Chapter 13: The Church’s Role With the Gifted and the Retarded by Charles F. Kemp

Community Mental Health: The Role of Church and Temple
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., (Ed.)

Chapter 13: The Church’s Role With the Gifted and the Retarded by Charles F. Kemp

"Unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability." (Matthew 25:15) The findings of intelligence tests are not new. Men like Plato, Plutarch, and Galton recognized individual differences and the presence of genius long ago. What is new is the perfection of instruments by which mental ability can be measured with a fair degree of accuracy.

When large segments of the population, like the children in a school system, for example, are tested, it is found that their abilities are distributed fairly consistently along what has been called the normal, or bell-shaped curve. Why this is so we do not know, but it has been established again and again.

We are concerned here with those persons who are at the two extremes of this distribution -- those who are unusually bright and are known as gifted, and those who are quite limited and are known as retarded.

Statistically speaking we are talking about approximately one percent who score 130 or above on a standard mental ability test, and those who score 70 or below on the same or a similar test.

These are the gifted, and these are the retarded. One percent does not sound like a very large figure until you take into account the population of America; then you realize you are talking about several million in each category.

For all practical purposes these figures have to be enlarged. To consider how it relates to the church, the school, the community and the home, we must include the top 5 or 6 percent, those above 120 or 125 I.Q. These are called "rapid learners" by the schools. Their problems are essentially the same as the few who happened to score five or ten points higher. At the other end of the scale we must add a like number, the borderline retarded, the "slow learners." Now we have increased our figure many times, and have included every community and almost every congregation.

These two groups, so very different in many ways, have some similar problems. Each can be understood better by comparing and contrasting it with the other.

Both groups have been misunderstood. Until recently both have been largely neglected by the church; in fact, the gifted still are. Even though many, provisions have been made for the retarded, such as special church school classes, camps and conferences, confirmation classes, and so forth, they only reach a small percentage of the number that could benefit from such help.

Let us compare and contrast them in terms of four areas of a person’s life which have a great bearing on community mental health.

Let us consider two boys. One we will call boy A and the other boy B. Boy A has an I.Q. of 133. This puts him in the gifted range. Boy B has an I.Q. of 67 and would be considered retarded. A grasps ideas quickly. He does abstract reasoning easily. He is well in advance of his years. B is just the opposite. He cannot do abstract reasoning; ideas come slowly; he has to struggle to keep up and then usually cannot make it. It becomes very graphic when we speak in terms of mental age rather than I.Q.

Let us assume that both A and B are the same chronological age. When A is five years old he will have a mental age of six years and six months, but when B is five years of age he will have a mental age of three years and four months. When they have reached the age of ten years, the division will be even greater. A will now have an M.A. of 13 years and four months, but B will have attained an M.A. of only six years and eight months. When they reach the high school age of 15, A will now be thinking with those who are 20 years of age, but B will only be able to compete with those of 10 years. How this affects them academically is obvious. They live in two different worlds intellectually. They have a different vocabulary, different interests different levels of attainment and possibility. A’s problem in school is boredom and lack of interest. Much of the material he is already familiar with, for gifted children invariably do a great deal of reading. He finds it so easy to compete with his peers that he has no challenge. He may cause trouble, develop poor work habits, and look down on others. B’s problem is just the opposite. He is under constant strain just to keep up. Pressured by home and a system which rewards the able, he is in a constant state of frustration. He never attains the satisfaction of achievement, recognition, or approval.

The schools recognize this problem and through special education classes and projects attempt to provide the opportunity for each person to function at the maximum level of his capacities. At least this is the ideal. Not every school attains it, but in principle this is what they try to do. When this is accomplished, the children are provided with learning tasks commensurate with their ability. They gain not only knowledge from academic experience, but satisfaction, challenge, and self-fulfillment as well. It is the latter which have so much to do with mental health. Except in a few noteworthy instances the church and church school have done relatively little.

When A and B have completed their education and move on into the vocational world, we again see the contrast. It begins long before they finish school. It begins as they make plans, select courses, decide on college, graduate and professional school. For A there are so many things he could do and do well that vocational choice is difficult for him. His interests invariably are wide; his abilities are such he could not only succeed but excel in more than one area. In these days of specialization and longer and longer training, he must make a choice.

Say, for example, A is active in the church. He is interested in becoming a medical missionary. He also is interested in scholarship -- he would like to teach in a seminary. Both fields appeal to him. His professors and his vocational and mental ability tests indicate he could do either. Both are long and expensive training programs. One requires an M.D.; the other, a Ph.D. His life will be very different if he finds himself in a missionary hospital in Africa, or in a seminary classroom in America. This is but one example. We see gifted young persons who are interested in the arts and in science, who are drawn to a career in social work or a career in the church. Some have great skills in the laboratory and equally significant talents for public service. A choice must be made -- it is not easy.

