A Guide to Associate, Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Christian Counseling

Degrees in Christian counseling praying together

What is Christian counseling? Christian counseling is an approach to individual and group therapy that combines modern psychology with traditional, inspired wisdom and knowledge from God. Christian counselors use these hybrid techniques to offer comfort and counsel to both believers and non-believers, in roles as pastors or as dedicated counselors.

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

The modern version of Christian counseling came to the forefront in the 1960s and 1970s just as other types of psychological counseling were becoming professionalized. But in reality, pastors and elders in churches have fulfilled the role of counselors and purveyors of wisdom since the dawn of Christianity.

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Jesus himself tells us he was sent to heal the broken-hearted. And indeed, the Gospels make it clear that he was a counselor himself, offering aid and comfort wherever he went and whoever he walked among.

One of the greatest comforts Jesus offers is His greatest promise: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

Those words lifted up Martha as Lazarus lay four days dead; they have lifted untold millions since.

But words alone have never been enough. It's always been a role for the faithful to both spread that Gospel but also to listen in sympathy and guide in wisdom. While pastors and elders still fill those roles, now there are dedicated professional counselors who offer comfort through Christ.

Today, Christian counselors enjoy the same divine wisdom as their predecessors, but with all the advantages that come with a modern understanding of psychology and human development.

It's a role that takes a strong education in both secular psychological principles and the fundamentals of Christianity. So, if Christian counseling is your calling, then a college education is in your future.

Christian Counseling Degrees Teach You How to Combine Psychology Skills with Spiritual Support

Leading bible studyChristian counseling takes a holistic approach to diagnosing and treating problems of mental and emotional health. It's a more complete approach than the purely psychological methods secular counselors use; spiritual needs and dilemmas are considered along with psychological and even physiological concerns.

Because it takes a whole-person perspective, though, Christian counseling also takes a whole lot of education. You have to learn not just the same sets of treatments and conditions as any professional counselor, but also appropriate spiritual approaches to those problems.

Christian Counseling Degrees Offer a Ladder of Education Toward Your Calling

Although professional Christian counselors are expected to earn a master's degree or higher, you will find degrees in Christian counseling at every level of college.

You'll also find that they are offered both as stand-alone majors, such as a Master of Arts in Christian Counseling or Christ-Centered Counseling, and as concentrations available through related Christian degrees. It’s common, for example, to find Bachelor of Pastoral Studies degrees, or Master of Divinity degrees, offered with a concentration in Christian or pastoral counseling.

There are also programs in Biblical counseling that may be pretty much the same as Christian counseling programs, but watch out—some Biblical counseling degrees rely solely on Scripture for their counseling approach, without including any of the psychotherapeutic or pastoral training that typically come with a Christian counseling degree.

Is a Degree in Christian Counseling the Same as a Degree in Pastoral Counseling?

Hand reaching out for another'sYou will also see plenty of degrees out there that are either majors in pastoral counseling or offer a focus in that area. The curriculum in those programs can be very similar to a Christian counseling degree, but the focus may be slightly different.

Almost all pastors provide counseling, but it’s not usually their focus area. Degrees or concentrations in pastoral counseling approach counseling as a specialty area of the ministry rather than a unique professional area. That doesn’t mean that your education in a pastoral counseling program can’t be used for Christian counseling, or vice versa, but you should be aware of the differences.

Associate Degree in Christian Counseling

There are relatively few of these two-year undergraduate degrees available. Counseling is a position of great responsibility that requires an advanced education, so an associate degree won’t qualify you itself to become a Christian counselor.

What it can do is lay the groundwork for your progress to more advanced degrees. An associate degree is also often called a transfer degree. That’s because, through mutual agreements or an evaluation of your transcript, many four-year schools will accept the credits from your associate program as fulfilling the first two years of a bachelor’s program in Christian counseling.

Taking that approach can allow you to get in some of the foundational coursework in liberal studies and in psychology and counseling at a much lower cost, and with greater flexibility than committing directly to a four-year program.

Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Counseling

The four-year bachelor’s degree is where your counseling studies really dig into weighty subjects of morality, behavior, and faith. You will have the widest range of classes in both counseling and religious instruction at this level, and often also the opportunity to specialize in a narrower field of counseling such as:

On top of the professional and religious instruction you get with these degrees, however, you also will have a required course of instruction in traditional liberal arts and sciences. These courses give you the kind of general knowledge, communication, and critical thinking skills that an American college education is known for. They also happen to be valuable skills in the field of counseling, where communication and connections are key.

