A pastoral counselor is similar to a therapist or clinical counselor in a number of ways, yet they are also very different. While therapists and counselors may use a wide variety of different therapeutic techniques to approach their patients and help them work through their problems, pastoral counselors assist their patients by approaching issues through faith, theology, and spirituality along with psychotherapy. They help patients with issues of faith, marital problems, and other matters by using examples from religion and scripture.
Pastoral counselors, like most therapists, do need to have a master’s or doctoral degree in the field of psychology, counseling, or related area of study from an accredited program. They also have to be trained in the ministry, which is why many pursue an undergraduate degree in religion in addition to psychology. Once they have completed their studies, they must meet all certification requirements from the state they live in, to work as a psychologist, social worker, or marriage/family therapist in addition to whatever requirements their religious community requires of them. Once they have completed their undergraduate degree and certification, they must complete a postgraduate degree in one of the following areas:
- Masters of Divinity
- Masters or PhD in Theological Studies, Biblical Studies or Spiritual Studies
- Masters or PhD in Pastoral Counseling
Once the education component is completed, all candidates must sit for, and pass, the certification exam offered by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.
There are a number of different ways you can earn the degree required to become a pastoral counselor. Today, many people take courses online. These online programs, available at the bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctoral level, can be completed from anywhere in the world. Most, especially the postgraduate degrees, do require clinical work, and a number of programs also require students to spend short periods on campus taking seminars and engaging in practicums. However, since the bulk of the work is online, these programs are ideal for those who need to work while going to school or for those who are unable to move to attend specific universities.
Online Bachelor's Degree Programs
Online bachelor's degree programs give students who either have to, work full-time or are unable to attend regular classes, a chance to complete their undergraduate studies on their own time and from their own home. While it is true that these programs were once subpar to learning in the classroom, today many of the top ranked universities offer online courses and even entire degrees that can be done via distance learning. If you want to go into pastoral counseling, you’ll first need an undergraduate degree in psychology, plus a degree in religion would also be very useful. You can get both of these degrees online.
One thing you do want to be careful of is enrolling in an online program that is not fully accredited or recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. If the program is offered by a recognized university with a physical campus, the chances are that it is accredited. If it is online-only, you should make certain it has been evaluated and accredited before enrolling. If you complete your degree from an online program that's not accredited, you may not be able to complete your state licensing requirements or enroll in certain graduate programs.
Bachelor of Science in Psychology
A Bachelor of Science in Psychology degree is an excellent fundamental basis for going into pastoral counseling. This degree will introduce you to the basics of psychology via courses such as introduction to psychology, personality psychology, abnormal psychology, testing and measurement, statistics, Biopsychology, Cognitive reasoning, ethical issues, and more. While most of these courses can be done online, students are also generally required to do a clinical practicum. These practicums can often be arranged with local psychologists or other healthcare facilities that offer mental health assistance. Students will work with licensed psychologists to gain hands-on knowledge and see first-hand what it is like to work in the industry.
There are actually two different types of undergraduate psychology degrees that you can earn: a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts. The B.S. degree is specialized more towards the sciences and requires some courses in biology, chemistry, or anatomy and physiology. A B.A., on the other hand, requires more courses in the humanities and language arts. The B.S. degree is the more flexible option, preparing students to go into more areas, while the B.A. can prepare students to move into law, social work, and other areas. For pastoral counseling, most choose to receive a B.S. degree, but either option offers a strong foundation for a graduate program. Psychology students often have the option of specializing or focusing their degrees in areas such as mental health, developmental psychology, or forensic psychology.
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Bachelor of Science in Religion
Many people who go into pastoral counseling double major in psychology and religion. This gives them the strong theological background they will need to properly guide their patients through their mental and emotional issues via a spiritual path. It also prepares them for being accepted by their religious community as a pastoral counselor, something that often takes being ordained or otherwise made a leader in the church. For most religions, this requires demonstrating advanced knowledge of the spiritual texts and beliefs the religion espouses.
A Bachelor of Science in Religion program will teach you how to apply the Bible to everyday life situations, which is essential in pastoral counseling. You will learn about the fundamental principles of religion and why people believe as they do. Courses you might take while pursuing this degree include an introduction to Biblical studies, history of religion, American religious history, religious figures, and studies of other religions practiced around the world.
