Pastoral Counseling: On Psychology and Spirituality

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.


In a world besieged by daily crises, many people turn to their local faith communities for nourishment and guidance. Indeed, research has found that the majority of Americans prefer a mental health professional who integrates spiritual values into the counseling process. Pastoral counseling provides a helping relationship between a religiously-affiliated counselor and an individual, couple, or family seeking assistance to cope with life.


Pastoral Counseling 101:

  • An underlying premise of pastoral counseling is that a counselee’s spiritual life may be a valuable resource for healing wounds, resolving conflicts, and creating meaning and values.
  • Types of pastoral counseling include brief situational support, short-term counseling, and long-term pastoral psychotherapy.
  • Brief situational pastoral counseling consists of one to three sessions aimed at strengthening counselees in life situations that have temporarily thrown them off course.
  • Short-term pastoral counseling usually requires four to nine sessions in order to move through the therapeutic cycle of problem analysis, experimentation with coping strategies, and consolidation of gains.
  • Long-term pastoral psychotherapy generally requires ten sessions to one year. While some exposure to clinical pastoral training is recommended for all pastoral counselors, long-term pastoral psychotherapy, in particular, requires formal academic and supervisory training in the field of counseling.
  • Pastoral counseling often takes the form of a specialized ministry within a church, parish, or synagogue, where pastors or professional counselors offer counseling under the auspices of pastoral care.
  • Pastoral counseling can also function as an outreach ministry through a local hospital, homeless shelter, or independent counseling center; or it may serve persons through the chaplaincy in a prison, military base, or college campus.
  • Psychologist William James was one of the first American thinkers to envision the integration of behavioral science and religious faith. His book, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), placed this topic on the agenda for exploration in churches, universities, and seminaries.
  • Insights from therapeutic psychology have historically influenced and enriched pastoral counseling. Carl Jung, for example, viewed faith in God as a crucial resource for mental health.



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