Chapter 1

The Ministry and child and adolescent Mental Health

“May our sons in their youths be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars cut for the structure of a palace” (Psalms 144:12)

Children and adolescents form a sizable proportion of church congregants, often attending along with their parents and featuring in Sunday schools and other church-related charitable activities and events. However, they also make up a potentially vulnerable group whose mental health needs may easily go unrecognised, wrongly labelled, just overlooked, or dismissed as bad behaviours. The fact that a child’s behaviour can be easily influenced by the child’s biological constitution and variable experiences of home, school, community, and the church setting, makes it crucial for the ministry to have a dedicated system and plan to oversee this section of the congregation.

As our early life experiences and relationships shape our spiritual life, some of the conditions and experiences listed above

can have negative impacts on the child’s behaviour and trigger the need for ministerial help or referral for specialist treatments and interventions. The fact that a child is symptom-free and making good academic progress and engaging appropriately in church Sunday school activities, while perhaps showing signs of serious problems in other situations, is itself of significance. In such instances, additional specialised interventions should be sought. Success in academic achievement can sometimes be mistaken to mean a well-rounded child or adolescent, and this may be far from the truth. In most unexpected circumstances, children supposedly known to be of good behaviour have ended up tragically ending their life because deep-rooted emotional difficulties have gone unrecognised.

The ministry should be able to recognise and support children with learning difficulties and developmental problems and make reasonable adjustments to meet their needs, including making efforts to include them in the worship experience as much as possible. Apart from limited provisions for sign language, provisions to support children with learning difficulties are strikingly lacking in most places of worship mainly due to a lack of knowledge and resources. At the minimum, they should be recognised as an area of unmet need in the children’s ministry.

Sunday school teachers and supervisors of church-related children organisations such as the baby and toddler groups, Brownies and Rainbows, Girls guide and Boys’ Scouts, should be well trained to support children, recognise, and detect early behaviour of concern. They should be well informed on how to seek help in such cases and make referrals through appropriate safeguarding processes where there are concerns.

The common mental health problems in children include developmental disorders such as speech and language disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, with associated social, relational, and conduct disorders and behavioural problems. These can present as difficult and disruptive behaviours within the Sunday school and other group activities and settings. These conditions can hinder both verbal and nonverbal communication of the child and how he or she responds in social settings. They can also negatively impact the experience of other children and raise safeguarding concerns where appropriate help is lacking. Such children may have difficulty in listening and taking instructions, may not finish tasks, avoid tasks requiring sustained attention, get easily distracted, lose things, are easily forgetful, and make careless mistakes in schoolwork or tasks. Hence, there can be

difficulty keeping the child’s attention on learning and consequently limit the child’s academic attainment and confidence in social settings such as the children’s Sunday school. These behaviours can be recognised and picked up by teachers in the Sunday school and during supervised activities. Where they are identified, attempts should be made to understand them in the context of underlying developmental or psychological problems, and appropriate help and support provided.

Children can also present with behavioural and emotional disorders, which could be linked to adverse childhood experiences such as physical and sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence and deprivations associated with the child’s life experiences. Some children or their families may already be known to social services and welfare agencies, and confidential details may not be known nor revealed to the church worker supporting the child. Where these become known, Sunday school teachers, supervisors, and others ministering to them would have to be mindful of how best to engage with them and support them in accessing services bearing in mind the peculiar nature of the child and family circumstances. Such children often require practical support to fill the social and emotional gaps left by their childhood experiences, and the church

setting and related young people’s charitable organisations may be well placed to play this role.

The minister should have
oversight of the training of the Sunday
school teachers and supervisors to
ensure compliance with required
regulatory checks such as the
Disclosure and Barring Service
(DBS)6 of volunteers and staff. He
should be well informed on child protection and safeguarding policies and guidelines and promote supportive engagements with the parents. The minister and the Sunday school teachers should be aware of children who may already be known to services. They should be aware of their particular area of special needs and have up-to-date required parental consent. Every involvement to provide pastoral care to a child or a young person should include parental or responsible adult involvement.

