Spiritual Counselor

Spiritual counselors offer individuals and communities mental health services grounded in the great faith traditions. These counselors ensure proper growth and relational development within religious communities, and provide traditional counseling services such as addiction recovery, marriage and family therapy, and school counseling.

While spiritual counseling can take many forms, as a discipline it is rooted in the belief that the spirit is connected to the mind, body, and emotions. Spiritual counselors work in schools, churches, hospitals, and clinics to help people from all walks of life meet their spiritual, emotional, and relational goals. Many counselors enjoy their work because they find it rewarding to walk with people on their journey to emotional and spiritual wholeness. Spiritual therapists blend truths from the great religious traditions into their secular therapy, resulting in a robust service to their clients.

Becoming a spiritual counselor requires at least a master's degree. For some positions, spiritual counselors need to hold a doctorate. While most people do not enter spiritual counseling to earn a lucrative salary, it is a fast-growing and financially rewarding field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the mean annual wage for a counselor is $47,600. Chaplains -- who often do spiritual counseling as part of their daily work -- can earn $47,429 per year, and Christian counselors earn an average of $50,803 per year. Advanced education and additional licensure can result in higher salaries and more job opportunities.

Types of Spiritual Counseling

  • Christian Counseling: Used to describe many different counseling practices, Christian counseling can be secular psychotherapy with a theological orientation, or it can be nouthetic counseling, which relies entirely on the Bible for all mental health answers. Christian counselors may become licensed therapists, pastors, priests, spiritual directors, or laypeople with a deep knowledge of and experience with the relationship between the emotions and the spirit. Christian counselors work in hospitals, churches, or offices.
  • Islamic Counseling: Islamic counselors help Muslims who are planning to marry, struggling in a relationship, divorcing, or in need of arbitration in business. They also serve clients who need mental health or behavioral services. Islamic counseling's therapeutic framework relies on the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet, and the Islamic Science of the Self to aid clients in exploring their deepest selves on the way to health.
  • Jewish Counseling: Much of the practice of Jewish counseling is contemporary secular psychotherapy modified for the cultural and religious expectations of Jewish clients and therapists. Some Jewish counselors rely on the history of the Jewish people, including the holocaust, to help clients make sense of traumatic experiences. Most Jewish counseling takes place in offices, hospitals, and synagogues.
  • Buddhist Counseling: Buddhist therapy tries to reduce or eliminate suffering through the application of the Eastern religious teachings of Buddhism. Typically, this form of counseling rests on three pillars of practice and thought: mindfulness, self-cultivation, and meditation. Most Buddhist therapy is not linked to Western psychotherapy, although some contemporary counselors may appropriate elements of Buddhism in their clinical work.
  • Pastoral Counseling: Pastoral counseling interweaves spiritual care with psychological therapy to help clients navigate life experiences. The discipline of pastoral counseling leans heavily on the tradition of ministers counseling their parishioners, but it incorporates new understandings of behavioral science as well. Clients often choose pastoral counseling to experience therapy that reflects their own religious convictions. Pastoral counseling typically happens in offices or places of worship.

Becoming a Spiritual Counselor

Degree Requirements

As a vocation, spiritual counseling can take many professional paths. Some spiritual counselors are people of faith who choose to work as professional counselors in secular settings such as K-12 schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, and social service agencies. Others go on to become ordained clergy that serve on the staff at a house of worship. Still others focus their training and career on spiritual direction and serve clients out of their home or a separate office.

Regardless of the profession, earning a master's degree is an integral part of the journey toward becoming a spiritual counselor. Spiritual counselor degrees may emphasize counseling, psychology, religious studies, or pastoral ministry. For instance, students may attend a religious university for a degree in counseling psychology, or they may choose a ministry degree at a seminary and emphasize pastoral counseling.

A master's degree is the minimum requirement for most counselors. In fact, states require state-licensed counselors to hold significant numbers of graduate credits -- usually 60 -- to obtain their license to practice. Most denominations also require their ordained clergy to hold a master of divinity or other graduate degree in religion.

Many counselors go on to earn doctorates in psychology, counseling, or ministry because these degrees open up new kinds of clinical work and provide chances to teach at the college or university levels. Counselors who hold doctorates also typically out-earn their counterparts with a master's degree. Online learners can complete many spiritual counselor degrees entirely online, but some programs require short on-campus sessions.

