I have spoken about what is due to God; now I shall speak about what is due to other people, although what is due to people still equally relates to God, since humanity is the image of God (homo dei simulacrum est)…. The strongest bond which unites us is humanity. Anyone who breaks it is a criminal and a parricide. Now it was from the one human being that God created us all, so that we are all of the same blood, with the result that the greatest crime is to hate humanity or do them harm. That is why we are forbidden to develop or to encourage hatred. So if we are the work of the same God, what else are we but brothers and sister? The bond which unites our souls is therefore stronger than that which unites our bodies. (McGrath, 1997, 425, taken from Lactantius in Divine Institutions)

In the beginning, God created. As a part of this creation, we are told that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27 ). Judeo-Christian tradition holds that humanity has been formed through God’s love into the image of God. Origen perceived that humanity received the “honour of God’s image” (Origen, 1973, 245). God conveyed something of the essence of God, whether it constitutes being, or intention, or possibility. Although we may allow for differing beliefs and concepts concerning God and creation, we accept that humanity is formed in the imago Dei. There is something inherently sacred in our very being, something that connects us to our Creator beyond the one time “speaking” of creation. That same something connects us as a species and compels us to unconditional love.

Depression exists. We may see it as an invader, an enemy, but we also need to see that it is part of the human condition, that “depression does not just affect us; it is us” (Randall, 1998, 18). Therefore, since we accept it as a part of the human condition, we shall not attempt theodicy here. The above quote offers a way for us to avoid becoming mired in the swamp of theodicy. Instead of attempting to justify God’s goodness and/or power and/or modes of “presence,” Lactantius’ statement propels us to the core of the issue: the power of inter-human relationship relates equally to God-human relationship. Seen thus, the situation of depression does not need, at core, to be explained and approached in terms of God’s power and/or love and its effect or lack thereof, but rather in terms of human relationships and responsibilities. Again, what is of importance is not the genesis of depression, but its place in the human social order, and how that placement can be reflected upon theologically.

For both the person suffering from depression and others, a break in, or remove from, the imago Dei can exist. What becomes necessary is redemption, salvation if you will, from the state of brokenness. Models of salvation include: sin/forgiveness, disease or illness or injury/healing, social struggle/liberation, history/consummation, cosmic structures/divinization and death/eternal life (Wildman, 2003 [lecture]). While there may be valid and persuasive arguments to be made from more than one of these models concerning depression, for the purposes of this project, we will discuss the disease or illness or injury/healing model as containing the most potential for efficacy when seen in concert with a theology constructed upon imago Dei.

Before we proceed, it may be helpful to understand why we did not choose another model for our discussion. While we may speak of the need for forgiveness later in the paper under the Plan for Healing section, any mention of sin would concern behavior that came about as a result of depression. We hold firmly that depression is not a sin, therefore the sin/forgiveness model for salvation holds no usefulness in our view. In fact, the language of “sin” and “forgiveness” is often more hurtful than helpful to the person suffering from depression. Because depression is so much a part of whom the person is, it is, in this instance, very difficult to separate the “sin” from the “sinner.”  Therefore, framing our understanding of grace as illness/healing becomes our salvific model.  Interestingly, we may find some conceptual similarities between the sin/forgiveness and illness/healing models. There may be a need for confession in both models, albeit confessions that differ greatly in their functions. One who has sinned needs to confess and repent her/his sin; one who is ill needs to confess/name her/his illness. The opportunity for God’s grace in confession of sin is forgiveness. The opportunity for grace in confession of illness is recovery of wellness.

Holding to the concept of imago Dei, and the interconnectedness of humanity, what salvation model of healing might be engaged that honors both the depressed person and others? Several sources reveal both a traditionally sound justification for viewing healing as salvific and ordained of God, as well as guidance toward community response and responsibility for the whole body in cases of clergy depression.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are full of stories of Jesus’ healing ministry: a woman with a flow of blood, blind Bartimaeus, the woman with seven demons, Jairus’ daughter who appeared to be dead, and the man who asked Jesus to heal his son and to “help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24b). In each of these instances cited, Jesus and the person in need of healing shared some kind of physical touch. There are other instances where Jesus was nowhere near the person who received healing: the Syrophoenician woman’ daughter in Mark 7:24-30, and the Centurion’s servant in Matthew 8:5-13 provide vivid examples of Jesus healing. In light of Jesus’ statement to his disciples in John 14:12ff, the Christian tradition holds the belief that healing is not only possible through the actions of believers, but that healing was mandated by Jesus. James 5:14 states, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” The tradition of seeking healing within the church is firmly entrenched in scripture, as is the tradition of seeing God’s grace expressed in healing.

