What in Heaven's Name is Pastoral Counseling?

Learn what a pastoral counselor does and find out how you can get your degree in counseling.

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By Joshua Gunn

That’s the first question a lot of people have when introduced to the unique profession of pastoral counseling. Pastoral counselors play an important role in almost every faith. Ordained ministers, rabbis, priests and other religious leaders all help their congregations with psychological and spiritual issues.

If your passion for theology is as strong as your desire to counsel people in need, then you may want to consider a career in pastoral counseling. These specialized counselors offer valuable emotional and spiritual guidance for everyone from young people making their way in the world to older people who might be facing faith-depleting experiences.

Where on Earth Can I Study Pastoral Counseling?

Pastoral counselors typically first complete a seminary program and then add a Master’s of Divinity degree. One institution that specializes in theology degrees, Argosy University, offers online classes for a Master’s of Divinity degree with a pastoral counseling specialization.

While studying for a Master of Divinity degree, you will be trained in psychology while continuing your education in theology.

Concentrations include:

  • Human development and personality
  • Interpersonal dynamics
  • Marriage, family and community dynamics
  • Cultural systems
  • Research methods

You will learn these valuable skills while putting your seminary knowledge to good use.

Working in the Field

As a pastoral counselor, you are a trained mental health professional who can expand your work outside of your congregation to help treat individuals, families or groups.

Some of the places you may work include:

  • Public mental health centers
  • Private practices
  • Substance abuse treatment programs
  • Prison outreach services
  • Religious retreats

You may also provide therapy for clients experiencing marital conflict, depression, wavering faith, grief and other problems. These counselors can also provide therapy for people of differing faiths, creating an interesting challenge of offering scientific-based, as well as religious-based, mental health care.

Becoming a Pastoral Counselor

With a master’s degree under your belt, you are ready to take your place within the community, and you can start by becoming certified by The American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), which sets professional standards, accredits pastoral counselors and educational programs, and provides a network for its members. It also provides continuing education opportunities.

There are several levels of certification, including:

  • Member Associate
  • Member
  • Fellow
  • Diplomat

Requirements for each certification level varies. For instance, an AAPC Fellow must have at least 1,375 hours of supervised clinical experience, including 250 hours of direct supervision.

If you are passionate about your faith, as well as the psychology of guiding others through life’s milestones and complexities, perhaps it’s time you took the next step towards a career as a pastoral counselor.