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What does a Pastoral Counselor do?

By T. Briseno
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A pastoral counselor provides spiritual and mental health guidance within various faith traditions. With training in psychology and theology, a pastoral counselor can apply clinical therapies within the context of religious tenets. Whether a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest, or a Protestant minister by faith and theological or seminary training, a pastoral counselor also serves as a mental health professional. Counseling can range from marriage preparation to grief management to substance abuse recovery, and it can be practiced in public or private institutions. When individuals need help with issues where faith and life events merge, a pastoral counselor may provide the needed comfort and expertise.

It is generally accepted that clergy can serve respective flocks by knowing and applying religious texts as truth and guidance for congregants who need help. Prayer also is a form of treatment to those who believe in its power and in a higher power. A trained pastoral counselor, however, serves in a professional capacity when a problem or situation may be beyond what a church or temple leader is trained to address. Internationally, pastoral counsel may fall to a leader or missionary with little or no theological training but with the knowledge of indigenous beliefs and regional superstitions necessary to apply specific counsel and healing rituals.

Within the United States, the American Association of Pastoral Counselors offers licensing and certification to individuals seeking a profession in pastoral counseling. Training generally includes a university bachelor’s degree, a seminary degree, and a doctorate or concentrated master’s degree in psychology or a related discipline. Testing and personal evaluation by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors completes the process for certification.

Settings where a pastoral counselor may be employed include hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, military bases, workplaces, and specific counseling practices. When a patient is nearing death, a counselor often is called to comfort spiritually and to address the psychological stress of the family members. Those who suffer the consequences of acting in conflict with their religious beliefs may seek counseling in the middle of a spiritual crisis.

A pastoral counselor may provide treatment to the individual who commits an act — such as abuse or marital infidelity — as well as to the individual who suffered as a result of the actions. Helping individuals to understand why they are depressed or are capable of going against their religious beliefs, or providing understanding of why a believer is undergoing suffering, can be typical professional challenges for a pastoral counselor.

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