Another Judeo-Christian tradition consists of naming and speaking illness or sadness. Although the word “depression” did not exist at the time of the compilation of either the Hebrew or Christian canon, the lament was a well-known way of expressing one’s pain in the form of discourse with God. Such a tradition provides evidence that God allows and hears such bold prayers, and that God not only hears such lament, but God does not hold those who lament at fault and indeed God weeps with them (Billman and Migliore, 1999, 28-32). Lamenting, in effect confessing out loud one’s pain and sadness, far from being sinful, is both an appropriate and healthy response to that pain and sadness:

…deep grieving is not a sign of pathology, immaturity, or inadequacy of faith. Rather the capacity to grieve deeply is a mark of psychological maturity, rooted in processes that are essential for human life and development. The inability to mourn diminishes life. (Billman and Migliore, 1999, 82)

Lament and mourning, as personal events, still seem to possess community aspects. Job’s friends came and sat with him as he mourned, Jesus asked his closest friends to stay awake with him as he faced his own sadness and spoke his own lament to God, and the psalms were sung publicly:

I am weary with my moaning;

every night I flood my bed with tears;

I drench my couch with my weeping. 

My eyes waste away because of grief;

they grow weak because of all my foes.

(Psalm 6:6-7)


In witnessing the lament, the pain, the sadness, the depression of another person, the community begins to see a place to be and to do as the people of God. We can accompany, listen, and validate feelings. We can also encourage the person suffering from depression to reclaim their identity as being formed imago Dei, and therefore not really alone despite her feelings of isolation and alienation. The doing of encouraging the depressed person toward healthy action may prove to be of critical importance.


Pastoral caregivers do well to be concerned about encouraging depressed people only to vent their feelings of sorrow and hopelessness; that process, in and of itself, will not help the depressed person even though it is a part of the journey. Somehow, resistance to the trappedness, a liberative reframing of the narrative is needed. (Billman and Migliore, 1999, 101)

In circumstances of depression, the depressed person, formed in the image of God, needs to name his/her illness, perhaps speak in the language of lament, and seek healing and restoration within the people of God. Those who are witnesses, as members of the people of God are to support the depressed person with presence and prayer. It may be important to note at this point, that healing may take different forms and proceed along different time frames in any instance of depression. The action of the community of believers may play a lesser or greater role in effecting healing. The story of the raising of Lazarus offers one example of possible community involvement in the healing process. The calling forth of Lazarus from death to life is vocalized and empowered by Jesus. However, the community gathered is given a crucial task by Jesus. “Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:44b). Without doubt, the work of the community completes Lazarus’ transition and transformation from one who has been dead to one who is alive. The presence of community with and for depressed clergy cannot be passive, but must compliment all other forms of treatment and healing, medical, emotional and spiritual. Might there be a plan for community action by believers that would involve and empower all parties?

In his book, Body Politics, John Howard Yoder has written a chapter on binding and loosing. Although Yoder locates his discussion in sin and reconciliation, a careful read reveals that much what of Yoder discerns can be re-presented in terms of disclosure and healing. Yoder seeks to articulate an ethics that is based on scripture and tradition, remains reasonable in its scope, and demands a counter-cultural approach by believers. The following is a re-statement of the primary components of the mandate Yoder understands to be necessary for “a community to deliberate in an otherwise inaccessible mode of mutual trust” (Yoder, 1992, 6).

1)     Believing men and women are empowered to act in God’s name.

2)     What the believers do, God is doing, in and through human action.

3)     God will not normally do this without human action.

4)     Healing is a community process.

5)     The dialogical process must come first. Only then must we turn to talk of the set of standards that the process protects. (Yoder, 1992, 6)

The above re-statement is not an attempt to appropriate all of Yoder’s thought. Clearly, in the chapter entitled “Binding and loosing” he was writing about sin and reconciliation. Nevertheless, the statements he makes about the community of believers and God and process, are readily applicable to the issue of clergy depression and an attempt at an accompanying ecclesiology. Yoder’s model offers itself usefully as well in the instance where clergy depression has resulted in sinful behavior either on the part of clergy or of members of the church community.