Students who pursue a B.S. in Religion may be able to focus on areas such as Christian Ministries, Biblical studies, evangelism, and Christian counseling. If your program offers a focus in counseling, the courses, you will take will help prepare you for your graduate studies. Many also find that their own faith is strengthened through these studies, which is also very helpful for future pastoral counselors because they need to be firmly grounded in their religion to help others through religious counseling.
- Biblical & Educational Studies
- Christian Leadership & Management
- Christian Ministries
- Christian Ministries
- Biblical & Theological Studies
- Christian Counseling
Online Master's Degree Programs
Following the completion of your undergraduate degree, you must pursue a graduate degree in order to be certified by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) as a Certified Pastoral Counselor. There are some graduate degrees in pastoral counseling, but some elect to instead pursue a master’s or doctoral degree in other areas, including family therapy or religion, or a Masters of Divinity degree.
Typically, completing a master’s or doctoral degree is all that is required to become a pastoral counselor because states do not have a governing body for this area. There are no state licenses or certifications to obtain—instead, pastoral counselors are certified by the religious community they are a part of and the AAPC.
However, most pastoral counselors do complete the licensing requirements to work as a marriage/family therapist, clinical counselor, social worker, or another type of therapist. If you plan to seek other certification, you need to check your state requirements prior to enrolling in an online master's degree program. First, most will require that your degree comes from a program that is accredited by the American Psychological Association, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs, or one of the other organizations that accredit psychology masters and doctoral programs. Second, some states do not recognize the Masters of Divinity as meeting the requirements for licensing. If your state does not, you may need to pursue a different degree.
On the other hand, some religions require those who want to be ordained to hold a Masters of Divinity. This leads some pastoral counselors to complete both a Masters of Divinity degree and a postgraduate degree in counseling or psychology. Some universities actually offer a dual program tailored for those who want both degrees.
Master of Arts in Human Services Counseling
The Master of Arts in Human Services Counseling degree prepares students for a career in one of several different counseling areas, including pastoral counseling. It is not intended to prepare anyone for licensing, although it may be accepted for state licensure in some areas. If you are pursuing an M.A. in Human Services Counseling, you'll learn how to work in one of several specialized areas. In fact, a general degree in this area is usually not offered—most programs require a student to specialize.
While you will take a few general courses such as foundations of counseling, skills, and methods, issues in counseling, once you’ve selected your specialization, you’ll mostly take classes related to what you focus on. You’ll learn how to work with patients starting with your initial meeting with them up through their final session, how to apply various counseling techniques to different clients, and work to develop your own personal counseling philosophy. Some specializations, such as Christian Ministries and Biblical Studies, will also focus on how to approach counseling from a religious point of view and how to incorporate religion into your counseling techniques. By the end of your degree, you will be able to create a biblical foundation for your counseling services.
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Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy
The Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy will prepare you for getting licensed as a marriage/family therapist, which is perfect for anyone who wants to be a pastoral counselor and work outside the church, at least part-time. For many, a large part of being a pastoral counselor does focus on the same types of issues a marriage/family therapist would, so this degree does provide a very strong foundation for this career. If you love the idea of helping couples repair their marriage or assisting families with working through their relationships, enrolling in a Marriage and Family Therapy program may be perfect for you.
You’ll focus on learning different techniques that can be used to help draw out people’s innermost emotions and thoughts, something that they often keep buried. You’ll learn how to truly listen, hone your deductive reasoning skills, helping you parse your client’s statements for keywords, and study how human relations work. Courses include things such as the concept of systems therapy, human development, and family therapy. Some programs may have a specialization that focuses on a religious approach to marriage and family therapy, which would serve a pastoral counselor very well.
Many of these programs do require a number of hours of clinical work with patients under the supervision of a licensed therapist.
Master of Arts in Professional Counseling
Another degree that can prepare you for licensing is a Master of Arts in Professional Counseling. This degree meets the requirements for a state license as a Licensed Professional Counselor in most jurisdictions. In addition to pastoral counseling, an M.A. in Professional Counseling provides a foundation for working as a mental health therapist, substance abuse counselor, family/marriage therapist, and school counselor.
