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What is a Pastoral Counselor?

If counseling is a noble profession, then pastoral counseling is even more so. This career path marries the intense desire to follow a spiritual path with the desire to help individuals. Not only does this work involve deep empathy and a special sort of strength, but those qualities must be developed over years of rigorous, focused academic and real-world work.

Many pastoral counselors not only work in churches where they often split their time between counseling and working as a pastor, but they can work in hospitals, jails, drug rehabs, and even private schools. Indeed, this is a diverse and highly rewarding career that allows the practitioner to forge an individual path to success. Keep reading to learn more about this fascinating and richly rewarding counseling career.

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Steps to Become a Pastoral Counselor:

A pastoral counselor is an ordained minister who provides talk therapy to clients and/or members of their congregation. While some are licensed by the state to conduct psychotherapy, many are credentialed only by their religious community. In either case, their counseling practice is closely tied to their religious affiliations.


Step 1:

In order to become a pastoral counselor, you must first decide that you wish to become an ordained member of the clergy. This can involve a lot of soul-searching and you may wish to discuss this with your own pastoral counselors. If your counseling sessions affirm your desire to enter the clergy and pursue work as a pastoral counselor, they may even be able to help you get started. They could point you in the direction of volunteer work you can do that will inform your decision and they might even help you find the best academic path.

You can also start forming a strong foundation with extra-curricular pastoral counseling studies. Ask your pastor or spiritual mentor for a list of appropriate books that you can study. There may even be affordable online courses that don't confer college credit, but which still help broaden and deepen your understanding of your religion and future pastoral counseling career path.

While you are pursuing opportunities as a clergy member, you should also be starting your bachelor's degree program in religious studies and ideally with an emphasis on counseling.

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Step 2:

The second step towards becoming a pastoral counselor is to enroll in an undergraduate program where your pastoral education will begin. You will want to ensure that your bachelor's degree counseling school is fully accredited because you will need to later complete a master’s degree in divinity also known as master of divinity. At this stage, you should consider a major degree that will offer the best preparation. Many aspiring spiritual leaders study religious studies, but you can also consider social work, psychology, sociology, counseling, or divinity.

Along the way, you will want to continue your pastoral religious activities. Seek out any lay leadership program opportunities in your congregation or religious community and make sure to volunteer on a regular basis. As a college student, you may be especially good at being a spiritual leader for the youth. You might also become involved with any ministry counseling opportunities on your college campus.

Step 3:

Once you have completed your bachelor’s degree in religious studies or counseling, your next step could be straight into a master’s in mental health counseling or religious studies program. However, your career could be better served by seeking out additional experience first. In fact, to bolster your graduate school application and to further develop as a spiritual leader, you could take time to complete a mission of some sort. While some churches offer these sorts of opportunities to parishioners, you could also consider entering the Peace Corps or working for some other domestic or international relief agency.

Another option might be to work in a church as a youth leader or in some other capacity. Larger churches, synagogues, mosques, or temples may have a need for a volunteer coordinator, youth mentor, or some other entry-level position that will inform your long-term career goals.

Step 4:

Graduate school is your final academic hurdle to becoming a pastoral counselor and/or a member of the clergy. You should seek out a fully accredited school of divinity and/or a seminary that works with your specific religion and denomination. You have a few options when it comes to your specific degree, since the American Association of Pastoral Counselors asks that you have a graduate or doctoral degree in one of the following: divinity, biblical studies, theological studies, spiritual studies, or pastoral counseling. You will also need clinical pastoral education that might come from your graduate program or an organization such as the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.

While most states don't require that pastoral counselors become licensed, some do make this a requirement. It's important to investigate your state law to ensure compliance. Keep in mind that if you decide to venture into private practice, you will need to fulfill the state's educational and other licensing requirements.

What Does a Pastoral Counselor Do?

