Pastoral Counseling Careers

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Pastoral CounselingWhat Is Pastoral Counseling?

Since ancient times, ministers have been helping followers through adversity. This role is now called pastoral counseling. It provides a framework for the training resources and various roles of clergy in the therapeutic setting. Priests, rabbis, ministers, Imans and others receive psychological training that helps them provide therapy to members of their congregation who are in distress.

It is different from other branches of counseling and psychotherapy. Pastoral counselors represent the central beliefs of a religious community so therapy is an interplay of faith, life and behavioral science. The counselor is able to combine resources from the mental health field with those of theology.

In the United States, pastoral counseling has been a distinct field since the 1920s. At that point religious groups starting integrating insights from the new field of psychiatry with social work and traditional training for members of the clergy. The American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, now called the Blanton-Peale Institute, was started in the 1930s. In 1963, professional certification was introduced to the field through the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education .

Why Do We Need Pastoral Counseling?

Pastoral counselors are in a unique position to help members of their flock through bereavement, terminal illness and marriage relationship problems. Relationship is paramount with pastoral counselors, with an emphasis on the belief that all people are connected.

As pastoral counselors, they can draw on shared religious beliefs to help individuals find meaning in the pain and to work toward a sense of greater wholeness.

They help people cope with a wide range of issues, including   family relationship problems, end-of-life issues, substance abuse situations, mental health problems, and even about growing up and choosing careers.

Members of a faith community benefit from the one-on-one attention and the training of the pastoral counselor in spiritual, ethical and psychological matters.

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What Are the Education Requirements to Become a Pastoral Counselor?

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 Counseling Educational Track
Education Requirements Education Length Available Programs
Undergraduate Work Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Counseling 4 Years Online or Campus
Graduate Work Earn a Master's Degree in Counseling 5-6 Years Online or Campus
PHD or Doctoral Work Earn a Doctorate in Counseling  7-8 Years Online or Campus

Learn more about a pastoral counseling degree.

Strictly speaking, credentials are not required for clergy who want to offer counseling, most of which is done within their particular parish. They can offer consolation and advice to members of their flock without official licensing or training.

But most seek licensing and certification from the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education . This group vouches that the counselor has met specific training requirements, both classroom and clinical. Each person who seeks certification successfully completes the tests and undergoes a personal evaluation.

Many pastoral counselors have a Bachelor’s degree, a degree from a seminary, and often a Master’s degree or doctorate in psychology or other area of mental health, or in pastoral care and counseling. There is also a doctorate in pastoral community counseling or a Doctor of Theology (ThD) in pastoral counseling.

Depending on the level of education, the counselor might participate in a residency program. This offers them the chance for trained supervision as they counsel people one-on-one or in group settings.

In many cases, clergy seek out licensing as official marriage and family therapists or professional counselors.

What Does a Pastoral Counselor Do?

Pastoral counselors perform a range of counseling duties in various settings. These might include helping a parishioner through grief management, working with a couple planning a wedding to prepare them for the realities of marriage, and checking in with a person who is in recovery from substance abuse.

Anywhere faith and life events mix, a counselor can bring his expertise to the situation and provide comfort. The counseling session can include prayer.

Where Does a Pastoral Counselor Work?

Pastoral counselors work in a variety of settings. These can include churches, temples and other houses of worship, hospitals, correctional facilities, substance abuse rehabilitation facilities, hospices, domestic violence centers, workplaces, military bases and religious-based counseling centers. Some have private practices that are open to members of their faith, as well as outsiders.

What Is the Annual Average Salary of a Pastoral Counselor?

Because pastoral counselors are part of a very specific specialty, average salaries are hard to measure reliably. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track salary or employment data for them. However, they do track data for many related careers.

In May 2022, the BLS reported that the median salary for counselors, all other (a catch-all category for counselors outside of traditional mental health and substance abuse specialties), was $43,390.

Pastoral counselors often seek more advanced credentials in other areas of counseling, as well, which can increase their earning potential. For instance, the median annual wage for marriage and family therapists is $56,570 as of May 2022. The median annual salary for substance abuse, mental health, and behavioral counselors is slightly lower at $49,710. But fortunately for pastoral counselors, religious organizations pay these professionals the highest average salary at $86,480.

For many pastors, counseling is simply part of their normal duties. It is fitted in around conducting services, running the church, and supervising activities that involve the congregation and the community. They receive the normal salary of a pastor in their location and within that faith. According to the BLS, clergy and other religious leaders have an average annual wage of $60,180.

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for counselors (all other), marriage and family therapists, mental health counselors, and clergy are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2023.

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