Pastoral counselors can dramatically shape one’s spiritual and emotional growth. They provide many of the same services as licensed mental health characters, but within a religious framework. Care plans may include religious rituals in addition to therapeutic exercises, for instance, and counselors address marital and other conflicts in accordance with denominational values. While the majority of pastoral counseling degree programs in the United States tend to embrace a Christian worldview, those emphasizing Islam, Judaism and other faiths are increasingly common.
According to the American Association of Pastoral Counseling (AAPC), pastoral counselors must meet state licensing requirements before practicing in a formal capacity. Many become marriage and family therapists, licensed professional counselors or licensed clinical mental health professionals, but some states have special licenses specifically for pastoral counselors. Arizona, for example, offers a Certified Professional Counselor license.
Licensing requirements vary by state and credential, though usually require that candidates earn master’s or doctoral degrees and meet a minimum number of supervised clinical hours. Pastoral counselors who hope to work in the church may need to seek ecclesiastic confirmation, which requires the completion of church-centered requirements in addition to any minimum education and training requirements.
Pastoral counseling programs: Online and on-campus
Pastoral counseling programs tend to vary by institution, denomination and intent, but are increasingly available online. Though convenient, online education is not right for everyone. These programs require more organization, discipline and self-direction than their classroom-based counterparts. Research online pastoral degrees carefully to confirm you can meet their requirements with minimal stress. The following sections outline pastoral certificates and degrees of all levels and highlight some of the nation’s top programs.
Certificates and non-degree awards in pastoral counseling
Though not strictly required, academic certificates and other non-degree awards can offer a valuable introduction to — or advanced study in — pastoral counseling. Students with bachelor’s or master’s degrees might explore specialized topics with a graduate certificate or other award while those new to the field pursue shorter, more introductory programs at the undergraduate level. An academic certificate is different from formal professional certification. Students who do not intend to become licensed counselors, for instance, can seek the AAPC Pastoral Care Specialist certification. Not having state licensure can limit one’s scope of practice considerably, but PCS certification lends credibility for those working in a lay capacity.
Whatever your goal, finding the right pastoral counseling program takes time and research. Check out these distinguished schools to get started.
Notable pastoral counseling certificates and non-degree awards
Graduate Certificate in Pastoral Counseling from Liberty University
Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, is perhaps the best known Evangelical college in the country, not to mention one of the fastest-growing institutions. Its Certificate in Pastoral Counseling program is designed for people who want to counsel others in a non-professional capacity, in the church or other ministry settings, or want to satisfy the initial requirements for LU’s MA in Pastoral Counseling program. Classes explore the fundamentals of pastoral counseling, psychology, theology and spirituality. Liberty’s online programs garner respect: The University earned national rankings in every academic U.S. News & World Report Best Online Programs category in 2017.
- Department: Rawlings School of Divinity
- Location: Lynchburg, VA
- Online learning options: This is an entirely web-based degree program.
Joint Graduate Program in Pastoral Counseling at Yeshiva University
Yeshiva University’s Pastoral Counseling program is a joint venture between the institution’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and its Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. Students receive training in mental health counseling in the Jewish pulpit or religious education. According to YU, this is neither a registered certificate nor a degree-granting program, though coursework could satisfy about one-third of its Master’s in Mental Health Counseling requirements. Students who do not advance to graduate studies, but note their training on their resumes can gain a professional advantage when seeking positions as a congregational Rav, hospital chaplain or day school educator.
Associate degrees in pastoral counseling
Future pastoral counselors could skip associate-level programs and head straight for four-year degrees, but doing so usually means higher education costs. Students who earn a college-transfer-geared associate degree before pursuing a bachelor’s degree can save hundreds to thousands of dollars. They also have a much lower time-to-completion than bachelor’s degrees, so students who decide the field is not for them can finish their degree relatively quickly before pursuing other avenues.
Associate degrees in pastoral counseling are notably uncommon, especially at public institutions. An associate degree in the liberal arts, psychology or religious studies is more than sufficient for most bachelor’s-level admissions boards.
Notable pastoral counseling associate degree programs
AA in Ministry from Nazarene Bible College
Nazarene Bible College’s AA in Ministry is a flexible, highly taylorable program for people who want to serve in churches or other Christian organizations as volunteers or paid staff members rather than ordained pastors. All students complete core general education and theology coursework before pursuing more specialized classes in one of four concentrations: Christian Educational Ministries, Church Ministries, Early Education and Hispanic Pastoral Ministries, which offers targeted pastoral counseling education. Nazarene Bible College’s AA in Ministries is a 64 semester-hour program that requires about two-years of full-time study. Courses are available online or on campus.