Those who decide to pursue this graduate degree will learn how to assist patients in resolving their various life issues, including conflicts, as well as assisting patients in changing damaging thought and behavior patterns that result in unhealthy actions. You may take courses on ethics, professional evaluation, advanced counseling methods, multicultural counseling, drug and alcohol counseling, and other courses that focus on specific issues patients may have. Some programs will provide you with the opportunity to focus your Professional Counseling degree on providing counseling services in a church environment.
As with many of the graduate degrees discussed here, this program does require a number of hours of clinical work. If you are doing your M.A. online, you will have to make arrangements with a local therapist or other mental health facility in order to complete this requirement.
Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling
Many who want to go into pastoral counseling do enroll in a Masters of Arts in Pastoral Counseling program. This program is specifically designed to prepare you for going into pastoral counseling, and you’ll take courses in psychology and counseling side by side with religion classes and theological studies. Also, to preparing you to work in the church as a counselor, many who want to work as a military chaplain pursue this degree.
This master’s program does not prepare students for licensing (although it does meet AAPC requirements), and it does not satisfy most state's licensing requirements. However, it can serve as a sound basis for those who want to go into professional counseling, but if you do, you will also need to get a second graduate degree. There are, however, some M.A in Pastoral Counseling programs that have moved towards licensure preparation. These programs typically require upwards of 60 hours of coursework rather than the shorter programs that require only 36 credit hours.
Once completed, you will have a strong foundation built on the knowledge and skills needed for pastoral counseling, be able to implement the major pastoral care theories, and be able to integrate psychological skills with theological tenets and beliefs.
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Master of Arts in Christian Ministry
A Master of Arts in Christian Ministry is a degree designed to help prepare students for a life in the ministry. In addition to serving as a strong foundation for your career in pastoral counseling, the M.A. in Christian Ministry can also prepare you for a leadership position in your church as an associate pastor, small group pastor, Christian educator, or discipleship pastor. This program usually requires between 36 and 45 credit hours, but it does not meet the requirements for state licensure in any counseling area. However, for those who wish to focus more on the religious aspects of pastoral counseling or who need a graduate degree to advance in their church, this program will provide everything you want.
Students who enroll in this master's program will study different types of ministry and how to minister to a congregation and individuals. Courses on practical ministry, biblical history, church history, and leadership are all required, plus you can often tailor your M.A. in Christian Ministry towards your particular interest. Some programs may provide a focus in pastoral counseling that combines these advanced religious courses with work in therapy, interpersonal relationships, and psychology.
While it does not meet the requirements for a license, this degree does meet most church's requirements for ordination.
Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.)
An intensive program focused on studying Scripture and the tenants of the Christian faith, a Master of Arts in Religion degree will provide you with a strong foundation from which to build your own personal faith. Many who wish to become pastors, church leaders, or Christian educators pursue an M.A.R. degree. A pastoral counselor may find that the degree is also a good choice for them because it provides a very detailed understanding of the fundamentals of Christianity, theology, the church, and the Bible.
Students in an M.A.R. degree program may take courses in the Old and New Testaments, theology, church leadership, biblical history, church history, and may elect to specialize in one of a number of different areas. For some, this graduate degree is a better choice than the Master of Divinity degree, especially for those who are not necessarily looking to become ordained (although an M.A.R. degree may meet church requirements for ordination). Those who complete the degree will be able to show understanding of religious scripture, apply theological concepts to real-world issues, and present an ethical point of view that is in-line with the Christian belief. Some use this degree as a stepping stone for a Ph.D. in religion.
As with most degrees in religion, the M.A.R. does not meet the requirements for being licensed as any type of counselor.
Master of Arts in Theological Studies
A Master of Arts in Theological Studies is considered a flexible degree that can prepare you for a number of careers, including a career in pastoral counseling. It is also often sought by those who are not full-time church leaders but want to know more about theology or by pastors who want to delve more deeply into their faith but don't necessarily need to complete a Master of Divinity. This degree does require less time to complete than a Master of Divinity and is often considered by those who want to pursue a Ph.D. rather than go into the ministry.
Because theological studies are so broad, most students elect to focus on studying particular parts of scripture or faith. There are some core courses that all students must take that focus on historical, biblical, and theological studies. Once completed, you can take courses in areas such as the Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, Christian Apologetics, or historical theology.
