Becoming a Pastoral Counselor

A pastoral counselor is a bit different than a clinical counselor or therapist. While they may provide similar services, pastoral counselors integrate spirituality, faith and theology with psychotherapy to help people seeking assistance with personal, family, marital and faith issues. Certified Pastoral Counselors have experience and training in the ministry, hold a postgraduate degree from an accredited university, are credentialed by a local religious community, and have significant education and supervised counseling experience. Many also possess a state license as a psychologist, marriage and family therapist or social worker.

Daily Life of a Pastoral Counselor

A pastoral counselor will spend much of his or her day talking with patients. They may help patients in a variety of ways—some provide pre-marital counseling for those who are preparing to be married, while others provide grief counseling for those who have recently lost a loved one. Some help with substance abuse, personal counseling, and crises of faith. Due to their training in therapy and counseling techniques, a pastoral counselor can assist patients in the same ways that a licensed therapist can.

It is common for a parishioner to seek out assistance from other members of the church or from their pastor when they want to deal with personal issues from a faith-based perspective. Others may seek out a minister for assistance with spiritual guidance and prayer. However, there are circumstances when the nature of the problem and the therapy desired calls for care from a professional with a more specialized educational background and training. This is where a pastoral counselor may be the best fit.

Pastoral Counseling Settings

A pastoral counselor may be called upon when a member of a congregation is in need of professional assistance or when any person, in any situation, would like spirituality, faith and theology incorporated with their emotional care. Pastoral counselors often have private practices through which they see patients, but they are not limited to seeing patients in the professional setting of an office. Pastoral care takes place in settings such as churches, hospitals, prisons, industrial workplaces, homes, law enforcement agencies, and military combat zones. This is one of the primary distinctions between a pastoral counselor and clinical counselors, such as clinical psychologists, marriage and family therapists and social workers. While most clinical counselors are strongly discouraged from interaction outside the professional counseling relationship, and typically have a single contact setting (an office), pastoral counselors typically find ways to relate to the client on multiple levels, and are encouraged to build a relationship and dialogue with a person outside of formal counseling settings.

Differences Between a Pastoral Counselor and a Professional Clinical Counselor

It's easy to be confused about the differences between a professional clinical counselor and a pastoral counselor. In many aspects they can be similar, and their differences, though quite distinct once explained, may not be immediately apparent to a client. To start, pastoral counselors, such as chaplains, pastors, church counselors, and ministerial counselors, are regulated and credentialed by ecclesiastical groups and professional associations. Clinical Counselors are regulated and licensed by state government boards, and often certified or credentialed by professional organizations.

Summary of Minimum Requirements


Depending on the ecclesiastical authority they are under, most pastoral counselors will work to meet the same educational and training standards that a clinical counselor would to earn and maintain their license- with an added religious component. In simple terms, this means that many pastoral counselors work to meet the requirements of their religious group, in addition to earning all prerequisites of their state licensing board. The first step is a bachelor’s degree in a field such as psychology, ministry, theology, counseling, or a related field. Most pastoral counselors will then pursue an advanced degree that aligns with the scope and limitations of their future practice. To become a Certified Pastoral Counselor by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors you must also hold one of the following:

  • Masters of Divinity
  • Graduate or Doctoral degree in Biblical Studies, Theological studies, or Spiritual Studies
  • Graduate or Doctoral Degree in Pastoral Counseling

Note: All degrees must have been conferred by accredited universities.


In addition to having a degree, you must also be ordained. The requirements for ordination vary by religious group. Some religious groups outline specific education and training requirements, such as attending a seminary. The basic idea behind ordination is that the church leadership and congregations recognize that a person is fit to serve as a leader in their religion. Being ordained is a way of symbolizing that a person has the knowledge, training, spiritual purity, and relationship with the church to perform various duties and responsibilities.

In addition to being able to serve as a pastoral counselor, being ordained may give a person the right to conduct marriages, hear confessions, participate in certain rites, and speak for the congregation. As with the ordination process, the rights and responsibilities of an ordained person vary from church to church.

Licensing and Credentialing

Unlike professionals working in the fields of clinical counseling or psychology, Pastoral Counselors are not required to obtain a license, in fact, few states have a governing body that regulates pastoral counselors. In place of a license, pastoral counselors must complete a certification process (sometimes referred to as a credentialing process) by the ecclesiastical group they are associated with and gain an additional certification from a national organization such as the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.