A bachelor’s degree will not qualify you as either a licensed counselor or for ordination as a pastor in most states and for most denominations. But it is a vital step in your path to either of those roles through further education.

Master’s Degree in Christian Counseling

Master’s programs in Christian counseling are where the profession really gets cemented. It’s at this level that you start to become eligible for licensure as a professional counselor, or receive the education you need to become ordained as a minister.

At this level, the kind of general education and broad studies that you undertook as an undergraduate are behind you. Master’s programs come with focus and specialization. All your courses at this level will deal with counseling-related topics. You’ll also find more freedom to develop your own focus areas, building a curriculum around your particular interests in Christian counseling.

Master’s programs in Christian counseling are also where you will start getting direct clinical experience in counseling. Most programs require practicum or internship placements that put you face-to-face with clients, practicing the theoretical skills you learned in class in the real-world.

A Master’s Degree Is a Basic Requirement to Become Licensed as a Christian Counselor

Christian counselor with young girl in therapyNot all master’s programs are a rubber stamp on licensure as a counselor. Each state has its own education requirements for licensed professional counselors, or LPCs. Further, many states have exceptions for pastors that allows them to offer certain counsel without an official license. But on the other side of that, many Christian denominations have their own specific educational requirements for ordaining pastors.

As a priest or minister, you are usually exempt from state laws requiring certification or licensure to provide counseling services. On the other hand, those laws also prevent anyone without those licenses from describing themselves as a licensed counselor. So, the advice and counsel you offer will typically be an important part of your ministry, but not your main job.

As a non-ordained Christian counselor, you will have to obtain a state license. In every case, that requires earning a master’s degree. In many states, that degree program has to have a specialty accreditation from CACREP, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, or MPCAC, the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council.

You’ll also have to pass the National Counselor Examination and perform about 3,000 hours of supervised post-master’s experience, as well as complying with state laws and ethics codes.

You’ll also find national organizations that offer certification or licensing specific to Christian counselors. These professional bodies have their own standards and you might find membership valuable, but they do not replace or help in earning a state counseling license.

Doctoral Degree in Christian Counseling

Senior counselor in groupAs the highest degree you can get in the field of Christian counseling, these programs also come with the biggest challenges. A dissertation is required for most PhD programs in Christian counseling, and you can expect to spend as much as half of your two-to-three-year program on that alone. It’s a process designed to hone your research and academic skills.

For that reason, many earn a PhD in Christian counseling on their way to a career in education. You will be well-qualified to teach as a college professor in Christian counseling programs, or to work in education at either Christian or secular schools. Of course, you can continue counseling directly with a higher level of knowledge and expertise, too.

A doctoral program offers plenty of customization. Since so much of it will revolve around your dissertation topic, just picking the focus you are interested in can tailor all your studies toward becoming an expert in that area. These degrees build you into a resource for your community and a thought-leader in Christian counseling.

Coursework in Christian Counseling Combines Psychology and Religion

Christian counseling degrees at every level blend standard, scientific coursework in psychology and counseling with classes devoted to developing your Scriptural knowledge and pastoral care skills. It’s this combination of the latest advances in understanding of human psychology with ancient, spiritual wisdom that gives Christian counseling its power in delivering support and comfort.

Scripture - In order to provide counsel from the Christian worldview, you have to be completely familiar with the founding document of the religion: the Holy Bible. All Christian counseling degrees teach the Scripture at some level of depth. Classes often revolve around the specific lessons and verses that bring comfort or offer insight into the difficulties of coping. You’ll learn to reference and interpret the meaning as part of your approach to counseling patients.

Jesus’ assurance in John that he will always come, and never leave us comfortless, is a promise that is still kept by Christian pastors and counselors around the world.

Spiritual Formation - Counselors of all stripes have to be individuals who are calm and centered themselves. This is an easier box to check for the faithful, who can rely on their own belief to remain focused. But it’s not an innate skill, so, like other Christian degrees, counseling majors offer coursework in individual spiritual formation to encourage and clarify your own moral development as a Christian.

Ethics and Morality - Counselors tackle thorny questions of ethics and morality all day long. Jesus offers guidance in the true path through these issues, but there are also professional difficulties today that weren’t found along the Sea of Galilee… how should you handle social media interactions? What are your responsibilities for reporting dangers to the state? Coursework in professional ethics helps you build a system for handling all the challenges.

