How to Become a Pastoral Counselor

by

Updated October 10, 2023

check mark Edited by
check mark Reviewed by

Our Integrity Network

Psychology.org is committed to delivering content that is objective and actionable. To that end, we have built a network of industry professionals across higher education to review our content and ensure we are providing the most helpful information to our readers.

Drawing on their firsthand industry expertise, our Integrity Network members serve as an additional step in our editing process, helping us confirm our content is accurate and up to date. These contributors:

  • Suggest changes to inaccurate or misleading information.
  • Provide specific, corrective feedback.
  • Identify critical information that writers may have missed.

Integrity Network members typically work full time in their industry profession and review content for Psychology.org as a side project. All Integrity Network members are paid members of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.

Explore our full list of Integrity Network members.

Pastoral counselors combine counseling theory and Christian beliefs to support those in need. Explore education and licensing options for this career.

Psychology.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Are you passionate about your faith and helping others improve their emotional and mental well-being? Becoming a pastoral counselor allows you to combine these interests in the service of others. Explore how to become a pastoral counselor, including common education, licensure, and certification requirements.

What Is Pastoral Counseling?

Pastoral counseling is a specialized form of counseling that integrates spirituality, faith beliefs, and religious texts or scripture. By focusing on the intersection of mental health and spiritual belief, pastoral counseling can:

Pastoral counseling also offers the benefit of providing mental health support for those who may be uncertain about pursuing conventional therapy or unable to afford it.

What Does a Pastoral Counselor Do?

Pastoral counselors engage in confidential, one-on-one communication with individuals in need of emotional, spiritual, or mental health support. By incorporating religious beliefs, texts, and practices into counseling sessions, pastoral counselors aim to help others better understand, approach, and overcome problems while growing their faith.

Clergy leaders (pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, etc.) may practice pastoral counseling as part of their duties within a parish or congregation. With state licensure, clergy leaders can expand their counseling services to the public, including through private practice.

Chaplains – a type of pastoral counselor – provide counseling, support, and other religious care in institutions like hospitals, hospice centers, prisons, and military installations. Unlike clergy leaders who work in a specific parish, chaplains often serve individuals from diverse faith backgrounds.

Skills and Competencies

To effectively perform the duties of a pastoral counselor, individuals must:

  • Create a nonjudgmental, supportive environment.
  • Maintain an understanding of counseling theories and techniques.
  • Attentively and empathetically listen to counselees to understand their concerns.
  • Communicate clearly to provide information in a way that is easy to understand.
  • Maintain confidentiality and appropriate professional boundaries.
  • Maintain a strong understanding of religious scripture, practices, and beliefs.

Featured Online Counseling Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Pastoral Counseling Salaries and Career Outlook

According to September 2023 data from Payscale, pastors earn an average annual salary of $51,710, and pastors with counseling skills earn an average annual salary of $51,730. Similarly, chaplains earn an average annual salary of $55,210.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), clergy earn a median annual wage of $55,550. From 2022-2032, the BLS projects job growth for clergy to experience little to no change at 1%.

Pastoral Counseling Salaries and Career Outlook
Lowest 10% Median Annual Salary Highest 10% Projected Growth Rate (2022-2032)
$31,170 $55,500 $93,530 1%
Source: BLS

How Do I Become a Pastoral Counselor?

Unlike clinical mental health counseling, which is regulated by state boards, pastoral counseling requirements are determined by ecclesiastical and religious organizations. However, depending on your jurisdiction, employer, and professional goals, you may need to attend seminary, earn an advanced degree, and obtain certification or state licensure to become a pastoral counselor.

Learn more about education, licensure, and certification options for pastoral counselors below.

Education for Pastoral Counselors

Pastoral counselors and chaplains often need a combination of traditional college and religious education. Common program options available for this career path include:

Bachelor's Degree

Whether you attend a secular school or Bible college, a four-year degree helps build foundational knowledge and prepares graduates to pursue advanced education. Potential majors for pastoral counselors include pastoral ministry, Bible theology, psychology, or human services.

