• Family Outreach
    Family Outreach & Response Program
    Welcome to the FOR community

The Family Outreach and Response Program (FOR) offers recovery oriented mental health support services to families and youth.

Mental health and religion

What about God?

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

A majority of Americans feel their spiritual faith and religious beliefs are closely related to their state of 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 can be another path on your personal journey. It combines standard psychotherapy practices and theology, offering a comprehensive way of looking at things.

Pastoral counseling

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.”

The director of a large medical insurance company recently told Ronsheim that his organization was getting an increasing number of requests for pastoral counselors. “In this age of increasing sensitivity of the fragility of our world and the capacity for destruction of what we see, I think people are asking some important existential questions. Some of those questions involve a crisis of values. People are looking for something of substance that won’t go away. …They’re looking for an existential framework in which to engage in these important conversations.”

“People come to pastoral counseling knowing that if issues involving their faith come up, they will be treated respectfully,” says Ronsheim 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, which was founded by the Chicago Federation of Churches.

“Almost any kind of issue that brings someone to counseling also raises faith issues,” Hampson says. “Someone who is sexually abused wonders how God could let that happen. 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.”

Someone who has a religious faith can tap into that, she says, and turn to a higher power for strength.

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.

“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