Why Pastoral Counseling?

By Rev. Jill L. Snodgrass, Ph.D.
Pastoral Counselors, as clinical mental health professionals, serve clients of any or no religious affiliation by integrating their spiritual beliefs and practices with therapeutic process.

Whether someone is in crisis or looking for personal development, a pastoral counselor can provide the guidance, skill, relationship, and information needed to promote psychological and spiritual growth and wholeness.

Pastoral counseling serves individuals, couples, families, and community systems in an effort to foster healing, renewal, reconciliation, and transformation.

Spiritual beliefs and practices are a central part of existence for individuals across religious traditions, sexual orientation, races/ethnicities, classes, ages, and genders. In the United States, 89 percent of adults believe in "God or a universal spirit" (Pew Research Center, 2015), and "worldwide, more than eight-in-ten people identify with a religious group" (Pew Research Center, 2012).

Unfortunately, only 59 percent of participants in a 2014 study conducted by the Pew Research Center (2015) indicated feeling a sense of spiritual well-being at least once per week.

It is not surprising then that interest in spiritually-integrated counseling and psychotherapy has increased among clients and clinicians (Plante, 2007). Grant funding and the introduction of special interest groups, like the American Association of Pastoral Counseling (AAPC), have helped to raise awareness about the benefits and advantages of attending to clients' spiritual and religious well-being and concerns. Spiritually-integrated mental health care has been shown through empirical research to be effective for individuals experiencing grief, depression, anxiety, and a variety of other presenting problems (Smith, Bartz, & Richards, 2007).

Today, the landscape of pastoral counseling is changing in two important ways:
  1. How pastoral counselors are being formed and trained has shifted;
  2. Pastoral counselors are utilizing more evidence-based therapeutic practices.
Pastoral Counselor Training Has Evolved
First, according to a task force established by AAPC in the 1990s, the most distinguishing feature of pastoral counselors is how we are formed and trained with its emphasis on theological, spiritual, and religious education (Marshall, 2015).

When AAPC was first formed in 1964 to provide training, accountability, ethical standards and camaraderie in the emerging field of pastoral counseling, membership standards were established. At that time, not only were most pastoral counselors Christian, but they were either ordained or endorsed by their religious body.

As the discipline and its practitioners evolved, membership standards changed. Today, some pastoral counselors are priests, pastors, rabbis, or imams, practicing as representatives of their specific tradition or denomination, while others are members of religious tradition and others still are “nones,” or the “spiritual but not religious.” Mental health professionals who are trained as social workers, marriage and family therapists, counselors, and psychologists alike are engaging in spiritually-integrated practice. AAPC welcomes these professionals to the association, and simultaneously endorses the distinctive training that many pastoral counselors possess given their education in theology, spirituality and religion as well as psychology and the behavioral sciences.

Utilizing Evidence-Based Therapeutic Methods
Second, there is a growing body of research demonstrating the efficacy of spiritually-integrated mental health care, a practice that has existed for millennia as religious communities sought to provide support and healing to individuals, families, and communities. Religious leaders have listened intently to personal problems and developed counseling responses, grounded in the wisdom of their particular religious tradition, to assist those who suffer from mental and emotional illness and relational difficulties. Pastoral counseling as we know it today is truly a 20th century phenomenon that is “anchored in ancient Hebrew and Christian understandings of care” (Townsend, 2015, p. 17).

In the early 1900s, a specialized practice of soul care emerged due in large part to the influence of psychology. Although psychology had historically been antagonistic toward religion (i.e., Sigmund Freud; John Watson; and Albert Ellis), by the end of the 20th century, the study and practice of spiritually-integrated counseling and psychotherapy gained grater prevalence and acceptance.

Today, rigorous research methods are used to demonstrate the effectiveness of pastoral counseling and spiritually-integrated mental health care. Pastoral counselors are urged to ground their counseling theories and practices in evidence-based methods and to contribute to the growing body of research.

Are you interested in learning more about pastoral counseling? Want to become a part of the movement? Join ACPE Today.

For more information on the history, the practice, and the future of pastoral counseling, references and suggested resources are listed below.

References and Suggested Resources
Marshall, J. (2015). Futures of a past: From within a more traditional pastoral counseling model. In E. A. Maynard & J. L. Snodgrass (Eds.), Understanding Pastoral Counseling (pp. 435-448). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Maynard, E. A., & Snodgrass, J. L. (Eds.). (2015). Understanding Pastoral Counseling. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Pew Research Center. (2012). The global religious landscape. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/ 

Pew Research Center. (2015). Religious landscape study. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/ 

Plante, T. G. (2007). Integrating spirituality and psychotherapy: Ethical issues and principles to consider. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 63(9), 891-902. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20383 

Smith, T. B., Bartz, J., & Richards, P. S. (2007). Outcomes of religious and spiritual adaptations to psychotherapy: A meta-analytic review. Psychotherapy Research, 17(6), 643-655. doi: 10.1080/10503300701250347

Snodgrass, J. L. (2015). Pastoral counseling: A discipline of unity amid diversity. In E. A. Maynard & J. L. Snodgrass (Eds.), Understanding Pastoral Counseling (pp. 1-15). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Townsend, L. (2009). Introduction to pastoral counseling. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Townsend, L. (2015). Pastoral counseling’s history. In E. A. Maynard & J. L.

Snodgrass (Eds.), Understanding Pastoral Counseling (pp. 17-37). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
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What is Pastoral Counseling?
This episode of the Ask a Christian Counselor podcast features a roundtable discussion with leaders from the American Association of Pastoral Counseling. It begins by making the point that Pastoral Counseling is inclusive of all faiths before going on to explore what that means for patients and practitioners.

Click Here to hear the show.

You can also find it on iTunes and Stitcher.

Defining Pastoral Counseling
Pastoral counseling is a mode of clinical mental health care that integrates the knowledge of psychology and the behavioral sciences with the wisdom of spirituality, religion, and theology. The foci of pastoral counseling include the alleviation of symptoms, fostering increased coping, assisting with positive behavioral changes, promoting spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical well-being, improving relationships with self and others and, for adherents of theistic religious traditions, improving relationship with the god of one’s understanding (Snodgrass, 2015, pp. 5-6).

About the Author
The Rev. Jill L. Snodgrass, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University Maryland. She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, currently serving as a member-at-large on the Board of Directors, and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Her research interests include spiritual care and counseling with traditionally marginalized populations, with specific emphasis on individuals and families experiencing homelessness and women transitioning from incarceration. From 2008-2011, Dr. Snodgrass was the associate director of the Clinebell Institute for Pastoral Counseling and Psychotherapy in Claremont, California. In addition to her work as a scholar, activist, and minister, Dr. Snodgrass has served as a pastoral counselor in churches, shelters, transitional housing facilities, and community centers. She is the co-editor of the book Understanding Pastoral Counseling, and has published numerous peer reviewed articles and book chapters.