Master's Degree

Pastoral counselors interested in state licensure need a master's degree. Licensure requirements vary by state, but common fields of study include clinical mental health counseling, counseling psychology, and marriage and family therapy. You can also pursue non-licensure master's programs in pastoral counseling, Biblical counseling, or Christian counseling to better serve your congregation as a clergy leader.

Seminary or Theological School

If your career goals include becoming an ordained minister or clergy leader, you must attend a seminary, theological school, or the equivalent in your faith. In the Christian tradition, ordained clergy members typically pursue a master's in divinity or a doctorate in theology. These faith-based degrees offer rigorous study of scripture and theology, homiletics, and pastoral care.

Clinical Pastoral Education Program

Clinical pastoral education (CPE) is a short-term, professional training program emphasizing supervised experiential learning. Programs typically occur in hospitals, mental health facilities, nursing homes, or correctional facilities. Many theological schools require CPE as part of their degree programs, but you may pursue CPE programs independently. The Association for Clinical Pastoral Education accredits CPE programs.

Licensure for Pastoral Counselors

Certain clergy members are exempt from state licensure requirements when they practice counseling as part of their normal ministerial duties. These exemptions typically apply to:

Pastoral counselors who receive payment or donations for their counseling work, engage in private practice counseling, or counsel individuals outside of their congregation's membership must maintain state licensure. Currently, five states offer licensure specific to pastoral counselors:

States Offering Licensure for Pastoral Counselors
State Licensure
Kentucky Licensed pastoral counselor
Maine Pastoral counselor
New Hampshire Licensed pastoral psychotherapist
North Carolina Fee-based practicing pastoral counselor
Tennessee Clinical pastoral therapist

Common requirements for these state licenses include a master of divinity degree, a master's or doctoral degree in pastoral counseling, approximately 1,400 hours of client-facing experience, and approximately 250 hours of supervised experience. Applicants typically must be ordained ministers or the equivalent in their faith.

In other states, pastoral counselors interested in licensure may pursue credentials such as licensed professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, or mental health counselors. Requirements typically include an advanced degree in a relevant field, supervised experience hours, and a certification exam. Check with your state licensing board for specific regulations.

Certification for Pastoral Counselors

Professional certifications demonstrate a certain level of expertise, knowledge, or skill in a subject area. Pastoral counselors who do not require state licensure may pursue professional certifications to further their knowledge and inspire confidence in those they counsel.

Ministers can obtain voluntary pastoral counseling certifications from several faith-based organizations. A few options to consider include:


Professional certifications are privately regulated and do not replace or equal state licensure for mental health professionals.

Frequently Asked Questions About Pastoral Counseling

What is the difference between counseling and pastoral counseling?

The primary difference between secular and pastoral counseling is the integration of faith or spirituality in counseling sessions. Both secular and pastoral counseling aim to overcome issues like anxiety, depression, or relationship difficulties, but pastoral counseling combines counseling theory with religious practice and scripture. Pastoral counseling often has a secondary goal of helping people grow in their faith.

Can a pastoral counselor diagnose?

Pastoral counselors who are licensed mental health counselors can diagnose conditions, although they cannot prescribe medication. Clergy leaders who provide pastoral counseling as part of their ministerial duties in a church or parish cannot legally diagnose medical conditions.

Do pastoral counselors need a license?

Clergy leaders who counsel members of their congregations as part of their ministerial duties are typically exempt from state licensure requirements. However, pastoral counselors must hold state licensure if they counsel members of the public, work in private practice, or accept payment specifically for counseling services.

What is the job outlook for a pastoral counselor?

The job outlook for pastoral counselors is generally favorable, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 2023-2033, clergy members may see little to no change in job growth, but counselors — particularly those with state licensure — enjoy a much faster-than-average 18% growth projection.


Page last reviewed on September 24, 2023

Latest Posts