Even without explicitly sinful or interpersonally destructive behaviors resulting from depression, there can be little doubt that the present treatment of depressed individuals by both church and society is hurtful and dysfunctional. Clearly, Gregg-Schroeder is right to say, “the church does not know how to respond when clergy or other helping professionals reveal their emotional problems” (Gregg-Schroeder, 2003). As we have seen, the shame and stigma surrounding all mental illness and depression in particular force individuals into silence about their experiences, compounding their suffering by stifling the voice of lament. Rather than breaking the silence and challenging society to accept people living with depression, many in the church reinforce the stigma against the disease by unintentionally (or possibly intentionally) linking it to a lack of faith or to despair. “Some religious groups still make the assumption that mental illness is a moral or spiritual failure” (Gregg-Schroeder, 2003). Similarly, Christians are often presented with a “prosperity gospel.” This form of believing usually entails praying for a certain result, whether it be financial wealth, health, or a parking place. The “granting” by God of a positive answer to prayer is conditioned upon the worth of both the prayer and the pray-er. Therefore, if one prays for depression to go away, as one has been advised to do, and the depression does not go away, another layer of self-doubt and even self-loathing can result. Pastors in particular may feel pressure to hide their depression and appear as “strong” believers, buying into this false vision of God's absence in their depression. What was an emotional crisis is transformed into a spiritual one; what was lack of confidence becomes lack of faith. It is our strong contention that the harm done to Christians by this type of belief cannot be underestimated, and our opposition to the “prosperity gospel” cannot be overstated. The church must challenge this inadequate theology and the systems of belief and action it produces. 

Yoder also states, “Conversation with reconciling intent is the most powerful way for a community to discover when the rules they have been applying are inadequate, so that they may be modified” (Yoder, 1992, 6). Conversation with healing intent may lead communities to confront their fears concerning depression in clergy, even mental illness in general. If a church holds a certain vision of what is acceptable and safe behavior by a Pastor, a revelation of struggle with depression by that Pastor may deeply challenge the safety of the community. The Pastor is expected to be an example for the community, therein lies part of the safety of the community. If the Pastor, as exemplar struggles, the security of the community is threatened. If the community is to retain its identity imago Dei, a transformation must occur. That transformation takes place when a change of attitudes and expectations occurs within the community. As a community appropriates techniques to measure its own safety in the face of challenges will it create new behaviors to respond to those challenges. As Pastor and community affirm that they have been formed imago Dei, trust can replace fear, dialogue can educate and inform, and healing can begin for all parties.

The work of Emmanuel Levinas can be helpful in visioning responsibility for each other as the primary ethic of both self and the community:

Properly speaking, the inter-human lies in a non-indifference of one to another, in a responsibility of one for another. The inter-human is prior to the reciprocity of this responsibility, which inscribes itself in impersonal laws, and becomes superimposed on the pure altruism of this responsibility inscribed in the ethical position of the self as self. (Levinas, 1988, 165)

Levinas’ argument meshes well with a theology based upon the recognition of humanity formed imago Dei. His ethics are grounded in a radical concern for the other, a concern that he believes is hard-wired, if you will, into each one of us. As demonstrated in the above citation, this care for the other is not grounded in self interest, is not even concerned with reciprocity, yet is firmly entrenched in the core of our being. Levinas and Lactantius, in their different languages and modes of thought, both argue for this central and core concern for humanity. Just as Lactantius stated that “the greatest crime is to hate humanity or do them harm” (McGrath, 1997, 425), Levinas posits, “the justification of the neighbour’s pain is certainly the source of all immorality” (Levinas, 1988, 163). The responsibility of one for another, both in community and globally, controls our beliefs and actions when we recognize the intertwined existence of self and other.