Many pastoral counselors provide counseling services to parishioners or other clients who need spiritual guidance. They rely on their graduate level counseling training to help those who need to overcome personal and spiritual difficulties including marital problems, family strife, and any other problem that is causing a deep disturbance. On a daily basis, these pastoral counselors might sit with and counsel four or five people in sessions that last around an hour, depending on their daily schedule. Many counselors consider this an ample work-load, given the often-weighty nature of the work. That is, counselors often need to help their clients sort out deep traumas.

Pastoral counselors typically work in an office that is located on church grounds. However, some work in remote offices and may even conduct counseling sessions using electronic media such as Skype, Zoom, or other video conferencing applications. They might also work and visit in non-church locations, such as hospitals where their clients are suffering with an injury or disease. It’s common for pastoral counselors to offer hospice care to those facing their final hours. It's also possible to find these counseling professionals offering their services on the scene of a natural or other disaster. Pastoral counselors are common in the military, where they are called military chaplains. These professionals offer solace and professional counseling techniques to distressed soldiers.

Skills to Acquire

  • Listening:
    While everyone has ears, not everyone is skilled at using them. This is a vital skill to cultivate in your pursuit of a career in counseling. Listening can include asking for clarification and repeating what someone has said so that they understand that they're being heard. A large part of counseling is listening and processing the information from patients.
  • Critical Thinking:
    Counselors need to be able to process what their clients are telling them through the lens of their belief system. Counselors should also be able to identify when someone has a deeper, perhaps psychiatric, problem, especially as it pertains to substance abuse or mental health.
  • Empathy:
    Putting yourself in the shoes of another may come easier for some than others. However, everyone is served by practicing and cultivating this skill. In fact, empathy might be the most important skill a counselor can develop.

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  • Communication:
    Pastoral counselors need to be able to communicate themselves with clarity and compassion. Sometimes counseling clients need to hear difficult messages, and skilled counselors will know how to deliver them without confrontation. On the other hand, they may need to know when to use a more confrontational approach, but this discernment is central to their communication skill.
  • Diagnosis:
    Every counselor needs to be able to formulate a treatment plan for their patients or clients. Whether you rely on the psychology community's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or some other rubric, it’s important to make a summary assessment of each client so that you can formulate a path and plan for healing. As a mental health professional, it's important to maintain a certain clinical disposition.

Alternative Paths

While all pastoral counselors must complete certain steps when it comes to religion and psychiatry counseling, there are many different ways to prepare yourself for the job. For instance, you can pursue any number of special internships, volunteer missions, and even academic disciplines to prepare for the work. You might complete a bachelor's degree as a licensed clinical social worker or mental health counseling and achieve a state license on top of your spiritual training. This way you can work in private practice apart from a church while still offering counseling services that are steeped in your spiritual tradition.

Others may come to the profession as a result of being a client themselves, or after undergoing a spiritual transformation by following their counselor. For instance, a prisoner may be profoundly impacted by certain religious leaders they met with while in jail. That inspiration may prompt them to learn more about pastoral counseling and then help others in a similar fashion.

Keep in mind that there are pastoral counselors that hail from all spiritual and religious traditions. Whether you are Buddhist, Taoist, Sikh, Christian, or Jewish, you can pursue divinity training in pastoral counseling. After all, no matter what creed one follows, spiritual and other forms of crisis are liable to creep up from time to time.

Pastoral Counselor Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Pastoral counselors typically find employment through the organizing body of their spiritual tradition. If you happen to be Christian, this means that you'll most likely work in a church. However, you could do the church's work at a hospital or prison, or some mix. Buddhist counselors may work at a temple or a Buddhist retreat center.

There are also pastoral counselors who hold rank in the military as chaplains. They might work in any number of environments and they are likely to be transferred at a moment's notice. Some may be deployed to combat zones and work with traumatized soldiers or in a military hospital where they seek to provide comfort to the wounded. These counselors often need to be available to offer assistance to soldiers from a variety of religious or spiritual backgrounds.