Where safeguarding concerns have been raised by social services or child protection agencies in the UK, children may be

taken temporarily or permanently into care within such enforcement. Unfortunate situations like these are known to cause considerable emotional and psychological problems for the parents. And invariably, the minister or church worker often has to respond to support such parents, attend hearings, appeals meetings, and family court hearings. It may be necessary to harness the emotional presence of other supportive congregants in the face of the grief associated with such difficult times as the family court legal proceedings involved can be emotionally draining and incredibly difficult for the parents. The emphasis should be the prevention of such occurrences through proper education and awareness about parental responsibility in safeguarding and child protection. The church should be conducting regular educational and informative sessions on this subject.

There is a significant lack of recognition and support for children with behavioural challenges within the church setting. Some of these are due to a lack of awareness and knowledge, and the absence of necessary human and material resources. The first step to redress this gap is to raise the awareness of the church leadership and acquire relevant training. There should be the commitment to invest in the resources required and make reasonable adjustments within

the church worship setting/Sunday school, and other church-based activities to accommodate the needs of such children. These will undoubtedly contribute to the children’s spiritual and emotional maturation into more able and well-adjusted young people.

The adolescents in the church setting may have grown up and matured from the children’s class whilst others may have joined not having previously been in the church. Where there are mental health challenges in this category, these may have evolved from childhood or gone unrecognised. In addition to childhood developmental disorders, early warning signs of antisocial and conduct disorders are not uncommon in this group. These can be influenced to an extent by the community from where they are drawn.

The instinct to leave and disengage from a supportive environment, embrace the popular culture or something different, or explore alternative experiences is a common occurrence in young people in general including in the church setting. While this could be a normal developmental experience, it could also in the extreme, signal outright delinquency. Similar to the narrative of the rebellious prodigal son in the scriptures rebellion in a young person could be symptomatic of an underlying depression or anxiety state, and can

often go unrecognised by parents, teachers, the church and ministers. Attempts should be made to explore the root cause which could be a personal conflict in the young person, relationship difficulties with parents and peers, neglect, a sense of isolation and abandonment, negative self-image, or a sexual identity problem. Cases of this nature, if unrecognised and not addressed in time have been known to trigger suicidal and para-suicidal behaviour such as deliberate self-harm in young people.

Behavioural and developmental changes, including normal biological changes in adolescence, can be associated with emotional and psychological changes in the body and mind. These changes can precipitate an adolescent crisis and an explosive situation at home and other settings including school and the church, necessitating the urgent intervention of parents and the school. These may call for the support of those with pastoral care for the young person and in some cases specialist mental health intervention. Such situations require the sympathetic approach and patience of supportive carers, ministers and professionals who are willing to engage, listen, and offer time and space. These should include the unbiased and non-judgemental communication approach where the opinion and point of view of the young person can be respected and valued. A

Rapport-building relationship is of the essence to commence sympathetic listening and the process of healing the mind, to reset the behaviour to make sense of a difficult situation. A pastoral approach can be immensely helpful even in apparently hopeless cases.

Pastoral care should be offered with the mindset of the father of the prodigal son, waiting to receive and celebrate the prodigal. Luke 15:20-23; “And he arose, and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran, and embraced him and kissed him”. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him: and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring the fattened calf, and kill it, and let us eat, and celebrate: For this son was dead, and is alive again: he was lost and is found. And they began to celebrate”.

Where there are more complicated cases, including where more serious mental health disorders are suspected, specialist help should be sought for early interventions as these are known to improve the

chances of good recovery, limit psychological and emotional harm to the young person and also improve the long-term outcome.

The youths are eager to engage in activities to dispense their energy and strength, and the church should be creative in gainfully employing their energy, engaging their interest, and redirecting them to meaningful engagements in the furtherance of the gospel in a way that is relevant to sustain their interest. A lot of these operate within church-based charitable organisations and activities.

The ministry should look into setting up and engaging in missions with a community youth service focus, to ensure it continues to have a healthy and meaningful positive engagement with the youths and be relevant to them. Where these measures are lacking, the youths may become a nuisance to the church, a burden to the family, and may fail in actualising their God-given innate potentials for the ministry, and may over time fizzle out of the church community if the appropriate care and measures are not taken.