Feminist theology and critique must also have a place at the table in any discussion of clergy depression in women. And it is here, within the discussion of relationality, that feminist theology fits.  While there is no single “feminist” theology, a critique of male imagery of God is intrinsic to any feminist view. The patriarchal God occurs in much of traditional theological language. Elizabeth Johnson advocates “a resymbolization of divine power not as dominative or controlling power, nor as dialectical power in weakness, nor simply as persuasive power, but as the liberating power of connectedness that is effective in compassionate love” (Johnson, 1994, 270). When confronted with a patriarchal God exacting Divine Retribution for transgressions, demanding high achievement, and concerned more with judgment than with the complexity of humanity, women clergy experiencing depression may discover no place of comfort and no place for naming their experience. Women are inherently relational; indeed, “women’s primary mode of understanding is through relationships” (Warrington, 1995, 15). As Mary Belenky states, “through intimacy and empathy [women] discover . . . through connected knowing women engage in collaborative explorations. . .through stretching and sharing a vision may be achieved richer than any individual could achieve alone” (in Warrington, 1995, 105). Others have suggested that men are socialized in such a way as to value power and hierarchy: “culture dictates that if a man gives to his equals he may be characterized as less important . . . to be important. . . and even safe a man must strive for power over his equals” (Warrington, 1995, 108).  Women are not like men in this way, and patriarchal images that present God as “male” may not work for women because such images adopt this “power mentality” that is fundamentally foreign to women’s experience.  More nurturing images of God can be productive as they guide both clergy and community back into a first concern for each other’s imago Dei. Keeping the focus on mutual care and expectation, and upon actions grounded in concern for mutual health, will help community and Pastor assess and act truthfully and in trust.

Notwithstanding the hope of transformation of community and Pastor from fear to a restored sense of safety, much care needs to be taken in the method chosen to effect healing. Believers are called to counter-cultural responses, responses that challenge the social order. Where the expectations upon a Pastor have been exceedingly high, the structures which place higher value on the Pastor’s work than on the Pastor herself, as a person formed imago Dei, are to be called into question and re-examined. Where the fear of mental illness dominates, education can temper fear and facilitate dialogue. Where a “prosperity gospel” has been in place that leaves the depressed individual in doubt of themselves and God, the concept of the community empowered to act in God’s name (see Yoder above) can disarm the harmful effects of that belief by including those who suffer, rather than by excluding them. Where a patriarchal God exacting Divine Retribution has ruled, a vision of a God of presence in and through suffering humanity can help community confront prejudice and fear and conquer the urge to shun or exclude. A concern for our sister/brother drives each of these counter-cultural actions: being formed imago Dei places a responsibility upon each one for another, disallows exclusion, and empowers humanity to act with and for God.

While the church strives to be a counter-cultural reflection of the Reign of God, mirroring God’s empowerment and compassion, it falls far short because that Reign is still in the “not yet.” In the instance of clergy depression a layered ecclesiology would therefore seem to hold most value. Just as the apostles advocated utilizing the different gifts within the early Christian community, we can reclaim the practice of drawing support and feedback from people serving in different roles in the church. “If another member of the church sins (against you), go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one” (Matthew 18:15 , emphasis added to denote the appropriate location for self-disclosure). Remove the imagery of “sin” and “fault” and interject the words “ill” and “disease” or “illness,” and a method for beginning a dialogue is revealed. Although we might wish that the Pastor would be forthcoming about her struggle, the narratives contained in this paper show that pastors, by virtue of the illness of depression itself absent any other factors, feel unable to admit to being overwhelmed and in distress. Expecting full disclosure by the Pastor and acceptance and full compassion by the community along with a happy ending is simplistic, and lacks any grounding in reality. Rather, communities can realistically strive to evaluate their mission, vision and practices through the lens of formation imago Dei. Meanwhile, within each community, small groups could be formed with a specific mandate to support the Pastor. By “layering” the community, the Pastor and a small group would be able to work together in a covenant relationship of mutual trust and care. Strategies for disclosure to the larger community, as well as plans for seeking healing for both Pastor and community could be formulated within the Pastor Support Group. More important, the Pastor could be nurtured and supported, encouraged in her treatment, and affirmed in her successes. The Pastor Support Group would also become the first community body to assist the Pastor with critical assessment surrounding the Pastor’s ability to pastor in the midst of depression. Because the group would not serve an evaluative function denominationally, the lens through which all circumstances are viewed would remain grounded in care for the Pastor as formed imago Dei, and called to proclaim God to the community.

Through a constant recognition of our commonality as human beings formed imago Dei, combined with a deep sense of community as followers of Christ called to be the presence of God for each other, church communities can seek theologically sound, as well as creative ways to seek healing in clergy depression. The words of Micah 6:8b can serve as general reminders for us of who we are to be, and how we are to live, “and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

[Proceed to Plan for Healing]