Pastoral Counseling

Pastoral Counseling


Pastoral Counseling is a form of counseling that helps clients with their problems in a spiritual or religious context. It combines psychology with theology. This form of psychotherapy has been around since the 1930s, although its roots go back as far as the early 1900s when religious leaders were trying to help church-goers in need as a means of being a full form of support. It wasn’t until the 1930s, however, that minister Norman Vincent Peale and psychiatrist Smiley Blanton opened the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry in New York City, NY. Around this time, many psychiatrists with a focus on psychoanalysis were collaborating with the clergy in the north-eastern United States. Today, traditional pastoral counseling is popular within many different religions.

Goals of Pastoral Counseling

As pastoral counselors tend to be representatives both of faith and psychology, their ultimate goal is to help their clients on an emotional level with any problem they are capable of handling. They tend to focus their solutions on behavioral science methods and have a moderate viewpoint on theology. Usually they are studying the Bible in the context of history and literature. Pastoral counseling is not to be confused with Bible counseling, where they base their solutions on what the Bible has taught them.

When is Pastoral Counseling Used?

Pastoral Counseling is generally recommended by health care providers to clients who wish to have their mental issues looked at by someone with a certain spiritual or religious background. Instead of being used as a diagnosis for specific mental disorders, pastoral counseling can be used for anyone suffering from any sort of general “emotional issues”. Pastoral counseling is often used in addition to psychiatric help.

Pastoral counselors do not just help individuals, but groups and families as well. It is common for pastoral counselors to counsel those who share the same beliefs and faith as them due to the fact that they can be found within almost any common religion, but one does not need to have the same faith in order to be counseled. It is still preferable for the client and counselor to establish a mutual understanding regarding a difference in faith before counseling begins.

How Pastoral Counseling Works

Pastoral Counseling is usually performed by a minister (although depending on the religious context, could also by a priest, rabbi, imam, etc.) who has been trained in the field of psychology. Usually they hold Master’s degrees. They bring more to the table for the client, especially if the same faith is shared. The counselor is there to be a friend whether or not they have established a friendship prior to the counseling, but usually the minister will know the client on several different levels.

Every Pastoral Counseling session is different, especially when it comes to finding a balance between psychology and religion as the client’s issues are being worked out. It is generally required that everything be discussed from the viewpoint of said religion, but the level of varying methodologies, behavioral science theories, and religious values the minister and client explore is entirely unique to their collaboration.

If it has been discovered that the patient may have a serious mental disorder such as depression, it is required of the pastoral counselor to refer that patient to a psychiatrist. It is also a basic rule that minister and patient of opposing genders should not be alone together during these sessions.

It is the job of the pastoral counselor to give the patient a sense of hope as well as the ability to maintain it. They are out to help the patient envision a rewarding future and any possibilities for growth by trusting in God’s good will. They rely on the Holy Spirit’s creative movement and inspiration. The pastoral counselor is often regarded as a source of all healing and the instrument of the Spirit. As they themselves are on a journey of spiritual maturity, they often seek out clients of varying backgrounds and social statuses, especially those who have been denied help by other therapists because of certain qualities.

The pastoral counselor meets the patient where they are at as far as growth level, never forcing or pushing them to grow at a specific pace but instead walking alongside the patient at a mutual form of understanding. Keeping the sensitivity of the patient’s spiritual journey in mind, the pastoral counselor will usually incorporate prayer, wisdom, metaphors, sacraments, religious symbols, and other similar resources. The patient is encouraged to focus on what they have shamefully been hiding, or to discover what they do not know about themselves.


Mollica, Richard F.; Streets, Frederick J.; Boscarino, Joseph; Redlich, Fritz C. (1986 March). A community of formal pastoral counseling activities of the clergy. The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 143(3), 323-328.

Craig, James D. Preventing Dual Relationships in Pastoral Counseling. Article first published online: 23 DEC 2011 DOI: 10.1002/j.2161-007X.1991.tb00778.x

John L. Young, M.D., M.Th.; Ezra E. H. Griffith, M.D.; David R. Williams, Ph.D., M.Div. The Integral Role of Pastoral Counseling by African-American Clergy in Community Mental Health Psychiatric Services doi: 10.1176/

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