How to Become A Pastoral Counselor

What is Pastoral Counseling?

Pastoral counseling involves integrating concepts of psychology and psychotherapy with theology and faith. A pastoral counselor is an individual who is able to use shared religious beliefs to provide guidance, comfort, and support to people of their congregation.

They can help individuals with grief management, bereavement, marital problems, relationship problems, substance abuse, and more. They can work in a wide variety of settings and provide guidance on a wide range of topics.

One of the reasons why pastoral counseling is so distinct from other forms of psychotherapy or counseling is that it incorporates religious beliefs too. These professionals are able to tap into the central beliefs of their religious community and integrate their faith into their therapy. Therefore, a pastoral counselor is in the unique position where they can use resources from both the mental health field as well as theology to provide relief to their patients.

Patients who strongly adhere to specific religious beliefs can benefit from a counseling session with a pastoral counselor because they are able to find meaning and motivation through their faith. Guidance is provided on a wide variety of psychological, spiritual, and ethical matters.

How do you Become a Pastoral Counselor?

Since pastoral counselors are also members of the clergy, the educational requirements for becoming a pastoral counselor need to be examined. Generally speaking, members of the clergy offer counseling in their parishes and don’t typically require any credentials. Offering members of their congregation advice and consolation is part of their regular duties. However, if you want to become a recognized pastoral counselor, you will need to satisfy certain educational qualifications, training, and licensure.

Degrees Major Duration
Undergraduate Degree Counseling or Psychology 4 years
Graduate Degree Divinity, Theological Studies, or Counseling 2-3 years
Ph.D. Pastoral Counseling Up to 5 years

Most pastoral counselors start off by obtaining a bachelor’s degree in either counseling or psychology. This provides them with a sound base from which to specialize in pastoral counseling. They will then need to earn a master’s degree and doctoral degree in either psychology or another area of mental health, counseling, or pastoral care. At the doctoral level, students can also choose to enroll in a Ph.D. in Pastoral Community Counseling or a Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) in Pastoral Counseling.

After you have the necessary educational qualifications, it is advisable that you seek licensing and certification. This is provided through the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. By obtaining this license, you will be deemed to have met the training requirements of a pastoral counselor in both classroom and clinical settings.

Currently, there are only six states which license the job title ‘Pastoral Counselor’. These states include Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina, Maine, Kentucky, and New Hampshire. For licensing in other states, Pastoral Counselors would qualify for the Marriage and Family Therapists certification or as Professional Counselors.

In some cases, and depending upon your level of education, you may wish to participate in a residency program. These programs offer aspiring pastoral counselors the chance to counsel individuals one-on- one and in groups under the supervision of a trained pastoral counselor.

Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology or Counseling

At the undergraduate level there is no dedicated program for pastoral counseling. Instead, students can enroll in a bachelor’s degree program in either counseling or psychology in order to build a solid foundation for their future career in pastoral counseling.

Useful courses for pastoral counseling
  • Advanced counseling skills
  • Counseling theories
  • Developmental psychology
  • Conflict resolution
  • Applied social research 

Master’s degree in Pastoral Counseling

Specialization in the field of pastoral counseling really begins at the graduate level. There are a number of different degrees to choose from depending upon your career aspirations. In addition, at the graduate level students are expected to carry out lab work and a clinical internship.

Degree Duration Some of the courses offered
Master's in Counseling 2-3 years
  • Social and Cultural Diversity Issues in Counseling
  • Group Counseling Theory and Practice
  • Counseling Theories
  • Research Methods
  • Professional Counseling Orientation and Ethics
  • Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Diagnostics, Assessment and Treatment

Ph.D. in Pastoral Counseling

At the doctoral level there are also a number of choices when it comes to what degree to enroll in. Generally speaking, at this level students will be prepared to take on the role of pastoral counselor through a combination of theological and academic work. They will also carry out supervised clinical practices.

Degree Duration Some of the courses offered
Ph.D. in Pastoral Counseling Up to 5 years
  •  Pastoral theology
  • Psychotherapy
  • Pastoral counseling techniques
  • Research methods
  • Personality theories

Career Prospects and Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t have data for pastoral counseling as a standalone career. However, most pastoral counselors work as mental health counselors or marriage and family therapists. Furthermore, many pastors carry out counseling duties as part of their jobs as pastors.

Job Title Median Salary (May 2015) Expected Job Growth
Clergy $48,150 8%
Marriage and family therapists $48,600 15%
Mental health counselors $41,880 20%
Counselors, social workers, and other community and social service specialists


$42,030 12%

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