Given that there is no license requirement for Pastoral Counselors, one might assume that professionals entering the field would avoid the extensive education, experience and training requirements mandated by the state for similar professions in the areas of counseling, therapy, and psychology. This is simply not the case. Many pastoral counselors seek licensure as a clinical counselor, marriage and family therapist, social worker or clinical psychologist in addition to meeting the requirements of their church, so that they may provide the highest level of care possible to their clients.

Research Licensing Requirements in Your State


The American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) is the only association that issues the Certified Pastoral Counselor certification. As stated above, in order to be certified, you must hold one of the specified graduate or doctoral degrees. You must also have been ordained or the equivalent in your religion. In order to be certified, counselors also need to show that they are active in their religious community on a local level and have served at least three years in the ministry.

A candidate must also have accumulated at least 375 hours of practical pastoral counseling experience. At least 125 of those hours must have been done under the supervision of an AAPC-approved Fellow, Diplomate, or through an approved training program. Finally, those who want to hold a certificate in pastoral counseling have to complete a self-reflection study that is supervised by one of the above AAPC-approved supervisors. This type of study is often done through a course in clinical pastoral education.

Bachelors Degree Requirements

A bachelor’s degree (a post-secondary degree) typically requires between 120 and 150 hours of study, depending on the university and the program. Hours are split between general education courses and courses in the student’s main area of study. In the area of pastoral counseling, students most often major in ministry, counseling, psychology, and divinity. Some may even double major in psychology and religion or do a minor course of study in one of the two.

  • Ministry- A Ministry degree is designed to prepare students to become leaders in their respective church or religion. Courses include studying religious texts and taking public speaking courses.
  • Counseling- Students focus on learning how people relate to each other and how to identify and treat various issues. Courses may focus on treating addiction and methods of counseling couples.
  • Psychology- Degree programs in Psychology will teach students how to recognize thought processes, how to approach patients in a non-threatening manner, and how to diagnose various psychological disorders.
  • Divinity- While most universities and seminaries have replaced the Bachelor of Divinity degree with the Master of Divinity program, a few do still offer it. Students study philosophy, theology, religious texts, church history, and more.

The Importance of Accreditation

In order to be licensed, you have to do more than hold a degree; you have to have a degree from an accredited university. There are several accrediting bodies for pastoral counseling programs. The AAPC accredits all programs that offer pastoral counselor training. Programs that offer clinical pastoral education programs are accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE). Pastoral care programs are accredited by the Commission for Counseling and Psychological Services (CCAPS).

To be accredited means that the program has been evaluated by professionals who have certified that it meets all required standards. This includes course offerings, admission requirements, available services, faculty reputation, and the overall quality of the education or training that is provided.

Program Goals and Objectives

While each university may have a slightly different goals and objectives for their students to meet, many programs that prepare students to be pastoral counselors focus on similar ideas. They aim to prepare their students to understand and treat their patients using a combination of therapeutic and religious techniques. This includes recognizing and diagnosing disorders, knowing when to refer patients to specialists, having a working knowledge of group dynamics, and having strong interpersonal communication skills.

Master of Divinity

A Master of Divinity degree is a professional degree for those in the pastoral profession. It is offered from divinity schools and seminaries. Most M. Div. degrees require an additional 72 to 106 hours of study in areas such as ministry, philosophy, theology, evangelism, and ecclesiology. A bachelor’s degree in theology or related field is required to pursue this advanced degree.

As stated earlier, in some states, the M. Div. does not meet the licensing requirements for licensing. If you plan on working as a licensed counselor in a specific state, make certain you understand the requirements fully. You may need to take additional courses in order to qualify for a license. This is because some M. Div. programs focus on literature, languages, and other academic topics and less on counseling, interpersonal relations and other skills that a counselor needs.

Get educated with a masters of divinity online.

Important Changes by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)

Starting January 1, 2022, the NBCC will require anyone who wants to become a National Certified Counselor through the NBCC will need to hold a master’s degree or higher. This degree must come from an institution that has been accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). This change was implemented in order to help counselors be more competitive in the job market and more easily get licensed in different states.

The Process of Getting Ordained

Getting ordained varies from church to church, but most follow a similar process. The first thing most churches will require is a reason why you are seeking to be ordained. In most cases, this means you are asking to join the priesthood, the leaders of the church. You will need to provide a written statement and a history of your involvement with the church. Many times, candidates will be asked to discuss their personal beliefs and why they feel they have been called to the ministry. You will also need to gather references from others in the ministry, especially those whose congregation(s) you have been a part of and those you studied under.