- Department: N/A
- Location: Colorado Springs, CO
- Online learning options: Nazarene Bible College offers both campus and online course delivery options.
Bachelor’s degrees in pastoral counseling
For pastoral counselors, bachelor’s degrees in pastoral counseling are a career-must. The AAPC reports pastoral counselors have to meet all licensing criteria before they practice, which means earning at least a master’s degree before working with any clients or patients. According to Roy Woodruff, Ph.D. and one-time president of the AAPC, the combined theological and mental health training required of the professions makes pastoral counselors some of the “most educated” counselors. “Pastoral counselors also possess a depth of training that is significantly more intense than that of many other mental health professionals of the core disciplines,” said Woodruff.
Campus and online pastoral counseling degrees are much more widespread than associate programs. Launch your search with these featured school or browse our heftier school lists below.
Notable pastoral counseling bachelor’s degree programs
B.S. in Community Care and Counseling from Southwestern Assemblies of God University
Southwestern Assemblies of God University’s fully-online BS in Community Care and Counseling helps students gain foundational knowledge of the Pentecostal Doctrine and pastoral counseling. The curriculum includes coursework in areas like Pastoral Counseling, Crisis Intervention and Management, Developmental Psychology and more. What separates SAGU from many other Bible colleges is its intense focus on college affordability. For instance, Experiential Learning Credits let students to demonstrate up to 45 credit-hours of knowledge and experience in one three-hour course, shaving hundreds or thousands of dollars off the cost of earning the degree. At the time of this writing, SAGU also offers a 20 percent tuition grant for new bachelor’s students; the grant carries through the life of the degree program so long as students remain continuously enrolled.
- Department: Counseling and Psychology
- Location: Waxahachie, TX
- Online learning options: This is a 100 percent online degree program.
Master’s degrees in pastoral counseling
No states license pastoral counselor’s with anything less than a master’s degree, and even then career options might be limited to marriage and family therapy and some counseling professions. While they do reinforce bachelor’s-level competencies, master’s degrees in pastoral counseling get to the metaphorical “meat” of the discipline with more advanced and specialized course options. Not everyone can find a fitting master’s degree in pastoral counseling specifically. Master’s degrees in psychology, theology and related majors with concentrations in pastoral counseling work just as well.
Notable pastoral counseling master’s degree programs
Master of Theological Studies (MTS) – Pastoral Care from Southern Methodist University
Southern Methodist University’s MTS in Pastoral Care is ideal for anyone who wants to deliver Christian counseling services as ordained clergy, lay volunteers and staff, as licensed therapists, or within religious organizations or agencies. Students enrolled in the program learn the skills, theory and practices needed to provide specialized pastoral care; emphasis is placed on pastoral care, empathetic listening and confidentiality-keeping, crisis counseling and family theory. Electives include such topics as mental health, sexual and domestic violence, and the pastoral care and counseling of adolescents.
- Department: Perkins School of Theology
- Location: Dallas, TX
- Online learning options: This is a campus-based program.
Master of Divinity in Islamic Studies (MDIS) from American Islamic College
American Islamic College’s MDIS is a three- to four-year program for students who want to become Muslim spiritual caregivers and chaplains within North America. Learners study the day-to-day knowledge and skills one would use for psychological assessment and counseling, handling trauma, conducting certain religious ceremonies and rites, or develop pastoral care service programs. Instruction in cross-cultural communication is also emphasized. According to AIC, the MDIS program was created with the support of prominent Muslim chaplains, bioethicists, therapists and spiritual caregivers in the United States, plus notable Jewish and Christian seminaries.
- Department: N/A
- Location: Chicago, IL
- Online learning options: This is a campus-based program.
MA in Religious Studies – Military Chaplaincy from Brigham Young University
Military chaplains support and counsel members of the Armed Forces — a role that requires specialized training. Brigham Young University’s MS in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Military Chaplaincy was designed to help students meet the requirements for military chaplaincy, including endorsement in the Church of Latter Day Saints. Courses provide a solid base in religion, scriptural studies and applied theology, plus additional instruction in areas like military ministry, pastoral counseling and care, and clinical pastoral education. According to BYU, students should graduate prepared to meet the challenges of serving service members in a military setting.
- Department: Department of Religious Education
- Location: Provo, UT
- Online learning options: While this is primarily a campus-based program, students may be able to complete some coursework online.