Clinical Experience Requirements

Graduate students pursuing degrees in counseling typically complete a required internship as part of their programs. Spiritual counselors not planning to become licensed or certified may not have to fulfill this requirement. Those who seek state licensure, however, need to show how many hours of practical counseling work they have completed. Licensure requirements -- and therefore clinical experience demands -- vary by state and license type. For first-tier licenses such as the licensed professional counselor and licensed mental health counselor, most states require 2,000-4,000 hours, with 3,000 hours as the most common. For second-tier licenses like the licensed mental health counselor and licensed professional clinical counselor, states required 3,000-5,000 hours, with 4,000 being the most common.

Internships are a time for students to observe seasoned counselors, practice therapeutic work themselves, and network with other professionals in their field. Students may complete internships at their university's counseling office, a nearby mental health treatment center, or a K-12 school setting. In certain circumstances, students may perform their internship hours at their house of worship. Most internships require oversight by an approved and licensed counselor, and students looking for an internship can consult their college's career services office, online job boards, or local counseling associations. Since online learners may live far from their universities, schools often contract with qualified agencies and counselors to provide internships near an online student's home. Regardless of location, most counseling interns only begin the clinical part of their work in the second year of their degree programs.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

Depending on their specific profession or position, spiritual counselors may need to become licensed. While spiritual directors or pastoral counselors are not required to have a license to practice, licensing is always beneficial. By holding a license, counselors may bill insurance companies, assure their clients of their professional standing, and avoid innocently engaging in harmful practices. Licensing requirements vary by license and by state. A spiritual counselor may choose to become a licensed professional counselor, licensed mental health therapist, licensed social worker, or another professional designation. Each state establishes and directs its own requirements for licensing. Typically, however, counselors can take advantage of reciprocity agreements between states that allow them to transfer their licenses with minimal hassle.

Licensure is different from certification. A state or federal government agency grants a license to practice counseling or social work according to their legally established requirements. In licensed professions, any practitioner must hold a qualifying license. Certificates, on the other hand, are usually private and voluntary. Associations award a certificate to people who meet their requirements to demonstrate the certificate holder's skill level. A certificate is not required to practice counseling; a license, however, is. There is no single, nationally recognized spiritual counselor certification, but many spiritual counselors pursue certification as spiritual directors or as national certified counselors to provide better service to their clients. Others specialize with a certificate in art therapy, play therapy, pastoral counseling, biblical counseling, or another subgenre of counseling. Certifications help clients understand a counselor's background, credentials, and specializations.

Master's Degrees vs. Doctoral Degrees for Spiritual Counselors

While a master's degree is the minimum requirement for spiritual counselors, advanced education in counseling enhances a counselor's prestige and qualifications for jobs in the field. Students planning to serve the public as social workers, school counselors, spiritual directors, or marriage and family therapists can do so with a master's degree. However, there are various advantages to holding a doctoral degree, including a significantly higher salary, opportunities to teach, and leadership positions over a team of counselors.

Average Reported Salary for Counselors by Degree Level

Degree Level Average Salary
Master of Addictions Counseling $64,100
Ph.D., Counseling $77,079

Source: PayScale

Master's Degree

A master's degree in spiritual counseling requires 36 to 60 credits -- and two to three years -- to complete. Some M.Div. students make spiritual counseling their major emphasis, and these degrees require about 90 credits. Most state licensing boards need to see at least 60 graduate credits to award the Licensed Professional Counselor designation. Regardless of a degree's title or length, an internship is always part of a master's curriculum in spiritual counseling; it may also include clinical pastoral education and/or contextual education.

While not all master's degrees in spiritual counseling require a thesis, some do. Typically, however, the emphasis of a master's in counseling is on client care, not research. Students planning to pursue a doctorate may choose a thesis option to gain experience in conducting extensive research. In most counseling programs, students select a specialization such as clinical addictions, mental health counseling, school counseling, or marriage and family therapy. Many students earn a degree in psychology or counseling and opt to specialize in spiritual counseling. By earning a doctorate, students can access teaching, leadership, and clinical opportunities not available to counselors who limit their education to a master's degree.

Sample Courses

  • Foundations of Christian Spirituality: This course examines the person and work of Jesus and spirituality in the historic Christian traditions as it relates to theology, spirituality, and the ecclesial life.
  • Spiritual Paths in World Religions: Students learn the theological and practical paths of world religions, and enter into diverse worship and prayer experiences that influence their own spiritual lives.
  • Ignatian Spirituality: Students review the spiritual exercises devised by Ignatius of Loyola, and how to use imaginative prayer and discernment of spirits in the context of spiritual counseling.
  • Ethics, Pastoral Counseling, and Spirituality: By exploring the interrelatedness of the moral, spiritual, and ethical dimensions of life, students prepare for spiritual direction and pastoral counseling.
  • Human Person and Psychological Development: Students review the psychological and spiritual agendas of each phase of life across the lifespan. This can determine the developmental story of an individual, which helps counselors minister effectively to people in different life stages.