This statement will be read and an interview conducted by a committee of those already ordained in the church. If you are specifically seeking to be ordained as a pastoral counselor, at least one counselor will be on the committee. During the interview, you’ll be asked about your morals, your beliefs, how you connect with others, and how you deal with adversity. You may need to discuss some of your previous work with the church, especially in the areas of ministry and counseling, as well as discuss your coursework and your thesis, if you wrote one. Expect to answer questions about why you want to be a pastoral counselor, what your faith means to you, and what you can bring to your church and your community.

Following this interview, the members of the committee will discuss your qualifications and write a recommendation for the endorsing committee. This committee will make the final decision on whether or not you will be ordained. It is generally made up of upper-level church officials and leaders.

What It Means to Be a Certified Chaplain

Being a certified chaplain means that you have been ordained and recognized by church leadership as someone who can minister in a certain field—in this case, pastoral counseling. A certified chaplain often holds a M.Div., but even if you don’t, being certified means that the church recognizes you as someone with specialized knowledge and training. It also shows that you have had supervised training as a pastoral counselor and that you agree and adhere to a strict code of ethics.

State Licensing Resources

Alabama Board of Examiners in Counseling950 22nd Street North, Suite 765
Birmingham, AL 35203
Alaska Board of Professional CounselorsP.O. Box 110806
Juneau, AK 99811-0806
Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners3443 North Central Avenue #1700
Phoenix, AZ 85012
Arkansas Board of Examiners in Counseling (CPC)101 East Capitol, Suite 104
Little Rock, Arkansas 72201
California Board of Behavioral Sciences1625 N Market Blvd, Suite S-200
Sacramento, CA 95834
Colorado Board of Licensed Professional Counselor Examiners1560 Broadway, Suite 1370
Denver, CO 80202
Connecticut Department of Public Health410 Capitol Avenue
P.O. Box 340308
Hartford, CT 06134
Delaware Board of Mental Health and Chemical Dependency ProfessionalsCannon Building, Suite 203
861 Silver Lake Blvd.
Dover, DE 19904
District of Columbia Department of Health- Board of Professional Counseling99 N. Capital Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage & Family Therapy and Mental Health CounselingBoard of Mental Health Professions
4052 Bald Cypress Way, Bin C-208
Tallahassee, FL 32399
Georgia Board of Professional Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage & Family Therapists237 Coliseum Drive
Macon, GA 31217-3858
Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer AffairsP.O. Box 3469
Honolulu, HI 96811
Idaho Board of Professional Counselors and Marriage & Family Therapists700 West State Street
Boise, ID 83702
Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation320 West Washington Street, 3rd Floor
Springfield, Illinois 62786
Indiana Behavioral Health and Human Services Licensing Board402 West Washington Street, Room W-072
Indianapolis, Indiana 46204
Iowa Department of Public Health- Board of Behavioral Science321 E. 12th Street
Des Moines, Iowa 50319-0075
Kansas Behavioral Science Regulatory Board700 S.W. Harrison St. Suite 420
Topeka, KS 66603
Kentucky Board of Licensed Professional Counselors911 Leawood Drive
Frankfort, KY 40601
Louisiana Licensed Professional Counselor Board of Examiners8631 Summa Avenue
Baton Rouge, LA 70809
Maine Board of Counseling Professionals35 State House Station
Augusta, ME 04333-0035
Maryland Board of Professional Counselors4201 Patterson Avenue
Baltimore, Maryland 21215-2299
Massachusetts Board of Registration of Allied Mental Health & Human Services Professions1000 Washington Street, Suite 710
Boston, Massachusetts 02118-6100
Michigan Board of CounselingP.O. Box 30004
Lansing, MI 48909
Minnesota Board of Marriage & Family Therapy2829 University Avenue SE, Suite 400
Minneapolis, MN 55414
Mississippi Board of Examiners for Licensed Professional Counselors239 North Lamar Street, Suite 402
Jackson, MS 39201
Missouri Committee for Professional Counselors3605 Missouri Boulevard
P.O. Box 1335
Jefferson City, MO 65102-1335
Montana Board of Social Work Examiners and Professional Counselors301 South Park, 4th Floor
P.O. Box 200513
Helena, MT 59620-0513
Nebraska  Department of Health and Human Services301 Centennial Mall South
Lincoln, Nebraska 68509
Nevada Board of Examiners for Marriage & Family Therapists and Clinical Professional Counselors9436 West Lake Mead Boulevard #11-J
Las Vegas, Nevada 89134-8342
New Hampshire Board of Mental Health Practice121 South Fruit Street
Concord, NH 03301
New Jersey Board of Marriage and Family Therapy ExaminersP.O. Box 45007
Newark, NJ 07101
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy PracticeThe Toney Anaya Building, 2nd Floor
2550 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, NM 87505
New York State Education Department- Office of ProfessionsOffice of the Professions
State Education Building- 2nd Floor
Albany, NY 12234
North Carolina Board of Licensed Professional CounselorsP.O. Box 77819
Greensboro, NC 27417
North Dakota Board of Counselor Examiners2112 10th Avenue SE
Mandan, ND 58554
Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, and Marriage & Family Therapist Board50 West Broad Street, Suite 1075
Columbus, Ohio 43215-3344
Oklahoma State Board of Behavioral Health Licensure3815 N. Santa Fe, Suite 110
Oklahoma City, OK 73118
Oregon Board of Licensed Professional Counselors and Therapists3218 Pringle Rd. SE, Suite 250
Salem, OR 97302-6312
Pennsylvania State Board of Social Workers, Marriage & Family Therapists and Professional CounselorsP.O. Box 2649
Harrisburg, PA 17105-2649
Rhode Island Board of Mental Health Counselors and Marriage & Family Therapists3 Capital Hill, Room 104
Providence, RI 02908-5097
South Carolina Board of Examiners for Licensure of Professional Counselors110 Centerview Dr.
Columbia, S.C. 29210
South Dakota Counselors and Marriage & Family Therapist ExaminersP.O. Box 2164
Sioux Falls, SD 57101
Tennessee Board of Licensed Professional Counselors, Licensed Marital & Family Therapists and Licensed Pastoral Therapists665 Mainstream Drive, 2nd Floor
Nashville, TN 37243
Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional CounselorsP.O. Box 149347
Austin, Texas 78714-9347
Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing160 East 300 South
Salt Lake City, Utah 84111
Vermont Board of Allied Mental Health89 Main Street, 3rd Floor
Montpelier, Vermont 05620-3402
Virginia Board of CounselingPerimeter Center
9960 Maryland Drive, Suite 300
Henrico, Virginia 23233-1463
Washington State Department of HealthRiver View Corporate Center, Suite 1500
16201 E. Indiana Avenue
Spokane Valley, WA 99216
West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services- Office of Health Facility Licensure & CertificationOffice of Health Facility Licensure & Certification
408 Leon Sullivan Way
Charleston, WV 25301
Wisconsin Department of Health ServicesDepartment of Health Services
1 West Wilson Street
Madison, WI 53703
Wyoming Mental Health Professions Licensing Board2001 Capitol Avenue, Room 104
Cheyenne, WY 82002