Practical and Theoretical Counseling - Interpersonal skills are one of the key pieces of an effective counseling career. It’s not enough to have a strong grasp of theory and information. You have to know how to get people to open up to you, and how to deliver your knowledge in ways they will understand and appreciate. So you will have a lot of coursework in the day-to-day skills of counseling, including areas such as:

  • Assessment and Testing
  • Clinical Psychopathology
  • Crisis Response

Culture and Comparative Religion - Part of understanding people comes from understanding their background. The culture they were raised in and live within is both a source of support and of problems, and counselors are trained to see the big picture to identify both. As a Christian counselor, this is particularly important, since religion is such an important shaper of cultures and attitudes. So you will probably study world religions beyond Christianity in order to have a better appreciation for multicultural counseling efforts.

Practicum - Even more than other kinds of Christian degrees, Christian counseling programs are likely to come with high levels of fieldwork built in. For state licensing, most counselors will require thousands of hours of supervised field experience. That begins through practicum or internship programs that put you out in the community, delivering real counseling services under the watchful eye of experienced ministers and counselors.

Selecting the Right School for Your Christian Counseling Studies

Teaching group of students while holding tabletBecoming a Christian counselor doesn’t just take an education—it takes the right education.  There are big differences, for example, between adopting counseling as a specialty as an ordained minister versus becoming a professionally licensed Christian counselor. Where you study can have a big impact on what you are qualified to do as a counselor.

So, accreditation may be one of the first things you need to look at. While most American universities today already have a general accreditation from an organization recognized by CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation) or the Department of Education, counseling is a profession that is distinct enough that specialty accreditors exist to evaluate those programs:

  • CACREP - the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs
  • MPCAC - the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council

Most state licensing or certification requirements specify a degree from a program accredited by one of those two organizations. If you will need that license, you need to pay attention to schools that hold that status.

On the other hand, if you are aiming for ordination, then a completely different set of accreditors are involved:

  • ATS - Association of Theological Schools
  • ABHE - Association for Biblical Higher Education

And you’ll also need to ensure that the school’s doctrinal teachings line up with your denomination.

Online Christian Counseling Degree Options Expand Your Opportunities

If it seems pretty complicated finding the right fit for your calling, there’s a silver lining: many schools today offer Christian counseling degrees through online studies.

That opens up all kinds of possibilities for you, all over the country. With remote learning, you can attend the school that is the perfect fit for you without packing up and moving, even if it’s ten states away. And with flexible scheduling options for classes, you can often fit those programs in around other commitments you have for work or family.

Christian Counseling Degrees Open Up Job Opportunities in Ministry and Beyond

Comforting patientYour calling may already have told you exactly where you need to end up in order to be of service to God and your community. For many Christians, though, the process of finding that right fit for both service and spiritual development can be an ongoing one. So it makes sense to get some idea of all the different kinds of jobs you can get with a Christian counseling degree.

Master’s in Christian Counseling Graduates Have the Most Options

A master’s degree is required for the two most common jobs in the field:

Pastor - Pastors are counselors by nature, and every ministry requires some level of offering comfort, advice, and wisdom. But many larger church organizations also have ordained pastors who are dedicated to offering counsel to the members of the congregation, or organizing counseling services offered to the community at large

Counselor - Many Christians seek out counselors who are able to engage them in faith and offer solutions that are as spiritually relevant as they are psychological. So becoming a licensed professional Christian counselor is on the table with the right education and post-graduate training. You can work for a counseling organization that either specializes in Christian counseling, or is secular but employs Christian counselors. Or you can launch your own counseling business, exploring small business ownership and the challenge and flexibility that comes with that.

Undergraduate Degrees Serve up Entry-level Jobs either in Christian Ministry or Counseling

Although there are more limited roles for anyone holding an undergraduate degree in Christian counseling, there are still jobs available in areas such as:

Human services assistance - Associate or bachelor’s graduates can join faith-based or even secular organizations focused on social work and human services to put their knowledge of mental health issues and spiritual counseling to good use.

Lay counselor - Some churches establish lay counselors, who are not professionally licensed, but are available to the congregation for spiritual and mental health assistance. This is a good position for anyone with a bachelor’s degree in Christian counseling.

Assistance organizer - Many faith-based organizations offer assistance in mental health or crisis counseling areas through outreach efforts like crisis or suicide prevention hotlines, or other community resources. An undergraduate degree in Christian counseling gives you the tools you need to put together or supervise these efforts.

Whatever path you choose, those who help guide others to a happy, fulfilling life lived according to God’s plan are continuing His work on this Earth.