Pastoral vs Professional Counseling

July 29, 2016



There have been a lot of articles lately about high rates of depression within the black community and removing the taboo nature of getting professional counseling. 


For as long as I can remember counseling, therapy, life coaching...anything other than pastoral counseling has been viewed and misconstrued as being "for crazy people" or representative of a lack of faith. 


This couldn't be further from the truth.


Being a Professional Therapist and Life Strategist, I'm completely aware of the challenges of convincing people of color that sometimes, something along side prayer and the pastor is needed.  Its incredibly painful and disheartening to watch people, year after year, generation after generation wallow in despair, lose faith or feel that God has forgotten them.  They are "waiting on God" but the real question is:


Is God Waiting On You?


to do something different, new, out of your comfort zone? Moreover, could professional counseling be it?


That said, my contribution to this conversation is taking some of the mystery out of the human services professions by explaining the differences in each, what they do and what differentiates them from the others.


Professionals -vs- Pastors




Counselor is usually an umbrella term for anyone who provides professional guidance and advice on a particular subject matter.  Counselors are in a number of industries (school counselor, loan counselor, nutrition counselor, addiction counselor ... even an attorney is referred to as a counselor).  However, true human behavior counselors do not require the same degree of advanced training or licensure to operate as some of their colleagues. Counselors can lack the in-depth understanding provided by clinical research found in therapy.  However, Counselors are very effective at helping people work through their emotions, develop coping strategies, and adapting to their environments.  Counselors answer the question: Can someone help me?


Social Worker


Social Workers do a lot of things that counselors do however, their primary function is adapting the environment to the client.  This is why you'll find Social Workers who work for the government or other institutions that facilitate livable, comfortable conditions for the client.  For example, the Department of Human Services usually hires Social Workers to help impoverished people get aid for food, housing or transportation or to aid people with special needs have an environment conducive to independent living.  The Department of Labor may employ Social Workers to aid unemployed people with attaining new skills or finding new employment.  Social Workers often engage in case management.  Masters' level Social Workers handle very complex cases that involve many elements and legalities such as hospital discharge plans that may involve home care, accessibility issues, etc. Social Workers answer the question: How can I improve my quality of life?


Coach / Strategist


Coaches (sometimes referred to as Strategists) are laser focused on helping the client gain new perspective, achieving goals, realizing untapped potential and gaining more fulfillment in life.  Coaching is very future-focused and generally takes less time, than therapy or counseling.  There are coaching certifications available but oftentimes, life coaches draw from life experiences to guide and motivate others to reach their goals.  Coaches and Strategists usually operate in very specific areas such as life coaches, career coaches, dating coaching, relationship coaches, health coaches, etc.  Coaches/Strategists answer the question: How can I move forward in reference to this issue?



Pastoral Counseling


Pastors often find themselves in the role of counselor as they lead congregations. Everything from mediating disagreements to pre-marital and marriage counseling fall on the shoulders of spiritual leaders.  The phrase "Pastoral Counseling" has two meanings: 1) All of the unofficial counseling pastors do.  2) The official blending of spirituality and proven counseling methods. 


Official Pastoral Counseling

Some Pastors, understanding the need of counseling tools, pursue official Counseling or Pastoral Counseling degrees.  A large part of their ministry becomes combining moral, religious and spiritual doctrine with proven counseling techniques.  Their scope of practice can be limited when dealing with more complex emotional health issues.


Unofficial Pastoral Counseling

Many pastors don't have formal training in counseling.  Those who don't are often not equipped or report a lack of the time to deal with complex human behavioral issues or mental illness.  Without formal training, they may provide great spiritual counsel which can comfort parishioners to an extent.  But many people won't receive the solutions he/she needs to delve into the deeper issues surrounding emotional wellness.


The basis of both the unofficial and official Pastoral Counseling process is whatever spiritual doctrine/text the institution follows. Unless they've received formal training, Pastors are best equipped to serve in providing moral, religious and spiritual guidance.  Whereas not all mental and emotional health cases are a moral, religious or spiritual issue. Pastoral Counseling answers the question: How does my moral, spiritual or religious beliefs effect my issue?




Therapists usually require a minimum of a Master’s degree to achieve this title.  Most Therapists then become licensed by a state board and must adhere to high standards of ethics and confidentiality as outlined by their state governing body or professional organization.  In therapy, the focus is often on interpersonal health and/or an identifiable issue, such as depression or relational discord, that interferes with the client's level of functioning.  Therapy typically "looks back" to deal with unconscious issues,  repair damage from earlier experiences and systematically undo unhealthy thought patterns.  It may even involve adjunct therapies and coordination of additional services (such as a personal trainer or nutrition coach).  Therapist can also be a broad term (much like Counselor) to cover all helping professions with advanced degrees.  Therapist answer the question:  How can I make peace with my past, subconscious thinking or processing?




Psychologists are social scientists with advanced degrees in Psychology (PhD) who are trained in human behavior and mental processes.  Psychologists can clinically diagnose mental disorders and determine the best route for a patient's care.  Licensed psychologists are qualified to do counseling and psychotherapy, perform psychological testing, and provide treatment for mental disorders. They are not medical doctors. In most states, they cannot write prescriptions or perform medical procedures.  They often work very closely with Psychiatrists.  Psychologists answer the question: How can you determine what's clinically wrong with me?




Psychiatrists are medical doctors that have specific training in assessing, diagnosing, treating and preventing mental illness.  They have Medical Degrees (MD) and complete an additional four years of residency training in mental health.  Psychiatrists can prescribe medication.  Unlike any of the other helping professions, they are trained to differentiate between mental health problems and underlying medical conditions.  They also monitor the effects of mental illness on other physical conditions (such as blood sugar, high blood pressure, etc).  Psychiatrists answer the question: How can you medically address what's wrong with me?


Now here's where it gets interesting


Many in the helping professions often find interest in other aspects of the helping professions, hence such titles as: Counseling Psychologist or Clinical Social Worker.  I personally refer to myself as a Professional Therapist and Life Strategist (as I have the training and education of a Therapist but I enjoy the goal-oriented nature of Coaching/Strategy).  I often combine the process-oriented nature of Therapy with the goal-oriented nature of Coaching to help my clients.  Anyone who chooses to work with me will gain the benefit of both. 


When people think of ANY type of counselor, coach, etc, they IMMEDIATELY think of a Psychiatrist treating the absolute WORSE cases of mental illness!  Its no wonder they shun the idea of counseling and feel that they can't relate to it.  But as you see, there are MANY other levels of care available. Choose one that seems to best suit your needs and find a professional to help you.


If you'd be interested in working with me to help you make peace with the past and reach goals for the future, you can learn more by clicking here



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