A certified pastoral counselor can also branch into private practice in mental health counseling if they so choose. For this, you will likely need a state license to conduct psychotherapy. That is, if you aren't backed by a church you may need a broader set of credentials. Alternatively, licensed psychotherapists who wish to offer a more spiritual approach in counseling can return to school for a master’s degree in divinity (master of divinity) and then become a certified pastoral counselor through a religious body.

Career Outlook

The career outlook for pastoral care counseling and others in the counseling profession is looking quite good, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Though there is no specific classification that covers pastoral counselors, comparable workers are earning good salaries and should see their field open up dramatically in the next ten years or so.

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For instance, social workers, which includes licensed clinical social workers, have a median salary of $50,000. That means that those with a master’s degree and who work in private clinical practice should earn far more. Their field is also projected to grow by 13% in the years between 2019 and 2029.

Another comparable field is that of substance abuse counselors. Their median salary is reported at $46,000, with the typical employee working with only a pastoral education bachelor’s degree. Their field is projected to grow by 25%, which the BLS characterizes as much faster than average. Since pastoral counselors provide similar services, it's likely that their salaries are equal to or greater than substance abuse counselors.

Advancing From Here

Pastoral counselors can indeed advance their position if they so choose. For those who work in a church, there is the possibility of becoming the lead pastor, and those who work in hospitals might work their way into administration. Each pastoral counselor has the option to enter private practice or perhaps start their own non-profit organization for counseling a particular population, such as a drug rehabilitation center.


For those seeking a career in mental health or pastoral counseling, there are many different routes to take. The career isn't only for those who work in churches, though that is a large and important part of the profession. Pastoral counselors also work in drug rehabilitation, private practice, jails, juvenile detention centers, and in hospitals. In fact, if you pursue this profession your career can be as varied and diverse as you choose.

  • Prison Counselor:
    Very often spiritual guides are needed to help prisoners rehabilitate from their previous lives. This position may require extensive background checks and a lot of security measures, but the reward that comes from helping a prisoner turn their life around is immense.
  • Hospice Care:
    Given that religion often concerns itself with the afterlife, it's natural for pastoral counselors to work in hospitals providing comfort to the dying. This job may also require counselors to work with the family of the dying patient.
  • Youth Counselor:
    Pastoral counselors can often be a great help to teens and pre-adolescents who are experiencing growing pains. This job might be tied with prison counseling and find professionals working in juvenile detention centers or mental health counseling.
  • Addictions Counselor:
    Many consider an addiction to be a malady of the spirit as well as the body, so who better to help these suffering people than a pastoral counselor. Since there are many faith-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, pastoral counselors might work in an inpatient or outpatient counseling centers, provide therapy or substance abuse counseling.
  • Marriage and Family Counselor:
    Very often, clergy will work with married couples and their families to help them navigate a period of trouble or strife. A marriage and family counseling specialty may find you working in private practice or through your church, where parishioners appreciate the low cost of treatment. A marriage and family counseling professional may find themselves working with married couples and the kids in both group settings and one on one counseling seessions.
  • Grief Counselor:
    This position goes hand in hand with those working in Hospice Care. That is, the bereaved may need your assistance as much as the deceased. However, you might add this specialty to a private practice and thus offer pastoral spiritual guidance to those who have recently lost a loved one.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What level of education do pastoral counselors need?

Pastoral counselors will need a master's degree.

How much does a pastoral counselor make?

Pastoral counselors make around $49,000 annually.

What is the difference between a pastoral counselor and a regular counselor?

The main difference between a pastoral counselor and a regular counselor is the basic philosophy of the counseling process.

Where do pastoral counselors work?

Pastoral counselors mostly work in churches and other religious institutions but they are qualified to work in many different places. Pastoral counselors might work in hospice care, hospitals, parishes, substance abuse programs, private practices, domestic violence centers, correctional facilities, and other community based organizations

What qualities make a good pastoral counselor?

A good pastoral counselor needs to be compassionate, have insight, be flexible, and have spiritual maturity.

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