Doctoral Degree

A doctorate in spiritual counseling equips graduates to address the development and growth of individuals and communities in a religious or spiritual setting. Doctoral programs in counseling or psychology typically require 60 credits and take 3-5 years to complete. Some schools grant credits for select courses taken as part of a master's program. Normally, however, a doctoral program requires a master's degree for admission. At the doctoral level, admissions standards are exacting and may include a minimum GPA, interviews, professional experience, and evidence of both scholastic and personal achievements.

Once enrolled in a doctoral program, students commonly need to completely a dissertation or other final research project. For a Ph.D., this usually means conducting research that adds new knowledge to the field. In an Ed.D. or Psy.D. program, the research is often focused on new applications of existing knowledge. A D.Min.'s research is also applied in nature, and it is often limited to spiritual and religious communities. Psychologists with a doctorate typically earn more than $90,000 per year. Doctorates also open career opportunities in clinical research and in teaching or administration at a post-secondary institution.

Sample Courses

  • Individual Spiritual Enhancement: This course helps spiritual counselors develop strategies for their own growth and insight, as well as that of their clients.
  • Spiritual and Religious Issues in Counseling: Students consider the relationships amongst individuals, families, and God as the foundation for various dimensions of counseling practice with diverse populations.
  • Directed Independent Study in Religion and Psychology: Working one on one with a faculty member, doctoral students design and pursue a creative research project in religion and psychology.
  • Non-Western Helping and Healing: Looking at health through the lenses of various religious, philosophical, social, and historical traditions, learners study counseling approaches in cultural context.
  • Holistic Health Theory and Practice: The course begins with a look at literature that shows the connectedness of mind, spirit, and body. Students then consider what counseling looks like in that context.

Skills Gained in a Spiritual Counseling Program

Spiritual counseling requires excellent people skills, including the ability to empathize, be objective, think critically, and set boundaries. Students in counseling programs discuss these skills and then practice them in classroom-based practicums. They also accrue skills through degree-related internships. Many spiritual counselors take additional training in spiritual direction or professional counseling in order to become certified. These certifications provide evidence for the depth and breadth of a counselor's skillset.

  • Interpersonal Skills: Describing the way people relate or interact with other people, interpersonal skills include listening, negotiating, problem solving, and decision making. People perceive counselors with good interpersonal skills as optimistic and confident. Clients are likely to view a counselor with these skills as competent and helpful.
  • Communication Skills: Communication is the transfer of information from one person to another. The degree of accuracy with which a person transmits or receives information impacts his or her communication skills. Spiritual counselors need strong communication skills to demonstrate insight, spiritual maturity, and compassion to their clients.
  • Listening Skills: Sometimes described as the key to effective communication, listening skills enable people to receive and interpret communication. Diagnosing patients, showing empathy, and engaging with clients are all integral to spiritual counseling, and all require strong, active, and intentional listening. The ability to listen greatly impacts counselor-client relationships.
  • Critical-Thinking Skills: Critical thinking uses logic and reason to analyze and evaluate a situation in order to form a judgement. Spiritual counselors must think critically to recognize and help correct faulty logic in their patients. Critical thinking skills also help counselors discern which theories of counseling to appropriate for each individual situation.

Employment and Salary Outlook for Spiritual Counselors

Spiritual counselors work in a variety of fields, and their job prospects often differ based on their specific professional direction. The BLS projects that substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counseling fields will grow by 23 percent by 2026, a rate more than three times that of the average profession. As the criminal justice system moves toward court-mandated counseling instead of incarceration for drug-related offenses, the need for such counselors will rise.

In addition, many mental health counselors provide services to formerly incarcerated people as they transition to life on the outside. Others help veterans as they move from service in the armed forces to civilian life. These social changes mean that fields like individual and family service and community relief are employing increasing numbers of counselors. Elementary and secondary school counseling, however, continues to offer the highest wages despite employing a relatively low percentage of counselors.

Industries With the Highest Levels of Employment for Counselors (All Other)

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Individual and Family Services 5,240 0.23% $41,920
Elementary and Secondary Schools 3,750 0.04% $65,020
Local Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals 2,570 0.05% $50,730
State Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals 2,570 0.12% $47,060
Outpatient Care Centers 1,530 0.17% $46,680

Source: BLS

Industries With the Highest Concentration of Employment for Counselors (All Other)

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Community Food and Housing, and Emergency and Other Relief Services 890 0.53% $38,800
Other Residential Care Facilities 660 0.41% $34,560
Individual and Family Services 5,240 0.23% $41,920
Vocational Rehabilitation Services 630 0.19% $43,680
Civic and Social Organizations 650 0.17% $30,370

Source: BLS

How Much Do Spiritual Counselors Make?

