Why Pastoral Counseling
By: Rev. Jill L. Snodgrass, Ph.D., Director-at-Large, AAPC Board of Directors
Counselors, as clinical mental health professionals, serve clients of
any or no religious affiliation by integrating their spiritual beliefs
and practices with therapeutic process.
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.
counseling serves individuals, couples, families, and community systems
in an effort to foster healing, renewal, reconciliation, and
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).
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.
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:
- How pastoral counselors are being formed and trained has shifted
- 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).
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 ans
psychotherapy gained grater prevalence and acceptance.
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 AAPC Today.
more information on the history, the practice, and the future of
pastoral counseling, references and suggested resources are listed
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
Pew Research Center. (2015). Religious landscape study. Retrieved from
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.
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.