Pastoral counseling is a kind of counseling in which the counselor is a religious leader who also has training and psychology. It combines secular approaches to mental health with spirituality and religious practice.
Pastoral counseling is not focused on any particular issue or mental health condition. Rather, it is a way for people to seek guidance in a way that draws on their religious traditions. It can be especially helpful for people who have concerns related their own spirituality or religious practice.
Pastoral counseling is somewhat similar to simply seeking guidance from a religious leader, but the difference is that pastoral counselors also have training as mental health professionals.
Some form of pastoral counseling is often available in many different kinds of religious communities.
What can pastoral counseling help with?
pastoral counseling can be helpful for many mental health concerns, including:
- Family Issues
- Loss and Grief
- Existential Crisis
- Life Transitions
- Identity Development
Keep in mind that you don’t have to have a specific mental health condition or symptoms to seek pastoral counseling. If you feel like your faith is relevant to the challenges you’re facing, or if you just want mental health treatment that includes attention to spirituality, then pastoral counseling may be a good fit for you.
Pastoral counseling can also be helpful for couples or families who are seeking treatment together.
Does pastoral counseling work?
Compared to some other kinds of therapy, there is relatively little scientific research on pastoral counseling. Although it draws on evidence-based mental health treatments, it also depends in part on the kind of spiritual and religious outcomes that are difficult to quantify.
That said, there is evidence that pastoral counseling is a common support system in religious communities and that members of these communities find it helpful. For example, one study of pastors of African-American churches found that these pastors regularly provided pastoral counseling to individuals dealing with a wide range of mental health concerns.
How does pastoral counseling work?
Pastoral counseling is based on the idea that religion and spirituality can be helpful components of mental health treatment. Because religion is already a positive force in many people’s lives, working with a counselor who is also a leader in that religion can be a helpful way for people to use faith as a path toward healing.
Additionally, pastoral counseling can help people resolve conflicts that may be related to their religion. For example, if you’re experiencing guilt or anxiety around not living up to the ideals of your religion, a pastoral counselor can guide you through reading religious texts or discussing religious concepts as a way of rethinking your relationship to religious values.
It’s important to note that pastoral counseling is not the same thing as healing through faith. Rather, it works in partnership with secular and scientific approaches to mental health as an additional support--it is not meant to replace other kinds of mental health treatment.
How frequently are pastoral counseling sessions held?
Pastoral counseling sessions may be held on a weekly basis, but they may also be more or less frequent, depending on the kind of support you’re seeking.
Note that pastoral counseling can also be used sporadically as a complement to other kinds of therapy sessions. It’s very common for pastoral counselors to make referrals to other mental health professionals when necessary.
How long does pastoral counseling last?
There is no set endpoint for pastoral counseling. Counseling can take place over the course of a few weeks, a few months, or a longer period of time. Some people might even seek out pastoral counseling for just one session.
How are pastoral counseling sessions structured?
Pastoral counseling is not a formally structured therapy. The structure of your sessions will depend on your needs, and sessions can often be somewhat informal discussions.
That said, pastoral counseling may follow these basic phases:
- Discussing challenges and setting goals: One way that pastoral counseling is different from regular clinical counseling is that you may already know your counselor from a religious context. But even if you already know your counselor, you’ll start by discussing why you’re seeking counseling and what you would like to get out of the process.
- Identifying plans for change: Once you’ve developed a rapport with your counselor and established some goals, you’ll work together to strategize about how to reach those goals. Often, these plans will draw on religious materials, community supports, your relationships with others, or a referral to another kind of mental health professional.
- Ongoing support: You might continue meeting with your pastoral counselor even after you’ve reached some or all of your goals. This can be a helpful way to maintain a supportive connection and practice continuing to draw on your religious values.
What happens in a typical pastoral counseling session?
Pastoral counseling can involve a wide range of activities, and they will vary depending on your religious tradition, your needs, and your counselor’s approach.
That said, a few common features include:
- Discussion: Simply talking over what’s bothering you is a big part of pastoral counseling. You or your counselor may bring in religious and spiritual concepts to further this discussion. In some forms of pastoral counseling--for couples preparing for marriage, for example--your counselor may also guide you through exploring what your religion teaches about the situation you’re in.
- Readings: Exploration of religious texts may be a component of some pastoral counseling.
- Community involvement: It’s common for pastoral counselors to help you identify ways that your religious community can support you in reaching your goals. For example, they might recommend a prayer group where you can explore religious ideas with others.
- Building support networks: Pastoral counseling can include sessions with individuals who are close to you, such as friends and family. In some cases, pastoral counseling might focus mostly on these relationships; couples counseling and family counseling can both take place with pastoral counselors.
Pastoral counselors are generally trained in recognizing warning signs of particular mental health issues, so they may also refer you to another professional if need be.
What should I look for in a Pastoral Counselor?
Pastoral counseling is somewhat unique in that many different kinds of professionals can be pastoral counselors. Generally, they need to have some training in mental health as well as a position within a religious community. For example, priests, rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders can all be pastoral counselors, provided that they have some mental health training. Some are also clinical mental health professionals like psychologists or social workers.
Many are Certified Pastoral Counselors, which is a certification granted by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. To get this certification, counselors must be ordained in their religions, hold an advanced degree, and have extensive experience working as a counselor. Looking for a Certified Pastoral Counselor in your area is usually a good first step.
However, certification is not mandatory for pastoral counselors. Because of this, mental health training among pastoral counselors varies. If can’t find a certified counselor, make sure that you’re working with someone reputable by verifying their credentials online and/or getting recommendations from your community.
And remember, it’s important that you feel comfortable with your counselor, too! If you can, take the time to find a pastoral counselor who feels like a good fit for your unique needs and personality.
Find therapists near you
Find therapists on Zencare. Search by insurance, fees, and location; watch therapist introductory videos; and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you!
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.