The Difference Between Pastoral Care and Christian Counseling

Most people aren’t surprised when they hear that the number of people struggling with mental health is increasing yearly in America. Today, 1 in 5 US adults experience mental illness. The Christian community is not immune to mental health struggles and we are happy to see that, despite the fight against ongoing stigmas around mental health, more and more Christians are seeking wise counsel for their mental health struggles.

This counsel usually comes in one of two forms: Pastoral care or Christian Counseling.

Many Christians prefer to seek counsel from a trusted pastor in their life. Pastoral care, or biblical counseling, can be extremely helpful for a variety of reasons. But should it replace professional mental health services one can receive through a trained Christian counselor or therapist?

How do you know if you need to seek Pastoral care through biblical counseling or Christian counseling with a trained therapist?

To help explain the difference and benefits of both avenues we reached out to professional Christian Therapist and counselor Jenny Beall, founder of Threads of Hope Counseling based in Minnesota.

Jenny graduated from Bethel University with a Master’s in Counseling Psychology and completed additional Marriage and Family Therapy coursework through Adler Graduate School. She focuses on a style of therapy that is very practical and insight-oriented. “I like helping individuals and families think about situations in new ways to get unstuck.” She says. 

What is Pastoral Care?

Many Christians will go to their Pastor when they first realize they may need help in a mental battle they are facing. This first step can be helpful for a variety of reasons. Jenny describes pastoral care as “encouragement using scripture and scriptural application to address current challenges. It is provided by a minister or lay person typically without clinical training in mental health.” Jenny adds that a pastor will generally focus on a few key areas with people they are meeting with including specific scriptures, healing prayer, identifying sin issues, or calling the recipient to act according to spiritual disciplines.

Pastoral care is generally a short-term solution that may aim to address a specific problem or struggle. 

What is Christian Counseling?

According to Jenny “Christian therapy is provided by clinically trained mental health professionals who include the use of research-based interventions and graduate-level training to address challenges” 

When It comes to the “Christian” part of Christian counseling “There is a wide spectrum of Christian integration within Christian counselors: some counselors would say they happen to be Christian in their personal lives, but it doesn’t come out much in session– while others might be willing to discuss the application of particular scriptures or biblical values, open or close a session in prayer, and openly explore struggles of faith.”

“Christian counselors still use psychological principles and interventions, but they view them through the lens of a Christian worldview and can integrate those faith principles.”

An example Jenny gave was about the idea of building self-esteem. She included that “while building self-esteem might feel like a valid therapeutic goal to the world, there may be more valuable to a Christian to work on this from the lens of self-worth as a created image bearer and child of God.”

What’s The Difference?

So what are the key differentiating factors between Pastor care and Christian counseling? According to Jenny, one of the biggest differences comes down to training and experience type. Pastors offer biblical advice while Christian counselors are using clinical skills. 

Jenny points out that “most pastors have excellent knowledge and training in theology and the bible, but usually only one class on counseling” This makes them less equipped to handle more complex or long-term mental health issues. On the flip side “Christian counselors are trained clinically but are simply brothers and sisters in Christ, so they may not have any advanced theological knowledge.”

Who Should You Seek Counsel From?

You may have already identified that you need help related to a mental health struggle you have been dealing with. That’s great! But now you’re wondering, who do I go to? My pastor or a Christian counselor?

There is no wrong answer when it comes to taking your first step in bettering your mental health. 

Often pastoral counseling can be a good starting point for many relational challenges and milder symptoms. If you want to wrestle with theological questions and go more in-depth about scriptural questions, then a pastor would be a better fit.  

Any issues that require ongoing support (more than 3-5 sessions) would be better suited to a counselor. A counselor would be a better fit if there is high conflict in a relationship, any safety issues, or more life-impairing symptoms.

An Ongoing Partnership

Jenny points out that It is “critical for Pastoral counselors AND Christian counselors to be mindful of their scope of competency and know when to refer to each other.”

At Torchable we are passionate about connecting and equipping the Church body and communities. The Torchable app is being created to bridge the gap between the church and its surrounding communities. 

Jenny mentions “ It is critical to get to know your referral sources. Christian counselors should connect with local churches to understand the resources and support available to clients as well as have referrals for spiritual direction. Pastoral counselors need to know the Christian counselors they refer to and who can be trusted supports.”

The Torchable app will allow Christian counselors to stay connected and up to date on ministries and resources available from churches in their area. Pastors can use the Torchable app to refer to Christian counselors in their area and possibly even in their own church body. 

Together, pastors and Christian counselors are devoted to helping those who are struggling with mental health to seek wisdom and healing. It is our prayer the Torchable app can be used to strengthen this partnership and increase its impact moving forward!

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