Pastoral Counseling

Pastoral counselors generally have training in both religion and mental health. Read about academic programs, career opportunities and certification options for pastoral counselors.

Is Pastoral Counseling for Me?

Pastoral counseling offers an alternative to purely secular therapy, taking a more spiritual approach to tackling the psychological problems of those in need. It is, according to the non-sectarian American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), a professionalization of the clerical practice of listening and responding to troubled individuals (www.aapc.org). The AAPC considers spirituality an aspect of humanity that can affect the human psyche.

Job Description

Practitioners treat people in settings such as hospitals, substance-abuse treatment centers, religious retreats, military bases, schools and community centers. You may work with people who need help with personal, familial or faith-based issues, such as marital problems, sexual abuse or depression. Due to the fact that there are many Americans who consider themselves religious or spiritual in some way, many of them may prefer to seek out counseling with a spiritual foundation.

Employment Information

The AAPC doesn't provide salary information for pastoral counselors. However, it says that in states where no specific licenses exist for pastoral counselors, you'll need to qualify as a marriage and family therapist or a professional counselor. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that as of May 2013, the median annual salary for marriage and family therapists was $48,160 (www.bls.gov). As of May 2013, clergy made a median annual salary of $43,800, and mental health counselors made $40,580, according to the BLS.

How Can I Become a Pastoral Counselor?

Education Overview

A bachelor's degree and a graduate degree are required to become a pastoral counselor. The AAPC has no requirements regarding the undergraduate field you pursue; however, because a pastoral counselor's graduate degree must be from a seminary program, and many schools require that applicants pass an exam that assesses your Biblical knowledge, you might want to consider pursuing an undergraduate degree related to Biblical studies.

Master's Programs

The next step is completing a seminary degree program, such as a master's or doctoral degree program in Biblical studies or a Master of Divinity (MDiv). An MDiv degree program can prepare you for a career as an ordained minister. Courses in the MDiv program include studies in Greek, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, world religions, theories of worship and religious philosophies. It's also likely that you'll engage in ministry opportunities and obtain an internship at a church. It is also worth noting that some schools offer specializations in pastoral counseling.

Professional Degrees

In addition to seminary training, you must earn a master's or doctoral degree in specialized mental-health studies to become AAPC certified. Through this degree program, you'll study personality theories, group and individual counseling methods, marriage and family counseling techniques, public health, development processes, mental disorders and human sexuality. You'll also engage in clinical internships, where you work with licensed counselors.

Licensure and Certification

Upon graduation from a graduate-level counseling program, you can apply for state licensure as a pastoral counselor or a marriage and family therapist; state requirements can vary. However, to become AAPC certified, you must complete at least 1,375 hours of supervised clinical experience and 250 hours working as a therapist with individuals seeking help for crises or long-term situations.

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