Pastoral Counseling Career

Pastoral counselors serve clients and parishioners through spiritual guidance that is grounded in clinically sound psychotherapy. Many serve as pastoral counselors in religious settings, but venues have expanded outside the church. Graduates commonly seek state licensure, but some prefer to serve in religious contexts, such as in churches or chaplaincies, that don't follow typical licensing requirements.

Pastoral counselors serve clients and parishioners through spiritual guidance that is grounded in clinically sound psychotherapy.

Given that all pastors counsel others to some extent, many pursue a pastoral counseling degree to more effectively minister to the needs of their congregations. This training helps pastors better integrate psychotherapy with church teachings.

What Do Pastoral Counselors Do?

Pastoral counselors combine the principles and methods of psychotherapy with theological and spiritual foundations to serve the whole person in a variety of contexts. Most pastoral counselors work in church settings, while others may serve in hospitals, the military, correctional facilities, rehabilitation facilities, domestic violence centers, or counseling clinics. Common titles include pastor, chaplain, priest, rabbi, or church counselor.

Effective pastoral counselors need compassion and a desire to improve others' lives. They exemplify integrity and must be capable of cultivating trusting relationships. Pastoral counselors apply active listening skills and body language to fully understand their clients' challenges. They ask questions to clarify understanding, while also helping their clients fully express their issues. They also design remedial plants and assess progress so that clients can successfully address their situations.

Pastoral counselors serve their clients or parishioners with an emphasis on the whole person in their own life context. As a result, pastoral counselors usually become involved in their clients' lives outside of the counseling office, often in a church setting.

Pastoral Counseling vs Christian Counseling

While both pastoral counseling and Christian counseling combine psychotherapy with theological and spiritual insights, they differ considerably in context and scope. Christian counselors often work in clinical settings and work in scheduled sessions, and have little to no involvement in their clients' lives outside of their counseling sessions. In fact, most clinics discourage counselor-client interaction beyond their sessions. Conversely, pastoral counselors commonly work in the church or a similar context, often sharing a broader relationship with their clients before initiating a counseling relationship. For that reason, pastoral counselors usually know their clients personally.

Clinical or vocational Christian counselors use their sessions to focus on a specific area in their client's life. Pastoral counselors, on the other hand, serve from a pastoral perspective in and beyond the formal counseling session. They usually have observational access to more parts of their clients' lives. Pastoral counselors also emphasize a broader responsibility to encourage, train, and equip their clients to grow spiritually, psychologically, and socially.

How to Become a Pastoral Counselor

The path to becoming a pastoral counselor varies based on the context in which you intend to serve, and the requirements of your affiliated denomination or organization. Larger churches tend to set higher requirements for their pastoral counselors. Similarly, the Army Chaplain Corps requires prospective chaplains to complete a master's degree in religious or theological studies from an accredited institution. Beyond that, chaplain candidates must hold ordination from their denomination or faith group, and must have completed at least two years of professional or ministry experience within their ordaining organization. Many pastoral counselors follow a professional development path similar to the one described below.

Earn a Degree

The education required to become a pastoral counselor depends on the context in which you intend to serve and the type of counseling you expect to provide. While no licensure requirements apply to pastoral counseling within the church setting, most churches and denominations require pastoral counselors to hold a bachelor's degree in pastoral counseling or pastoral counseling certification. However, given the challenges of the counseling profession, most pastoral counselors pursue a graduate degree in addition to their bachelor's. Some even pursue state licensure, which requires a master's degree. The descriptions below outline the level of training provided by each degree.

Accreditation for Divinity and Theology Programs

Aspiring pastoral counselors should consider that their future clients deserve the best counseling possible. For that reason, prospective pastoral counselors should seek solid professional training through a properly accredited institution and program. Regional accreditation from a program approved by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation assures that the college or seminary meets professionally accepted standards of quality and rigor. Programmatic accreditation further verifies the quality of a specific program.

Most Bible schools and seminaries seek institutional accreditation from the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools. Most schools and seminaries also secure programmatic accreditation for their pastoral counseling programs as added quality assurance. Programmatic accrediting bodies for counseling programs include the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs and the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council.

Clinical Experience Required to Become a Pastoral Counselor

All master's and doctoral programs in pastoral counseling require some kind of supervised counseling field experience. The exact requirements vary by institution and program. Students pursuing a clinical counseling career and license must complete an internship in a clinical setting. All counseling interns must devote considerable time to observation, supervised counseling practice, and informed reflection with their supervisors.

