How to Become a Pastoral Counselor

Pastoral counseling combines counseling with theological training to offer clients a unique and integrated approach to therapeutic treatment. A pastoral counselor is a licensed mental health professional who has also had religious training and/or theological education. Clinical services are non-sectarian and respect the spiritual commitments, religious beliefs and traditions of clients, including couples, families, mental health clients and substance abusers. Pastoral counseling may incorporate collaborative community based services, training and education to improve the well-being of person in need.  

Pastoral counselors provide therapeutic support and spiritual guidance to people in need of all ages and circumstances. The unique orientation and listening perspective that pastoral counselors provide helps those in need find peace, forgiveness and acceptance.

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The Evolution of Pastoral Counseling

The practice of Pastoral Counseling dates back to the 1930s. For centuries, religious Americans have turned to their priests, ministers and rabbis in times of crises. Churches and temples provide personalized support and informal counseling for members of their community, including those with mental illness, depression, relationship issues, and drug and alcohol addiction. While traditional religious counseling continues to provide support, the need for a measure of professional therapy was recognized long ago for effective treatment. In the early 1900s the Clinical Pastoral Education movement was founded, and led to the integration of religion and psychology for therapeutic purposes as an academic discipline. The field steadily evolved with endorsements from religious leaders as well as psychologists and psychiatrists like Carl Jung, Karl Menninger and Abraham Maslow.  Leaders in both arenas came together to found the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, now the Blanton-Peale Institute in New York City.

Pastoral counseling has evolved from religious counseling to pastoral psycho­therapy, which integrates theology and other faith tradition knowledge, spirituality, the re­sources of faith communities, the behavioral sciences, and in recent years, systemic theory. "It only makes sense that religion and psychology — each of which is concerned with the fullness of the human experience — should be recognized as partners, because they function as partners within the human psyche," said Dr. Arthur Caliandro, Senior Minister Emeritus, Marble Collegiate Church, New York City. According to the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), pastoral counseling now accounts for three million hours of treatment annually in institutional and community-based settings.

Steps to Become a Pastoral Counselor

Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree in a behavioral, social science, or psychology field.

Because a master’s degree is a requirement for licensure as a mental health counselor, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in counseling related fields sets the groundwork for graduate studies in counseling. Coursework for undergraduate studies in these fields will typically include an understanding of human development, introduction to counseling, introduction to psychology, and/or basic approaches to counseling/therapy.

Step 2: Earn a master’s degree in counseling or marriage and family therapy.

There are many CACREP accredited universities that offer studies specifically in mental health counseling. As the foundation for work as a pastoral counselor, earning your master's in counseling or marriage and family therapy is recommended, although many pastoral counselors are ministers, priests, or rabbis.

Step 3: Complete graduate and postgraduate internship experience for certification/licensure requirements.

As a crucial aspect of accredited counseling and marriage and family therapy master’s programs, graduate supervised clinical experience allows students to dive into their future role as a licensed professional counselor or therapy, gaining hands-on experience under licensed professionals.

Step 4: Pass any required counseling exams for licensure.

Some states and/or counseling programs require the passing of a recognized counselor examination for gradation or licensure such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and/or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) or the MFT National Examination for marriage and family therapists. However, pastoral counselors earn a certification through the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.

Step 5: Apply for and earn additional pastoral counseling or therapy certifications.

Licensed professional counselors can pursue a national certification through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). Counselors can also pursue certifications in pastoral counseling or seek additional population, approach, or mental illness specializations.

Step 6: Continue your education and stay up to date on pastoral counseling trends and changes.

Continuing education is imperative to maintaining professional counseling licensure and keeping in the up-to-date on changes in counseling, mental health wellness, or pastoral approaches to therapy.


Are there certification requirements?

Voluntary certification is offered through the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. You can apply to be a Certified Pastoral Counselor, Fellow or Diplomate, depending on your level of experience. The AAPC sets professional practice standards for over 2000 Pastoral Counselors and 75 Pastoral Counseling Centers. AAPC offers a Pastoral Counselor certification program, as well as continuing education and advocacy for practicing counselors.  Becoming an AAPC certified pastoral counselor requires a serious commitment that begins with stringent education requirements – a B.A. and a Master of Divinity, or a master’s or doctoral level degree in theological/spiritual or biblical studies, or a Masters or Doctoral level degree in pastoral counseling, from accredited colleges or universities. Additional requirements include Religious body endorsement to ministry, active relationship to a local religious community, completion of a supervised self-reflective pastoral experience, three years in ministry, and 375 hours of pastoral counseling together, including 125 hours supervised by an AAPC diplomate or fellow, or in an AAPC approved training program in pastoral counseling.

Career Outlook for a Pastoral Counselor

According to both the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists (the closest related fields for which BLS provides data) in the U.S. is about $43,190.  Salaries for marriage and family therapists are represented by a range of $37,500 to $61,000 depending on the setting. The high end of the range is accounted for by those employed by the government. For example, counselors employed at offices of health care practitioners, outpatient care centers, individual and family services earn between $42,000 and $45,000. At the low end of the pay scale are those employed by nursing and residential care facilities.

Pastoral Counselors are employed in a variety of settings, including hospitals, hospice care, parishes, private practice, substance abuse programs, correctional facilities, domestic violence centers and other community based organizations. Most are affiliated with a church or other religious institution.

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Bellevue University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Science in Clinical Counseling
  • Program Length: Two to three years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credit Hours
  • 100-hours practicum
  • 600-hours internship
  • Residential and online students are responsible to complete practicum and clinical internship hours under supervision of a licensed counselor.
  • Candidates for the master’s degree program must have completed a prerequisite requirement of 6 credit hours in the behavioral sciences.

Admission Requirements

  • A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university, or a U.S. equivalent degree from a nationally or internationally accredited college or university
  • GPA of 2.5 or better from the most recent 60 credits of coursework earned toward the bachelor’s degree OR
  • GPA of 3.0 or better in previous graduate level coursework earned toward the graduate degree
  • May require letters of recommendation and essays in certain circumstances

Cornerstone University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master's Degree in Counseling
  • Program Length: Three to Four Years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 69 Credit hours
  • 100 hour practicum experience
  • 600 hour internship experience

Admission Requirements

  • Application
  • Official undergraduate transcripts with at least a 2.5 GPA from an accredited university
  • Ministry Reference
  • Personal Reference

Indiana Wesleyan University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Counseling
  • Program Length: 2 ½ to 5 years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements: 60 credits

Admission Requirements

  • A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university
  • Official transcripts
  • An undergraduate grade point average of 3.0
  • Six credit hours in Psychology, of which three credit hours must be in Abnormal Psychology (Developmental Psychology for Student Development Counseling and Administration).
  • Six credit hours in Bible.
  • GRE Score with a minimum 146 on verbal
  • Autobiography
  • Three recommendations, at least one from a professor and one from a supervisor/professional

New York University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Mental Health and Wellness
  • Program Length: 1 ½ to 2+ year depending on enrollment basis.
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous and Synchronous

Program Requirements:

  • 60 Credits
  • Completion of 700 hours of field work

Admission Requirements:

  • Completed online graduate application
  • Application Fee: $75, priority application timelines are $45
  • Statement of Purpose: Introduction of your goals, interests, career plans and reasons why you are pursuing a master's degree in counseling.
  • Current Resume or Curriculum Vitae
  • Transcripts from every postsecondary school uploaded. If admitted, you will need to provide official copies.
  • Two letters of recommendation from academic references.
  • If your native language is not English, you will need to submit TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE scores.
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