Pastoral counseling refers to counseling by religious leaders such as ministers, rabbis and priests, who have been trained in psychology in order to give therapeutic help to members of their communities.
Pastoral counseling generally comprises a traditional spiritual or religious approach combined with modern psychology. It can thus be considered a kind of psychospiritual therapy.
The pastoral relationship is a crucial element in pastoral counseling. The relationship of the pastor to his or her constituents and the understanding that this exists within a religious framework are paramount. The counseling that takes place is unlike conventional counseling in that the aspect of faith is part of pastoral therapeutic interaction.
Specialized programs have been created to facilitate a closer working relationship between medical professionals and pastoral counselors. This has occurred predominantly in the field of addictions, where religious professionals may work with the medical world. Since faith and spirituality are seen by many to be central in addiction recovery and are at the root of many addiction recovery programs, cooperation can be observed between medical and religious personnel. Marriage counseling is often carried out by a pastoral counselor, trained in this field and with sensitivity to marriage issues exisiting within the particular religious framework.
During the first half of the 20th century, pastoral counseling emerged as a distinct discipline in North America. Incorporating knowledge gained from psychology and psychiatry, religious organizations began to train their leaders in a more specialized way. A model similar to the training received by medical students regarding counseling was suggested by Dr. Richard Cabot in 1925. Cabot was a physician and adjunct at Harvard Divinity School, and his proposal for training clergy was a significant step.
The 1920s saw further development in the field of pastoral counseling. The Rev. Anton Boisen organized theological students to interact with mental patients in a supervised setting. Norman Vincent Peale, a minister, and Dr. Smiley Blanton, a psychiatrist, formed the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, now known as the Blanton-Peale Institute.
Numerous training programs were designed during this time to expand clinical training methodologies for clergy. Clinical pastoral education began to be incorporated into programs at seminaries and other places of religious training.
By the 21st century, associations between mental health institutions and religious centers number in the hundreds in North America. The American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) was established in 1963. AAPC awards certification for pastoral counselors wishing to enter the profession, and certification is also given to pastoral counseling centers. The association aims to integrate spirituality and psychology within pastoral counseling practice. Understanding a person in an holistic way is promoted by seeing everyone as a composite biological, psychological, spiritual whole, influenced also by a social and cultural context. Values include justice for individuals, families and communities in all aspects of life, with cultural diversity respected. Pastoral counseling by trained spiritual and psychological therapists is aimed at giving hope to people, to healing them within their personal lives, the lives of their families and communities.
At the time AAPC was established, pastoral counseling training not only favored Carl Rogers' approach of client-centered therapy with its empathic listening strategies, unconditional positive regard and genuineness or congruence, but also incorporated other secular therapeutic methods. These included Gestalt therapy, Jungian psychology, psychoanalysis, reality therapy and transactional analysis, among others.
The Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc. (ACPE) focuses on multicultural and multifaith pastoral care education. Originally created as Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in 1925, ACPE was founded in 1967 as a merger of CPE units and is accredited through the U.S. Department of Education.
Degrees are offered in pastoral counseling, usually commencing with a three-year seminary degree, followed by a master's or doctoral degree in pastoral counseling. Pastoral counselors, trained in religion and therapeutic practice, may work privately or as part of an institution. Although many are certified by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, this is not mandatory, and most American states do not require licensing for a minster, rabbi or priest to perform pastoral counseling.
Psychotherapy and pastoral counseling are distinctive practices, although many pastoral counselors are also psychotherapy graduates. At the core of most pastoral counseling is the belief in God or a divine power. This spiritual focus is essential to understanding a connection to the divine, with a view ultimately to healing. Prayers and spiritual insights may be included in the therapeutic sessions. Aspects of community life as it pertains to the religious standing of the person, as well as worship, are also featured. The religious background of the individual and his or her family are taken into account within the therapeutic encounter.