Show me a healthy substitute list and I’ll show you a healthy small group ministry. The two go hand in hand. Here’s the scenario that plays out almost every week at churches everywhere.

You cast a vision for a small group ministry and recruit amazing small group leaders. Okay, you have some amazing small group leaders, some good small group leaders and who are good when they show up. That’s a different blog post altogether. Regardless, you have small group leaders who don’t show up. Some get sick. Some are out of town. Some went to the lake and forgot to tell you. You have some holes. EVERY. SUNDAY. Some you’ve known about all week. That’s usually when your amazing small group leaders give you a heads up. You usually have a few callouts from Saturday or Sunday morning. Inevitably, there will be a few who just don’t show up. You’re hoping they’ll walk through the doors 5 minutes late, but they never show. This is a reality for too many ministries. What happens next is tragic. You’ve been casting a vision for a small group ministry and your amazing leaders become weary. Why? Because every week they end up having to lead two groups for the flakey leaders who don’t show up. Their group is chaotic and they’re really not getting to know the kids in their group because their group is constantly being invaded by another group. If things don’t change soon, your best leaders are going to give up.

First of all, you need more better small group leaders. Yes, that was grammatically incorrect, but you need better small group leaders – more of them. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Secondly, you need to focus on your subs. We generally neglect our sub lists. It’s like the island of misfit toys. They’re the people who weren’t willing to commit to regular serving, so we hit up that list when we’re desperate. It’s not a list we cultivate. Let me talk about a new strategy for your small group ministry that involves subs.

The Secondary Ask

You’re always recruiting. You knew that, right? You never stop. Even when your schedule looks pretty good. Just checking. I’ve had staff in the past who only “recruited” when we made a big volunteer ask from the stage. If you’re not recruiting, your ministry is going backward. When you’re recruiting, you should have a primary ask and a secondary ask. My primary ask is always for a small group leader. I cast vision for the role and why they should commit to the weekly role of leading a group. If I’m not sure they’d be a stellar small group leader, I might consider them as being the co-leader of a healthy group. However, a lot of people say “no.” Get used to rejection, it comes with the job – but you already knew that, didn’t you? That’s when my secondary ask comes in. Sure, I get it. You don’t have the capacity to lead a small group. However, would you consider joining our flex team (what I like to call subs)? It’s where we have people serve once a month or every other week to fill in where we have a leader who is sick or out of town.

Guys, this is nuts. When I ask people to be a small group leader, more than half the time I get a “no.” However, when I ask them to be a sub, more than half the time I get a “yes.” But we usually don’t have a secondary ask.

Preschedule Your Subs

Once you get your sub list healthy, start scheduling them. Don’t put them on the “I’ll call you when I need you list.” Find out what services they’re willing to serve (most will agree to two different service times so that they can serve at once and attend the other). Then just schedule them to show up on Sundays on a regular basis. Have a 1st Sunday of the month team of 5-6 subs who are going to serve where you need them. Let’s be honest, you’ll need them. Why not go ahead and schedule what you know you’re going to need. Do this for every Sunday of the month. Let the subs know that they need to plan to show up and you’ll be in touch with them mid-week to let them know what service/grade you need them. Several of them you can give a specific assignment (1st-grade boys at 9:00). However, others you’ll assign the day of. How much better will you sleep on Saturday night when you know that the call outs you get first thing on Sunday morning are already covered?

Build Your Recruiting Team

This is really cool. I can’t take credit for this at all. One of my elementary coaches was a coach at North Point Community Church and this was something he learned there. It’s easier than you think to have your small group leaders build their own sub list. Seriously. We have incorporated the Lead Small strategy for our ministry. One of the values of Lead Small is to partner with parents. So, we encourage all of our small group leaders to have this conversation with parents.

Hey, my name is _________, I’m _________’s small group leader. I’m here every week and I’m excited to build a relationship with my group. Just come look for me every Sunday. However, there are a few weeks every year where I’m going to be out of town or sick. I’m looking for 2-3 parents who would be willing to join my sub list. It would be 2-3 of you who I could call when I’m going to be out and you’d lead in my place. 

I’ll tell you this much. As a parent, I’m more likely to be a sub for my son’s group than a sub for some random group. If my son’s small group leader asked me to sub for him, I’m far more likely to say yes to that than yes to a general ask.

We rolled this out 2 months ago and we’ve spent all summer training and screening brand new subs. I’ve got a small group leader who does army reserves one weekend every month. She recruited her adult daughter to serve on the weekends she is out. Another leader let me know a few weeks ago that he’s going to Alaska for 5 weeks. However, he asked the dad of one of his boys to sub for the 5 weeks he is gone. Can I tell you how happy this makes my heart?

It’s time to get serious about subs. Your small group strategy depends on it. Give these ideas a try and see how it helps. Stop neglecting your sub list and treating it like the Island of Misfit Toys. Cultivate the list because it’s the key to a healthy small group strategy.