by Corrie M., international director, Entrust Equipping Women
“I have never told anyone this before.” Tears falling, she bravely pressed on, sharing an event from her past, relaying the emotions she felt at that time, the beliefs about life that were formed in her heart, and the choices she had made because of those beliefs.
Women nodded. They had their own experiences to share and no doubt, some would bring tears. Most leaned in, signs of compassion on their faces. One put up an emoji of a heart in the corner of her screen, a silent demonstration of love. Another added a comment in the chat feature, “We’re with you.”
We were not together physically. In fact, we were in different countries, with vastly different backgrounds and cultural experiences. Our humanity and desire to grow as women and as leaders connected us, and the vehicle for this connection was something called Zoom.
With the entrance of COVID to our global landscape, even the novice in technology has become familiar with Zoom. How else can one thrive socially and emotionally through months of isolation and lock downs? At the same time, is online simply a place to keep in touch with family and friends, or might it provide an opportunity for deeper learning and discipleship?
Entrust’s Equipping Women team started exploring the possibilities of online learning long before the pandemic. Some of the issues pushing us in that direction included difficulties getting visas for our international training hubs, the financial challenges of in-person trainings and the demands most women face in balancing careers and families. It can be complicated for women to find extended time away from their daily lives to receive equipping to be more effective in the work God has called them to do. What if we could connect in meaningful ways online, working through material from the comfort of our own homes?
God graciously allowed us to pilot our first online training module in the fall of 2019. While there are other effective modalities such as Microsoft Teams or Web-Ex, we landed on Zoom. We found it intuitive and replete with some of the options we needed, such as breakout rooms, a chat feature, white boards and the ability to share videos. And while security issues have been raised about Zoom, we have found its encryption feature to be quite strong, which is important for some of our participants’ higher-risk regions.
Online training graduates in the Philippines are honored by their pastors
Ann C. and I ventured into that first module with multiple fears and anticipation. What a world this would open to us if we could do this effectively! At that point, we had no idea that the world was about to shut down and how online learning would become a bedrock for training over the coming years. God graciously allowed us to explore and prepare for online learning before our world was thrust into it.
We adapted our typical week-long or semi-intensive in-person trainings to a 15-week learning opportunity: one day a week, for three hours. While this meant the women did not leave their busy worlds to focus on the training, it did allow them to fit the training into their lives.
Before that first online training began, we pored over some of our best practices for in-person trainings: starting our days with worship, offering opportunities to get to know one another early on, sharing testimonies, facilitating discussion, learning with partners or in small groups. We realized most of that could be done in an online format. In our debrief after the first online session (another Entrust value), Ann and I were tired, but we grinned at one another. I remember saying something like, “I think this is going to work.”
After the first several sessions together, we noticed the women were already encouraging one another by asking follow-up questions. Although conversation can sometimes feel more halting on Zoom, as you can’t always take in all the visual cues as you can in person, women were launching into discussion over the content as if they were across the table from one another. They begin praying for each other and asking how God had responded in the weeks that followed.
The women were living their usual daily lives while they attended this training, and we began to see them applying some of the concepts in their various settings. Even life’s distractions—a kid wandering in on screen or a barking dog needing attention—proved good. They helped us to see more of each other’s worlds. We got to meet that toddler who needed assurance from mom or see the home from which that sister in Christ was joining us.
After that first module in 2019, Ann and I decided to offer two modules at the start of 2020 and to train an additional facilitator in online learning practices. We were well into those modules when COVID came on the scene in March of 2020, changing life as we knew it. However, we did not skip a beat with our online modules, and God allowed us to become a resource for partnering organizations who needed to understand what learning and discipleship could look like online.
Since that initial module in 2019, we have trained many more of our facilitators to use Zoom while facilitating, and have been pleased to see God multiply our humble beginning. We have now offered 18 online trainings to 140 leaders from 12 countries. Two of those online trainings were co-ed. Ten more modules are being organized for the spring of 2022.