Doctoral degrees in pastoral counseling
Doctorates are essential for anyone who wants to become a licensed pastoral counselor, military chaplain, researcher, college professor or an ecclesiastically-confirmed counselor. Note that for many states, churches and organizations, a doctorate is only one of several licensing requirements. Some Ph.D.s in pastoral counseling keep such criteria in mind, offering curricula that accommodate those standards. Students should review all applicable guidelines to make sure prospective programs will help them meet their goals.
Doctoral pastoral counseling programs are far more advanced and specialized than master’s degrees; expect to spend about four or more years in school. Most pastoral counseling Ph.D.s require students to complete research fellowships, graduate teacherships or other practical learning experiences in addition to any academic coursework. While these obligations make online Ph.D.s in pastoral counseling less prevalent, they provide vital hands-on skills that are otherwise difficult to master. They also help students find potential employers and other networking contacts.
Notable pastoral counseling doctorate programs
Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision at Loyola University Maryland
Loyola University Maryland describes its Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision as the only CACREP-accredited counselor supervision program that emphasizes spiritual, religious and ethical values. Note that programs that address counselor supervision prepare students to teach and oversee counselors in the field. According to LUM, its program nurtures clinical expertise, research acumen, and theological and religious understanding. The Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision degree requires at least four years of academic training, including some supervised clinical training.
- Department: Department of Pastoral Counseling
- Location: Baltimore, MD
- Online learning options: This is a campus-based program requiring additional on-site, supervised clinical practice.
Online degrees in pastoral counseling
The online learning boom is real: 2015 research from the National Center for Education Statistics showed online student enrollments officially outpaced those of traditional students and the types of schools that offered online degrees diversified. Online pastoral counseling degrees stayed on-trend. Today students can find these programs in various denominations and degree levels. Students who could not previously go to school now can. Despite their convenience, online degrees are not necessarily easy. Most schools require distance education students to complete the same coursework and meet the same benchmarks as campus-based learners, only with less oversight. Strong communication, organization and dedication is a must. Check out these and other features schools throughout the site to learn more about online pastoral counseling programs.
Notable online pastoral counseling degree programs
MS in Psychology – Pastoral Counseling from California Southern University
California Southern University is an accomplished institution: in 2017, U.S. News & World Report named CalSouthern the No. 15 Best Value School and the No. 68 overall university in the nation. CalSouthern describes its online MS in Psychology with an emphasis on Pastoral Counseling as the “perfect educational program” designed to meet growing demand for lay church counselors and a stepping-stone to the University’s doctoral programs. Students study such topics as the psychology of aging, family systems and human sexuality at their own pace, 100 percent online — no campus attendance required. Online support and library services are available.
- Department: School of Behavioral Sciences
- Campus location: Irvine, CA
- Online learning options: This self-paced program is offered completely online.
American Association of Pastoral Counselors, Licensing, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.aapc.org/Default.aspx?ssid=74&NavPTypeId=1189
American Association of Pastoral Counselors, Pastoral Care Specialist Training Programs, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.aapc.org/Default.aspx?ssid=74&NavPTypeId=1182
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Ministries in Chaplaincy, Pastoral Counseling and Clinical Education, accessed November 18, 2916, http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/endorsementmanual.pdf
School and program websites, Accessed November 16, 2016:
American Islamic College, Master of Divinity in Islamic Studies, http://www.aicusa.edu/master-of-divinity-in-islamic-studies-mdis/
Brigham Young University, Religious Studies-Military Chaplaincy MA, https://learningoutcomes.byu.edu/Courses/program-courses/776397/Religious+Studies-Military+Chaplaincy+MA/1019
Loyola University Maryland, PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision, http://www.loyola.edu/academics/pastoral-counseling/academics/phd
California Southern University, MS in Psychology with a Concentration in Pastoral Counseling, https://www.calsouthern.edu/online-psychology-degrees/ms-psychology-online/pastoral-counseling-degree
Southern Assemblies of God University, BS in Community Care and Counseling, http://www.sagu.edu/admissions/online-bachelors-degree-in-counseling-ministries-pastoral-counseling
Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology, Concentration in Pastoral Care, https://www.smu.edu/Perkins/FacultyAcademics/InterestAreas/pastoral
Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology, Master of Theological Studies, https://www.smu.edu/Perkins/FacultyAcademics/degrees/mts
Yeshiva University, RIETS-Ferkauf Joint Graduate Program in Pastoral Counseling, http://www.yu.edu/riets/pastoral-counseling/