“Can you hear me now?” Leading online support groups at times may feel a bit like a Verizon commercial as you iron out the technical issues some may experience when videoconferencing for the first time. However, once the technology becomes familiar to everyone online support groups create pathways of connection and support for even the most isolated of special needs parents.
Recently Dr. Steve Grcevich at Key Ministry provided to me the opportunity to lead a seven-week special needs parent support group online using material I wrote that will be published in early 2015. The purpose of the book is threefold. First, I want to provide a solid theological understanding of God’s presence and love in the midst of the journey with special needs. Second, I want to provide practical strategies for coping with challenges faced by virtually every special needs parent: grief, guilt, patience, self-care, and relationships. Third, I want to create the opportunity for a small group experience where people could share and connect, forming meaningful and supportive relationships.
I’ve led support groups in a variety of settings over the past five years, but always in-person. The parents came to me or I went to them. Dr. Steve Grcevich and I talked about the importance of reaching families who are isolated, either due to a lack of faith communities in their area who offer special needs ministries or due to fragile health of children that makes it hard to leave the home. Online groups offered a way to reach into these homes. We wondered, would members of the group form meaningful connections?
The short answer is YES!
On more than one occasion I left the videoconference connection open after our meeting ended and several members of the group stayed up talking until the wee hours of the morning. It’s sort of like when an “in-person” small group breaks up for the evening and folks hang around to chat in the church parking lot. The pilot group was scheduled to run for seven weeks and by the third week parents were already asking what would happen at the end because they wanted to stay connected with each other. Several mentioned looking forward to the weekly opportunity to share and connect. Online groups work.
So what are some takeaway tips for folks wanting to try an online group?
- Choose a good videoconferencing platform that has good resolution, stable connectivity, and is easily accessible. Key Ministry used Zoom.us, which I found easy to use a facilitator. Other options include Skype or Google Hangout.
- Find a time that works best for your target audience. This may be during the day for stay at home parents, in the early evening for those who can tag team parent, or later in the evening after children have gone to bed. Our group chose the latter and it worked well for most, but some found it too late.
- Limit class size. More than 6 in the conversation gets challenging in video format. However, not everyone who signs up can show up every week so allow for a few extra. The Key group had 14 register, with about 8 participating fairly regularly and core group of four signing in virtually every week.
- Invite folks to sign in 15 minutes prior to the meeting to sort out technical issues prior to the meeting.
- At the start of at least the first few meetings have one person to facilitate the group and another person to facilitate connection issues. It is challenging to give meaningful attention to a person sharing deep grief while simultaneously helping another find how to turn off “mute” while using the chat feature. Once everyone had used the online connection a few times the need for technical help disappeared.
- Allow for a bit of delay in the conversation. There may be a slight lag between speaking and the message being received due to the online platform. At times folks may accidentally talk over each other. In the beginning it is especially helpful to have the facilitator call out folks by name. I typically asked if the person had something to share.
The online group ultimately ran like any other small group in a faith community. The novelty of videoconferencing quickly faded into the background and our time together became like typical conversations. The only hard part was when someone had tears we couldn’t reach out and give her a hug or hand her a tissue. We closed in prayer each week and a prayer list is sent out to all members on the roster so that those who may not have been able to login still remain connected to the group. The group has chosen to continue meeting after the seven-week pilot of my book was complete. They may do other book studies, but will always have a devotion, time for sharing, prayer and scripture. What a blessing it has been to get to know some incredible and inspiring parents.
For those who are interested in using my material in order to facilitate small groups for special needs parents, the book should be out February 2015 via Huff Publishing. For up to date information during the months prior to publication, visit specialneedsparenting.me or subscribe to my blog at that same address.
Rev. Dr. Lorna Bradley is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church and serves at The Hope and Healing Institute as a Scholar in Residence. In addition to developing curriculum for special needs parent support, she has led parent support groups for five years and worked in welcoming ministries for ten years. She writes a weekly blog for parent support at specialneedsparenting.me. She and her husband have an adult son with Asperger’s. Lorna enjoys spending time with her family, entertaining, traveling, scuba diving, and running.
Key Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!