Depending on the program, your degree may require anywhere from 36 credit hours to 48, and it may or may not include a capstone course or a thesis. Many online programs offer all the necessary courses to complete a Master of Arts in Theological Studies, so there’s no need to do any residencies or on-campus courses.
Master of Divinity (M.Div)
The Master of Divinity degree, often called the M.Div, is usually the degree sought by those who want to become ordained and serve as leaders in their church, although a pastoral counselor can also certainly benefit from this degree. In fact, some churches may require or strongly prefer their pastoral counselors to hold this degree because they are often considered church leaders and a part of the ministry. Most states, however, do not consider an M.Div sufficient for licensing purposes.
The courses required for an M.Div degree are designed to prepare students to go into the ministry and be ordained, although they also provide a solid foundation for work in religious nonprofits, teaching, and counseling. Courses include church history, Old and New Testament, Christianity in the world, biblical language, worship, ministry, and more. These programs are three-year programs and may require up to 90 credit hours. Some require a thesis while others require students to submit a portfolio comprised of several pieces of writing and other contents as decided upon by the student and their advisory board.
The graduate degrees outlined above mostly focus on academic studies. The M.Div, on the other hand, combines these studies with a number of pastoral courses designed to give students practical experience leading a congregation and religious community.
Master of Religious Education (M.R.E.)
A Master of Religious Education degree is often sought by those who are already working in the ministry but wish to either shift their focus to education or learn more about providing religious educational services. Those who host religious conferences put on seminars, or speak at workshops may find an M.R.E. degree helpful. Pastoral counselors may find an M.R.E. helps prepare them for leading small therapy groups or for becoming a teacher in a seminary or other religious educational institute.
Many M.R.E. programs offer both theological and practical courses, providing students with both a deeper understanding of Christianity and how to apply the principles of their faith to the real world, in this case, teaching. However, many of the techniques used can also be applied to pastoral counseling. This is one of the shorter graduate programs, usually taking between 30 and 36 credit hours. As such, it is generally not enough for a professional state license, but it may fulfill requirements for ordination.
Courses in an M.R.E. program may include the history of Christianity, theology, Old/New Testament, principles of education, teaching the Bible, theory of contemporary Christian education, and a number of electives in both religious studies and education. Some programs require a thesis or a period of student teaching.
Online Doctoral and Postgraduate Programs
An online doctoral degree is similar to an online master’s degree in that it allows students to continue their education and receive a terminal degree while working. These programs are set up to be as flexible as possible while still challenging students in the same way that in-class degrees do.
Also, as with online bachelor’s and master’s programs, you should check to see if you have enrolled in an online program that is accredited. For pastoral counseling, you will most likely want to pursue an online Doctor of Ministry degree. This degree is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools and its Commission on Accrediting. Because this degree is not required for a license, it is not necessary to attend an accredited university. However, the Doctor of Ministry program is often required to become a leader in your church, and there may be accreditation requirements there.
While some doctoral programs may require additional practicum hours, many instead focus the researching, writing, and successfully defending a thesis. This long project generally takes up the final year or two of study. While some online programs allow students to defend their thesis online, some do have the option of doing so in person.
Doctor of Ministry (D.Min)
The Doctor of Ministry or D.Min. is a terminal, professional degree that is generally only pursued by those who are in the ministry in some form. Those who wish to enter a D.Min program generally must have completed a Master of Divinity or equivalent degree as outlined by the Association for Theological Schools, the accrediting organization for the D.Min program.
While ministry leaders, church leaders, and pastors enroll in D.Min programs, a pastoral counselor can benefit from this education as well. The program provides graduates with a deeper understanding of religion, spirituality, and how to serve as a leader in the church. It may prepare students for missionary work and providing spiritual leadership outside of the church setting, too, and it is this focus that may interest a pastoral counselor.
If you enroll in a D.Min program, you will study scripture, church traditions, church history, and other areas of spirituality and theology. Much of your coursework will depend on what area you choose to concentrate in. As a doctorate, the D.Min does require researching and writing a lengthy thesis that should be of publishable quality. While the core coursework may be completed in only a few years, this thesis often takes another two years or more to complete.
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