Pastoral Counseling Jobs & Job Description

Pastoral counselors are ministers, pastors, rabbis, priests, imams, and other religious personnel who have counseling degrees and use a combination of theology and psychotherapy to help individuals cope with mental health problems. Jobs do vary, but most pastoral counselors perform the following sorts of duties:

  • Counsel families and individuals about human development and personality
  • Analyze and remediating interpersonal dynamics from a faith perspective
  • Analyze and remediating marital relationships from a faith perspective
  • Improve family and community dynamics from a faith perspective
  • Work in public mental health centers
  • Work in private practices
  • Work in substance treatment programs
  • Work in prison outreach services
  • Provide therapy for clients experiencing marital conflict
  • Provide therapy for those coping with mental health problems like depression
  • Provide therapy for those coping with spiritual problems like wavering faith
  • Provide therapy for those coping with life events and their subsequent emotions like grief
  • Counsel people of differing faiths and who are involved in interfaith relationships and families
  • Facilitate cultural and religious awareness
  • Provide job counseling and financial counseling
  • Advise the study of religious texts as remedies for problems
  • Suggest adherence to religious beliefs to facilitate healing rifts
  • Advise regular meetings with ministry and counseling for continual support, healing or management of problems
  • Diagnose mental health disorders
  • Diagnose and start intervention in instances of substance abuse
  • Diagnose and provide intervention and healing in instances of relational abuse
  • Perform marriage and family counseling
  • Perform psychological and pathological services or consultancy
  • Serve as specialized resources for churches, communities and hospitals