We have heard many testimonies from women served by the modules. “I never would have been able to take an in-person training” has been a common thread. Another theme is, “I never knew how close I could feel to women I have never met before.” God knew about all of this, of course, and continues to use this modality to build up his church.
Benefits and pitfalls
Accessibility of our trainings is a high value at Entrust. This online mode of learning has allowed us to make trainings accessible to moms who need to be at home, to career women who cannot get away for extended time and to women who face visa or financial barriers. While online training has opened doors to many, it remains true that there are regions of the world where internet is sketchy and intermittent and the likelihood of three hours of continuous learning unlikely. What might trainings look like in those scenarios? That is something our Entrust team has had to wrestle with.
With a little creativity, we have seen God multiply trainings even in some of those regions.
For example, in the Philippines, where many cannot afford or lack access to personal internet, our first online group of Filipinas traveled to a church to log onto Zoom together. The church graciously allowed their internet and space to be used two nights a week. A regional curfew due to the pandemic forced the women to stay the night at the church. Nonplussed, the women, hungry for training, happily slept at the church.
That initial group of women is getting ready to take their third online module this month, and three new groups of Filipinas will take additional modules at the same time. Pastors from the local church presented certificates of completion to the women at the end of the first of the module.
They were thankful to hear how the women planned to use what they had learned to bless the local church. An online group for men who are pastors in the region will also start this spring.
Parts of Africa also struggle with rolling power outages and limited internet access. In post-pandemic Africa, we have held more localized trainings in-person as inter-continental travel has become more challenging. We have followed CDC safety guidelines for new local trainings in Zambia and Ethiopia. Follow-up and mentoring have been done on the phone or WhatsApp.
Online learning may not be for every country and culture, but it certainly has opened the world to us in ways we could not have conceived. A recent online module in Asia included women from six countries who were engaged in various ministries including a children’s school in a restricted-access nation. The participant from that school did not have access to a computer, so she took part on her phone. Online learning is arguably a richer experience on a computer than a phone, yet this woman still learned how to create and implement discipleship lessons online and was applying what she was learning with the children she taught. “This training helped me to meet a spiritual level of growth that I needed,” she said.
Initially, there were many skeptics about online learning even within Entrust. Trish B., our European regional leader admits, “I was very skeptical about whether online learning would work, but I am a believer now.” Part of the skepticism was that much of the Entrust approach to learning relies on relational connection and inter-personal learning through facilitated discussions. One of the joys of in-person trainings is that women not only connect over the content during the module but also during meals and breaktimes.
While online learning will never provide that kind of relational opportunity, it does offer others. We have discovered that we must be intentional with helping participants to connect in new ways such as in online groups. One of our facilitators in the Middle East started offering weekly “connect questions” on Signal, an instant messaging platform that allows for inter-personal communication. That has since become a best practice for all our online modules as it allows the group to chat with one another when they are not together for class time.
Taking time to pray in partners at the end of class sessions has allowed for deeper sharing and caring. We have also incorporated social tea times into our schedule where women have space to get to know one another in groups of three or four during the last half hour of our scheduled time. We encourage them to get a favorite beverage, and we provide some question prompts, but we let them know it’s their time around the table where they can discuss anything they choose.
We’ve discovered yet another approach to online learning that is allowing us to enjoy the best of both worlds. We have started doing hybrid modules, where women complete the first part of the module online and then meet for a long weekend to finish the module. This approach allows women to get to know one another before coming together in person. It also allows for a more economical training price, as lodging at a training center is only required for two to three days. Two hybrid modules are being planned in Spain and in the Middle East for this spring.
We firmly believe that online learning is not just a passing phase, but a new modality that offers numerous opportunities to disciple and strengthen the global church. While it has accessibility and relational limitations, it offers a plethora of ways to connect and grow. Coaching and shepherding during and after a module are a significant part of the learning process. For women who begin learning online, follow-up reunions are a natural way of continuing their experience. As a community of ongoing learners and facilitators, we are collecting new ideas and best practices and expect to continue doing so for years to come.