B, however, has a different problem. His choices are very limited. There are so few things he can do and do well that he should be helped to make his choice early and receive training. The problem is more complicated if he is in the borderline group. His friends may be going on to college, but with today’s standards he cannot be admitted. He may even think he wants to enter one of the professions. Many such persons express a desire for a vocation which requires training they could not possibly master.

Even so, B’s situation is much brighter than it was just a few years ago. Many who were once left in almost complete inactivity are now living useful lives, doing useful things. The retarded, contrary to what was once thought, can be productive vocationally. Some of them, it is true, are limited to sheltered workshops, but it has been found that many can be trained to do routine tasks in industry and do them well. This not only gives them income but also a sense of belonging, of usefulness and importance. To be able to earn one’s living in our culture is a mark of maturity and worth.

All of this has a direct bearing on community mental health. Nothing is more important for mental health than for the people in the community to find satisfaction, meaning, and purpose in their work. One’s vocation has implications far beyond the income that is involved, as important as that is. When one sees his job as something that he enjoys, something to look forward to each day and in anticipation in the years ahead, if he sees the thing he is doing as meaningful and important and worthwhile, then his whole life has meaning.

Unfortunately not many people are so fortunate, and some have an experience that is quite the opposite. The thing they do each day and look forward to tomorrow is dull, uninteresting, and offers no real challenge or purpose. In this sense it is a mental health problem for people of all levels of intellectual ability, but the very brilliant and the very limited do have special problems finding meaning and satisfaction in their vocations.

While A and B have been going to school, preparing for vocation, going to church, playing on the playground, they have been associating with other children and with various adults. This, too, has a bearing on mental health. Psychological literature in recent years has been saturated with such words as "acceptance," "identity, rejection, estrangement," "self-actualization." All of which is to say that the person who feels accepted by his peers, loved by his family and other persons who are significant to him is most fortunate. Those who are not must find some means to compensate for this lack. It is absolutely essential for mental health.

Both A and B may have a similar problem at this point. Both may be misunderstood by adults and rejected by their peer group and for the same reason -- both are different from the norm. For the child or the teen-ager there can be no greater evil. This accounts for such problems as a very gifted person who feels very inadequate. It accounts for some of the delinquent and antisocial-behavior of the retarded. At least in this way they can gain some recognition and acceptance from those in their age group.

We hasten to add that this does not mean that all gifted children feel inadequate, rejected, or hostile; on the contrary; many are well adjusted and well liked. It certainly does not mean that all retarded children are delinquent. Most of them are not. It does emphasize the fact that while both A and B do have differences from the norm in terms of ability, both also have the same need of acceptance, attention, affection, and love.

Both A and B conceivably might belong to the same church. It certainly is not unusual to have a youngster with an I.Q. of 130-plus and a youngster with an I.Q. of 70 in the same congregation. I have known cases where they were in the same church school class. Both also have spiritual needs. If the Christian faith, the fellowship of the church, the significance of prayer and worship, the challenge of Christian service are important for that large segment of the population that fall in the range between 80 and 120, then it is important for these two youngsters who happen to be above and below that group.

Here again we see the contrasts. If we go back to the difference in mental age, it will shed some light on the problem of their religious development and training. A will be asking questions much sooner than B, even than those in the middle range. His mind is inquiring, and it inquires about spiritual matters quite as much as any other. The problem is that he is so seldom helped. Parents, church school teachers, and pastors find he can ask questions nobody can answer. They may discourage him, brush him off, evade the issue, tell him to wait until he is older. The result is that he gets the impression it is wrong to ask questions, or adults do not have the answers.

B’s problem is quite the opposite. The things that are discussed in church, or even in a graded church school class, are in advance of him. He does not understand. It does not mean he cannot understand some religious concepts. It does not mean he cannot have religious feelings. He can, but he needs to be helped by people who have infinite patience, who can simplify, who will explain, repeat, and explain again.

All of religion is not knowledge. It is also feeling, worship, challenge, fellowship, trust. Both boys need these for mental and spiritual health, but each must be helped in his own way.

The challenge of working with A is his great potential. If he can be helped to work through his frustrations, to attain a humble but realistic conception of his own capacities, to dedicate and commit himself to a life of service and faith, the whole future may be affected. The challenge of B is that his needs are so great; the problems he faces are so many that to be able to help him surmount just a few of them is most worthwhile.

I began with a verse of Scripture. I conclude with two more. "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required" (Luke 12:48 RSV) "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40 RSV)


For additional reading

Ayrault, Evelyn W. You Can Raise Your Handicapped Child. New York: Putnam’s, 1964.

Copa, Cornell, Retarded Children Can Be Helped. New York: Channel Press, 1955.

Kemp, Charles F. The Church; The Gifted and the Retarded Child. St. Louis: Bethany, 1957.

Palmer, Charles E. Religion and Rehabilitation. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1968.

Petersen, Sigurd D. Retarded Children: God’s Children. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.