What Is The Difference Between A Secular Therapist And A Pastoral Counselor?

"I have always been interested in both the spiritual lives of people as well as their psychological, interpersonal needs. How could a person combine counseling with a religious profession at the same time? I know there are religious counselors, but what’s the difference between a secular therapist and pastoral counselor? How does one prepare for that?"

asked by Bob E. from Indianapolis, IN

The traditional role of the religious leader has always included an element of counseling, whether they would have called it that or not. People often came to their priests, ministers or rabbis to unburden themselves, sort through issues and seek the council of their religious tradition in personal matters, relational matters and ethical quandaries. So this is not a new dimension for ministry in general.

What has changed is the psychological world surrounding the ministry. The growth of counseling as a field has been exponential. This has, in turn, influenced the practice of counseling in the ministry. As sophistication grew in the practice of counseling so did specialization.

Today every rank and file seminarian will take basic courses in pastoral care. This equips them to be better and more responsive listeners and guides. This includes teaching and learning in such matters as grief, loss, relationships, interpersonal conflict and ethical considerations.

This basic training has helped pastors become better care-givers, especially in short-term counseling and in crisis situations. They also learn when to refer, when the matter is over their heads or the projected time of counseling long-term and in-depth. Additional training is required for hospital or institutional chaplaincy, the basic Clinical Pastoral Education unit being mandatory.

Beyond basic training for all ministers and there exists specialized training for pastoral counselors. This includes coursework in the psychological sciences, the practice of counseling and pastoral theology. The pastoral counselor is not just another secular counselor wearing religious clothing; the orientation is spiritual, but many of the counseling approaches borrow heavily from different schools of psychotherapy.

Today, professional associations establish credentials for pastoral counselors along with stated standards for their training and preparation. This standard includes a required numbers of hours counseling persons while the counselor is under the supervision of an experienced and credentialed supervisory.

This process of mentoring is crucial. And only the highest level of experience and training authorizes one to be in this supervisory role. The American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) is a fine example of one of these professional associations.

Though some Bible Colleges offer a less intense path to being a “Christian Counselor” (which tends to be blending some psychological sciences with teaching wisdom from the Bible), the typical path now for fully authorized pastoral counselors includes earning the basic theological degree on the masters level.

Such as the Master of Divinity, holding ordination in one’s tradition, and then advanced coursework in pastoral counseling, often on the doctoral level.

This is joined with supervised counseling hours, mentoring and a rigorous program of preparation. This would lead to certification with one of the reputable pastoral counseling associations, such as AAPC.

Only then would a person legitimately be referred to as a pastoral counselor Until then the more accurate reference would be “a minister who councils.”

Career Spotlight: Pastor



A pastor is an ordained leader of a Protestant Christian organization. You will be performing religious ceremonies like weddings and baptisms and leading worship services. You will be studying and cit[...]

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