Pastoral counseling involves a helping relationship between a religiously affiliated counselor and an individual, couple, or family who seek assistance for coping with life. Pastoral counselors include ordained ministers and consecrated professionals licensed in the field of counseling and therapy.
The word “pastoral” indicates that services are provided which are sensitive to the spiritual viewpoints and values of counselees regardless of their faith affiliation. A respect for the faith dimension of human experience is an important contribution of the pastoral counseling movement to the mental health field. Pastoral counseling assumes that a counselee’s spiritual life has value in helping to heal emotional wounds, resolve conflicts, facilitate life transitions, and clarify values and purpose.
Pastoral counseling often takes the form of a specialized ministry within a church, where pastors or professional counselors offer pastoral counseling under the auspices of pastoral care. However, pastoral counseling can also function as an outreach ministry to a local hospital, homeless shelter, or independent counseling center; or it may serve persons through the chaplaincy in a prison, military base, or college campus.
I know of a pastor who has collaborated with the police department in his hometown for over twenty years. Early on they so valued his contributions that they gave him a badge with the title “Police Chaplain.” Over the decades his phone has rung regularly for calls involving domestic disputes.
Pastoral counselors meet a wide range of human needs. For instance, a counselee who is grieving the loss of a loved one; a couple who need premarital counseling or help raising step-children; an individual addicted to substances; a person dealing with adverse work conditions; a parent overwhelmed by young children or adolescents; a family being torn apart by forces they don’t understand; or a person searching for intimacy with God.
By transforming broken personalities and reconciling damaged relationships, pastoral counseling helps persons and communities to become living expressions of God’s redemptive love in the concreteness of daily life.
Most pastoral counselors have academic training in addition to religious credentials. These may include the Master of Divinity or Doctor of Ministry degrees, with a specialty in pastoral counseling. If a pastor has not had opportunity to study counseling in seminary, there are excellent Internet and external degree programs in pastoral counseling offered through credible institutions that strengthen competence in counseling. For instance, I offer an online course for 4 CE (Pastoral Counseling: The Intersection of Psychology and Spirituality) through the Zur Institute.
On the other hand, some pastoral counselors meet with counselees on the basis of their religious credentials alone; Biblical counseling, for example, emphasizes helping parishioners respond to a crisis primarily through empathetic listening, prayer, and biblical instruction.
Consecrated mental health workers who work in religious settings or private practice are often licensed as psychologists, professional counselors, or marriage and family therapists. They may work in private practice or band together to form a church-based counseling center.
Personally, I see pastoral counseling as hugely important to the life of the Church and the witness to the community, embodying the truth that God ministers compassionately and wisely to human need, and that anything human is worthy of understanding.
For 25 therapeutic techniques that can be used in pastoral counseling, read: