixer that will help kids get to know more about each other. Have all the kids stand up and the leader will pose a question. Kids are to mingle around, asking each other questions to see if they can find a twin (who has the same answer or same characteristic). When they find a twin, have them stand together and make a T with their hands (like a coach’s timeout sign). Leader, ask questions one at a time. When all, or most, kids have found their twin for one question, then ask the next question. (If a child can’t find a twin in a certain area, assure them it’s ok – being unique is just as awesome as having things in common.) 

  • What is your favorite food? 
  • What color are your eyes? 
  • What is your favorite hobby? 
  • How tall are you? 
  • How many brothers do you have? 
  • What kind of pet do you have? 
  • What is your favorite subject in school? 

It’s amazing how God created each of us with differences and similarities. No two people (even twins) are exactly alike in every way! God crafted each of you to be uniquely you (Psalm 139:13, Jeremiah 1:5). 

Heads or Tails: Tell everyone to stand up. Kids choose heads or tails by either putting their hands on their own head or hands on their own, well, back side or hips. Then kids freeze while you flip a coin. Winners remain standing (if it lands on heads, the kids who chose tails sit down; if it lands on tails, the kids who chose heads sit down). Those who remain standing choose heads or tails for another round. Keep playing until you have one winner still standing. Reward him/her with a small prize. Then everybody gets up to try again.  

Pick a Side: Divide the room in half with tape on the floor (or draw an imaginary line). All kids stand up and they will pick a side of the room to go to, determined by their favorite one of each pairing the leader calls out. Leader points to a side of the room as he/she calls out each of the two options. If a child has no preference, they are free to stand in the middle of the room. 

  • Hamburgers/Pizza 
  • Soccer/Football 
  • Cafeteria lunch/Lunchbox lunch 
  • Ocean/Mountains 
  • Math/Science 
  • Cake/Ice cream 
  • Cats/Dogs 
  • Video games/Playing outside 
  • Art/Music 
  • Summer/Winter 
  • Make music/Make art 
  • Read/Watch TV 

Four Corners: This is an old standby. Number the corners in your room, 1-4. Label each corner by taping up a paper sign. Choose one child to be the caller. He stands with his back to the room, counting to 5 (the 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi method). While he counts, every other child quietly chooses a corner to stand in. After the counter, the caller calls out a number from 1 to 4. Everyone on the corner he chose must sit in the center of the room. This process continues until there is only one person left standing. That child becomes the next caller.