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Deborah Wiig
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What about God?
Mental health and religious counseling
 

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What if the science of psychology is not enough in your healing from depression, bipolar or anxiety disorders? What if your spirituality is intertwined with your life problems?

A majority of Americans feel their spiritual faith is closely related to their mental and emotional health, according to a study by The American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) and the Samaritan Institute. They would prefer to see a professional counselor who integrates their values and beliefs into the counseling process.

Pastoral counseling combines standard psychotherapy practices and theology, offering a comprehensive way of looking at things.

Pastoral counselors, certified by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, hold a postgraduate degree from an accredited university, experience and training in the ministry, a current affiliation with a local religious community, and significant training and supervised experience.  They are licensed by their state as a social worker, marriage or family counselor or psychologist, which typically requires passing both a state and national board exam. Many are ordained clergy. Other “pastoral counselors” may not have such credentials, so it’s important to find out. See box. 

Why do people choose pastoral counseling?
“People come to pastoral counseling when their expectation of the world and their experience of the world are not aligned, says Doug Ronsheim, licensed marriage and family counselor. “This internal conflict might be represented as depression or anxiety, or with spiritual questions.” Ronsheim is a Presbyterian minister and executive director of The American Association of Pastoral Counselors.

“People not trained in religion don’t always understand when issues of faith come up," he said. “They get caught up in the content and don’t understand why this is important for this person. Pastoral counselors have the knowledge and skill set to be comfortable addressing these issues."

Sometimes, religious views aren’t brought up at all. The American Association of Pastoral Counseling has as a professional standard that a therapist will not impose any religious values upon a client.

“It’s not about my faith, it’s about their faith,” says the Rev. Ann Hampson, in practice at the Center for Religion and Psychotherapy of Chicago, founded by the Chicago Federation of Churches.

“Almost any kind of issue that brings someone to counseling also raises faith issues,” Hampson says. “Depression and anxiety symptoms may be unresolved loss or grief issues. They may be feeling angry at God, then guilty about those feelings. If they can forgive themselves, then others, they can gain better self-esteem and better relationships. Pastoral counseling not only uses all the great tools of psychology, but also tools of religious values that give people hope and meaning in their lives.”

How is pastoral counseling different from traditional psychotherapy?
Ronsheim talks about a single mother and her daughter who came to see him because of conflict in their relationship as the daughter was preparing to go off to college. In counseling, the mother realized that, behind her anxiety, she was questioning whether she could trust God to take care of her daughter. These doubts were new to her and created a crisis about her relationship with God that she needed to address.

 

 

Smiling pastor wearing collar“Within the context of her pastoral counseling with me,” said Ronsheim, “she could be comfortable discussing these issues in a way that she might not have been in a traditional therapy environment. Part of her realignment of her relationship with God and her daughter was the message: “Let God be God and you continue to be the caring mother.”

“We need common reference points like the points on a map that don’t move,” said Ronsheim, “and for some people that is their spirituality.”

To find a certified pastoral counselor in your area, visit the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A wide variety of faiths is represented.

Check the counselor’s credentials

Anyone can call him/herself a pastoral counselor, Christian or Biblical counselor, but may not have formal training, degrees, certification or licenses. Here are the credentials you need to look for:

  • Licensure by the state as a social worker, marriage or family counselor or psychologist
  • Training: a postgraduate degree from an accredited university and religious training
  • Certification by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors
  • Experience in both religion and psychology/social work
  • Affiliation with a local religious organization

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Sources
Hampson Anne, D.Min.
Center for Religion and Psychotherapy of Chicago
Chicago, IL

Ronsheim, Douglas M D.Min.
Executive Director
American Association of Pastoral Counselors
Fairfax, VA

 

Page updated January 1, 2009