Pastoral Counseling: Everything You Need to Know

Pastoral counseling is a form of psychotherapy that combines both psychology and spirituality.

Unlike religious counseling that may be done by religious leaders or figures, pastoral counselors are trained mental healthcare professionals in addition to having in-depth training in religion and/or theology.

Pastoral counseling uses existing psychological and therapeutic models and incorporates faith-based ideas. While individual pastoral counselors may represent specific religions, the concept and framework of pastoral counseling is not tied to any one religion or faith.

Read on to learn more about pastoral counseling and how it is used.

BIPOC person in therapy for treatment

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The History of Pastoral Counseling

Religious counseling and support has been around since religion began, but it wasn't until the 1930s that religion and psychotherapy became linked.

After World War I, there was an increased need for therapeutic support. Many people looked to religious leaders for support instead of the medical community.

The two models began to unofficially overlap in the years following until the 1930s when psychotherapy and religion became integrated with the formation of the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry. The foundation was established in New York City by famed minister Norman Vincent Peale and noted psychiatrist Smiley Blanton. It is now called the Blanton-Peale Institute.

Pastoral counseling has been a distinct field since this time. The field received professional certification in 1963 though the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education.

What Are Required Qualifications for Being a Pastoral Counselor?

Pastoral counselors are certified mental healthcare professionals who also have extensive religious education and training.

Only six states (Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Tennessee) license individuals with the title of Licensed Pastoral Counselor (LPC), but the other states still require pastoral counselors to have a valid license to practice.

It's common for pastoral counselors to be licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) or Clinical Professional Counselors (LCPCs). More requirements may be given by individual states.

Typically, a pastoral counselor will have obtained all of the following:

  • A bachelor’s degree
  • A master’s or doctoral degree from a seminary
  • A master’s or doctoral degree in the mental health field
  • Most pastoral counselors seek licensing and certification from the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), which involves specific classroom and clinical training requirements, tests, and a personal evaluation.

What Is Pastoral Counseling Used For?

As with other mental healthcare professionals, pastoral counselors can help with various issues and often have specialties such as marriage and family therapy, substance use disorders, or mental health conditions. They can also help with spiritual or religious matters.

Some areas pastoral counseling may address include:

  • Grieving the loss of a loved one
  • Coping with illness
  • Handling major life changes, times of transition, or a life crisis
  • Parenting difficulties
  • Preparing for marriage or adjusting to divorce
  • Substance use treatment
  • Mental health disorder treatment
  • Processing difficult or traumatic life events
  • Counseling for all ages and for couples and families
  • Integrating faith with daily life
  • Strengthening relationships (including with oneself and with God)
  • Working through conflicts (including a crisis of faith)
  • Wellness programs
  • Religious retreats
  • Spiritual direction
  • Outreach preventive services (such as in prisons, military settings, and schools)
  • Community education

Benefits of Pastoral Counseling

Religious communities are one of the first places many people turn when seeking help, religious or otherwise. Most religious leaders are not equipped or trained to manage mental health issues, and often don't have the time to offer in-depth or on-going support.

Pastoral counselors are able to offer all of the benefits of mental healthcare professionals, and are able to provide the spiritual counseling that people of faith also seek. If the pastoral counselor is part of the same religious community as the person seeking counsel, a relationship may already be established before therapy begins.

Some studies have linked psychotherapy that takes a person's religious beliefs into account with better outcomes in areas such as depression.

Pastoral counseling may be especially well-suited for people who:

  • Feel less comfortable in a traditional or secular counseling setting or are concerned about how their personal religious beliefs fit with that type of counseling.
  • Are facing end-of-life issues or coping with the loss of a loved one and want faith-based perspectives on death, dying, and existential concepts.
  • Prefer support through the church (possibly after having a negative experience with traditional or secular counseling).

Limitations of Pastoral Counseling

Pastoral counseling isn't for everyone. Even people who consider faith a major part of their lives may find it's better for them to keep religion and counseling for issues that don't involve religion separate.

Finding a pastoral counselor who shares similar views or ones that don't conflict with yours is also important.

For example, some pastoral counselors support and affirm the LGBTQ+ community. However, others may not be accepting or may even be actively discriminatory or harmful to members of the LGBTQ+ community members who seek their counsel.

Before you begin meeting with a pastoral counselor, ask about their views. If they are not a good fit, try a different counselor.

What to Expect

Pastoral counseling is not just available in places or worship, it can be offered in a number of different settings, including:

  • Private practice settings
  • Hospitals
  • Mental health counseling facilities (inpatient and outpatient)
  • Substance use and rehabilitation facilities

Pastoral counseling can be short-term, such as coping with grief after losing a loved one. Long-term pastoral counseling can also be an option for those who need it.

Counseling techniques offered by pastoral counselors can be similar to those in traditional counseling, but with aspects of religious beliefs incorporated or informing the treatment.

For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) follows the same process with or without a religious element, but a pastoral counselor may use religious teachings or other aspects related to the person's faith to help them make their desired changes.

Licensed pastoral counselors are mental healthcare professionals and are trained to make diagnoses and provide counseling.

Finding a Pastoral Counselor

Some ways to find a pastoral counselor include:

  • Contacting a faith group or religious organization
  • Talking to people you trust, such as friends, family, or faith leaders
  • Checking with healthcare providers or mental healthcare professionals
  • Contacting mental health organizations or practices
  • Checking online for resources

Remember, you don't have to go with the first counselor you find. It's normal (even recommended) to interview several until you find one you are comfortable with and who suits your needs.

Becoming a Pastoral Counselor

To become a pastoral counselor, you can start by looking into the specific required steps through the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE).

Note: in 2019, the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) merged with ACPE. Some websites and resources do not reflect that change and may list AAPC as though it is currently active.

Summary

Pastoral counseling combines psychology and religion. Pastoral counselors are mental healthcare professionals and have the associated privileges and responsibilities. They are also educated and trained in religion and/or theology.

Counseling provided by religious leaders is not equivalent to pastoral counseling because they lack the appropriate training and accreditation required of mental healthcare professionals.

Pastoral counseling is not a fit for everyone, but it can be a good option for those seeking psychological counseling that is informed by religious or spiritual ideology and teachings.

It's important to make sure your pastoral counselor's beliefs align with your needs. Ask about your counselor's views before beginning counseling, and try a different counselor if they are not a good fit.

A Word From Verywell 

If you value religious counsel, but also need the type of care provided by a mental healthcare professional, pastoral counseling may be beneficial to you. As with any counselor, ask questions about what's important to you, including what you hope to get out of counseling. Ask what views the counselor holds on issues that matter to you before you begin sessions. It's OK to switch to a different counselor at any time.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between pastoral counseling and professional counseling?

    Pastor counselors are mental healthcare professions who can provide the same care as secular counselors. In addition to psychotherapy, pastoral counselors are also trained in religious counseling and incorporate faith into their sessions.

  • What religions are pastoral counselors?

    Pastoral counselors come from many different faith groups and religions. You do not need to be of the same faith as the counselor (or religious at all) to see them.

  • Is pastoral counseling free?

    Pastoral counseling may or may not be covered by insurance, depending on the state and state licensing. Sliding scales or reduced fees may be offered. The cost is sometimes less when the pastoral counselor works from places of worship and faith centers.

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.