At the master's level, students spend 200 to 400 hours in active field or clinical experience. Many programs integrate this field experience with a capstone project or thesis, in which the student synthesizes several aspects of the curriculum. At the doctoral level, the clinical experience component may require 600 hours of face-to-face counseling on marriage and family, chemical dependency, grief, and crisis management. Some students devote more time to the clinical experience, depending on their dissertation focus.

Salary and Employment for Pastoral Counselors

Most pastoral counselors serve in churches, chaplaincy corps, or related organizations, with their incomes based on set salaries as opposed to billable hours. Location, education, and experience level exert the greatest influences on salary size for these workers. The average salaries listed below include pastoral counselors with a master's in pastoral counseling. Those with a doctorate in pastoral counseling earn higher salaries. Counselors working in smaller communities typically receive smaller salaries. The salary survey cited below also revealed that pastoral counselors experience a high level of job satisfaction.

How Do Pastoral Counselors Get Paid?

Branches of the military, and other non-church organizations, usually pay their pastoral counselors with a straightforward compensation package. However, church-based settings vary considerably in how they compensate their staff. Regardless of the size and location of the church, an administrative oversight board usually sets and specifies employees' compensation details in a contract. However, church size and location do impact the compensation package. Some small, rural churches receive salary support from their denomination, but most do not. Consequently, the church's size, its community's demographics, and the congregation's tithing patterns determine what the church can pay. In some cases, pastoral counselors receive a housing allowance or free housing in addition to their salaries. Many rural churches also allow, if not expect, their pastoral staff to supplement their incomes with part-time employment in the community.

Things to Consider Before Becoming a Pastoral Counselor

A degree in pastoral counseling empowers you to make a difference in people's lives. The profession offers great personal awards, along with tough challenges, as people come to their counselors with deeply personal issues. Effective pastoral counselors genuinely and unconditionally love people of all backgrounds, and they exhibit strong interpersonal relationship skills, especially in one-on-one contexts. Similarly, they create bridges of trust through active listening skills. Pastoral counselors also enjoy and commit themselves to systematic theological studies. They know scripture and how to apply it to the unique challenges of their clients and parishioners.

Effective pastoral counselors create safe environments to comfortably discuss hard topics such as suicide, PTSD, death, and grief. Pastoral counselors must know how to empathize deeply with their clients, but they must also be able to return to their own families at the end of the day without carrying the weight of their clients' issues.

Professional Resources for Pastoral Counselors

  • American Association of Pastoral Counselors The AAPC provides members with professional development, networking, resources, and related supports. The association sponsors a national conference and publishes its journal, Sacred Spaces, on an annual basis. AAPC used to offer a pastoral counseling certification, but has discontinued that service.
  • Association for Clinical Pastoral Education Primarily focused on certifying the providers of Clinical Pastoral Education (and accrediting their organizations), this association serves the professional needs of clinical pastoral caregivers and educators of all faith backgrounds in its pastoral counseling centers.
  • Journal of Pastoral Care Publications The JPCP advances the theory and professional practice of pastoral counselors through a variety of rigorous publications, including its primary publication, the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling.
  • Zur Institute Specializing in providing online continuing education for mental health professionals, the Zur Institute, founded in 1995, offers a helpful index of resources specifically for pastoral counselors.
  • American Counseling Association Though not specifically focused on pastoral counseling, the ACA offers a robust selection of print and online resources for counseling professionals. The association also offers an excellent national conference and other networking opportunities.

Online Tools For Pastoral Counselors


This web-based, note-taking app helps you plan, organize, manage tasks, collaborate with others, and file important notes and images across digital platforms. It offers email integration and web search enhancement features.

Planning Center

Pastoral counselors in church-based settings appreciate this comprehensive church management app, which covers nearly every aspect of church administration. More efficient management frees up time to serve individuals more effectively.


This planning and project management app offers three levels of features, including a free version applicable to individuals and small organizations. Used by organizations of all sizes, Trello features a visual approach to collaboration.

Bible Study Tools

This robust Bible study application offers abundant features including commentaries, devotionals, lexicons, sermons, and various biblical translations. The website helps consolidate resources for pastoral counselors.

You Need a Budget

One of the more highly rated personal budgeting applications, YNAB helps you make the most of your income, so your personal finances serve you rather than put a drain on your ministry, marriage, and family situation.