Pastoral Counseling Degree Program Overviews

Oct 14, 2019

Individuals wanting to pursue a career advising others as pastors, administrators, or counselors could consider enrolling in pastoral counseling programs at the bachelor's, master's or doctoral levels.

Essential Information

The curricula of 4-year bachelor's-level programs center around theology and psychology teachings and include business-related topics along with core counseling subjects. Applicants typically only need a high school diploma or GED to enroll in the program.

Aspiring clinical professionals can prepare for licensure by enrolling in 3-year master's degree programs, which explore elements of spirituality and prayer. Programs include time spent as a supervised clinical counselor. Applicants are required to have completed an undergraduate degree, though programs don't discriminate with regard to undergraduate academic discipline.

Doctoral programs take 4-6 years to complete, including supervised work hours in a clinical setting, a dissertation, and a psychotherapy component. Applicants might need to have a master's degree in a relevant field of study or ministry experience. Graduates are prepared to teach or become scholarly researchers.

Bachelor's Degree in Pastoral Ministry

Pastoral counseling is a form of mental health counseling with a spiritual emphasis or perspective. As a Christian field, pastoral counseling is open to lay and ordained people who want to foster healthy interpersonal bonds in Christian communities. While earning a bachelor's degree in pastoral ministry with a concentration in counseling, students study the Gospels, evangelism, and psychology. Programs emphasize long-term emotional health and personal development over a person's lifespan and offer a consideration of differing communities of faith. The generalized nature of these programs teach students about business management and administration, in addition to subjects directly related to counseling.

Pastoral counseling differs from secular counseling by relying on Christian perspectives and teachings. Students learn counseling approaches by focusing on personal reflection guided by the Bible and the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Core coursework includes:

  • Christian apologetics
  • Crisis counseling
  • Developmental psychology
  • Reconciliation
  • Theology

Master's Degree in Pastoral Counseling

Students in master's-level pastoral counseling programs prepare for licensure as mental health professionals by studying research methods, family therapy and addictions counseling. Students prepare to work as clinically competent and spiritually sensitive licensed mental health providers.

Master's programs teach theological foundations and clinical theory that guide students to look at spirituality as one element of mental health. Topics of study include:

  • Christian ethics
  • Couples therapy
  • Prayer
  • Psychopathology
  • Scripture

Doctoral Degree in Pastoral Counseling

Students interested in pursuing doctoral studies can choose to earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) degree. Ph.D. programs focus on research or academic teaching in spiritual counseling. Th.D. studies are intended to prepare students to work directly with the public.

Doctoral-level programs offer students the opportunity to hone their skills as counselors while making sure that emotional breakthroughs are related to Christian scriptures. Programs teach students topics in ecclesiology and interpersonal communication to develop students into emotionally mature shepherds of a Christian flock. Scholars in these programs learn how theology intersects with personality theory. Commonly offered courses include:

  • Christian history
  • Empirical research
  • Ethics
  • Psychotherapy
  • Practical theology

Popular Careers

Religious counseling professionals offer services at hospitals, churches and religious organizations. Common callings include:

  • Church administrator
  • Liturgical editor
  • Outreach director
  • Para-church leader
  • Youth minister

Among other options, master's program graduates are qualified to join a group practice or work in a community treatment center setting, treating substance abuse or behavioral issues. Positions include:

  • Addiction treatment specialist
  • Hospice minister
  • Interfaith counselor
  • Mediation worker
  • Pastoral associate

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

While exact salary statistics aren't available for pastoral counselors, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the median annual wage for clergy members, who may provide both moral and spiritual guidance, was $48,990, as of May 2018 ( Religious activities and education directors, who might also provide counseling in both personal and religious matters, brought home $40,810, at that same time. In contrast, the BLS stated that the annual median salary for general mental health counselors in 2018 was $42,840.

According to BLS employment projections, demand for mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists was anticipated to grow 22% from 2018-2028. The predicted job expansion rates were 6% and 5% for clergy members and religious activities and education directors, respectively.

Continuing Education, Licensure and Certification Information

Master's degree-holders can enroll in a graduate certificate program that typically includes courses about the ethics of counseling and developmental psychology, as well as supervised internships. Work completed in these programs is often applicable toward membership in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), the recognized certification body for Christian ministry-related counseling ( The AAPC administers a voluntary certification program for religious community members who have been trained in pastoral counseling.

Those looking to practice pastoral or Christian counseling could be required to obtain licensure through the state, depending on where they offer their services. Those working in churches, private schools or religious organizations typically don't need to become licensed. However, all states require those that practice family or addictions counseling through a public institution need to obtain a counseling license. Licensure requirements vary based on the type of counseling offered.

Students who are interested in careers such as church administrators, liturgical editors, or youth ministers, can pursue pastoral counseling programs at varying levels to gain training in the practical and spiritual aspects of this field of work.

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