Salaries for spiritual counselors vary, and depend on several factors such as location, industry, experience, and certification. A job title such as director of counseling at a hospital or clinical psychologist can increase a spiritual counselor's earning potential. These titles often require doctoral degrees, so students should consider the time and financial investment required. Certifications such as licensed professional counselor and licensed social worker can also improve a spiritual counselor's salary prospects, but these jobs, too, require extensive graduate education and many hours of internships.

According to Payscale, years of experience make an appreciable difference in counselors' salaries with late-career professionals earning about 40% more than those just beginning their careers. Moreover, Payscale's data suggests that holding expertise in bereavement counseling, addiction, or clinical supervision can improve a counselor's salary. Counselors who earn graduate degrees to work in clinical or medical settings can out-earn those who provide private counseling.

Salaries for Licensed Counselors by Experience

  Entry-Level (0-5 Years) Mid-Career (5-10 Years) Experienced (10-20 Years) Late-Career (>20 Years)
Licensed Professional Counselor $42,000 $49,000 $52,000 $58,000

Top-Paying States for Counselors

Salaries and career opportunities for counselors vary according to geography. High-population states like Texas, Florida, and California boast large numbers of counselors. Their large populations mean more work for human service professionals. Many of these states also have racially diverse populations and high numbers of at-risk people, giving counselors more opportunities to serve. The top-paying states for counselors are New Jersey, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Alaska. State licensing requirements and quality of life measures vary widely among these states, and students should consider the entirety of life as a counselor before deciding to relocate based on salary potential alone.

Related Careers for Spiritual Counselors

Spiritual counseling is a broad field where students develop skills in listening, questioning, retreat leadership, and pastoral care. These skills provide a broad foundation for success in the human-service professions or even business-related careers. By earning a graduate degree in marriage and family therapy or Christian counseling, students can direct their career toward clinical work. Others may earn a second degree in social work to serve as licensed social workers. For students wishing to focus on spirituality, an additional degree from a divinity school can prepare them for service in a house of worship.

Occupation Description Salary Degree Level Required
Psychologist, Christian Counseling A psychologist studies human and organizational behavior, and a Christian counseling psychologist uses those principles to help patients improve their cognitive, behavioral, and emotional skills. $50,350 Master's, Doctoral
Chaplain Chaplains provide spiritual and religious leadership in organized settings such as the military, corporations, schools, prisons, and hospices. Counseling is just one part of their jobs. $48,395 Master's
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors These counselors help people struggling with chemical addictions and related behavioral disorders. Their emphasis is on behavior change, whereas a spiritual counselor often emphasizes connection to the divine. $43,300 Bachelor's, Master's
Marriage and Family Therapists Working with couples and families, marriage and family therapists help people face and address relationship problems. While spirituality may play a role in their work, these therapists primarily focus on emotional and relational health. $48,790 Master's
Rehabilitation Counselors A rehabilitation counselor helps people with disabilities live independently. These counselors offer assistance dealing with physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral disabilities, but they may not emphasize spirituality as a tool of recovery. $34,860 Master's
Social Worker Social workers practice in hospitals, schools, and centers to help people cope with the practical problems of everyday life -- including behavioral and emotional issues -- but not necessarily spiritual ones. $47,980 Master's

Source: BLS

How to Find a Spiritual Counseling Job

Spiritual counselors serving as ordained clergy or who hold a state license to practice as a therapist typically secure positions before their unlicensed counterparts. Depending on the degree program they choose, spiritual counselors can become licensed professional counselors, licensed clinical social workers, or licensed clinical professional counselors. Individual states award these licenses, and students complete specific coursework and extensive practical experience to qualify for them. Spiritual counselors may also be privately certified as spiritual directors through a church or a recognized network of spiritual directors. Others may decide to pursue seminary education for an M.Div, and seek ordination as a member of the clergy via their respective faith traditions.

Typically, students find resume-building workshops and other job-related assistance through a school's career center. Often, professors also introduce students to opportunities and individuals in the field. Networking is one of the most effective job-search strategies a student can pursue. In fact, many students develop professional networks through job fairs at their universities or through area recruitment events. Government agencies, hospitals, and professional organizations such as the American Institute of Health Care Professionals, the American Mental Health Counselors Association, and the Association of Professional Chaplains often sponsor networking opportunities. Students can also meet other professionals through online forums, webinars, and career discussion boards through organizations such as these. Professional associations also offer large national and regional conferences where students can meet established professionals in the spiritual counseling field.

Professional Organizations for Spiritual Counselors

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