The world of counseling with licensure and titles can be confusing. Sarah J. Robinson highlights in her book I Love Jesus, But I Want To Die how she sought out a Christian mental health professional but was actually emotionally harmed in the experience and the person identifying as a professional had not credentialed experience and was not licensed. As people go through schooling to become a professional in the mental health field, I have heard many stories of people wanting to practice as a Christian counselor and being given poor advice that is either flat our wrong or sometimes manipulative and led to wasted time and money.
It’s also important to note that spirituality is recognized by secular organizations as an important aspect of mental health. It is my personal believe that there are no wrong choices with regards to mental health, but we need to not muddy what we are allowed or capable of doing and not misdirect individuals or professionals. Christian counseling it puts life into perspective through a Christian lens. Further, I’ve seen comments from people such as “In the end, I’d prefer to offer traditional Christian ethics and wisdom. I need to be able to live with myself at night” that are degrading and combative and will not be supported here.
So to help clear the air on the confusion that is present, I want to clarify the differences between a licensed counselor, biblical counselor, Christian counselor, and pastoral counselor/chaplain. There may be further clarification needed as this article exists, so do not hesitate to ask questions in the comments or offer alternative experiences. Note this is from a United States perspective.
What does it take to be licensed?
Each state is different. Unlike many in the medical field, there is no current reciprocity in the United States. If you work in California and want to move to New York to do counseling there, they have different rules. So what we share is a generalization, but for the most part, is true in the states.
- A licensed counselor is governed by a state licensing board with state/federal ethics and laws that must be followed. You must meet your state’s minimum guidelines, including any oversight procedures.
- Licensed counselors are required to have a graduate level degree from an accredited university and graduate exam, though some states may distinguish a licensed clinical counselor as a master’s level counselor. You will also need to be supervised for a varying amount of years and clinical experience under a supervisor, typically about 2 years and 2,500 hours of clinical work, as well as pass a federal exam before you can practice on your own.
- Licensed and clinical counselors are protected terms, meaning if you are not licensed but claim to be, you will be subject to fines and/or arrest.
- Licensing boards have the ability to take away your license due to any confirmed grievances such as inappropriate sexual relationships with clients, payment fraud to clients or insurances, or proselytizing of clients.
- Having a licensed does not bar you from promoting Christian practices or beliefs in your work area, but you need to have a strong understanding of ethics and legal implications, a supervisor you respect and can help guide you, as well as consult legal representation and have a fully defined client rights and responsibilities policy.
What is a biblical counselor?
A biblical counselor is someone who wants to help people suffering, through the lens of the bible. This differs from a licensed counselor in many ways.
- There are many different certifications, though the more known one’s are The American Association of Christian Counselors’ (AACC) Light University (though they do not use the term biblical counselors and muddy it by saying Christian counselors) or the late Jay Adams’ Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) that have different expectations. It should be noted many biblical counseling institutes are not under an accredited governing body.
- The training, instead of 2 years and 2,500 hours of clinical work, consists of completing their training and the company’s exam as well as 50 hours of direct hours to receive a certification. (Specifically referencing ACBC)
- You do not need a master’s degree and are govern by the school you are licensed through, not a state licensure board. They have their own code of ethics.
- They cannot bill to insurances or accept mental health grant funds from state or federal levels. Some churches are willing to pay for services in lieu of this, other biblical counselors need to accept only cash pay.
- You also need to understand how your church’s denomination interacts with biblical counselors’ certification. Current the ACBC will not allow you to hold certification with them if your practice is in a church with a female pastor, even if she is not the lead/senior pastor.
What is the term Christian counselor?
A Christian counselor is not a formal licensure or certification required, but instead an expressed viewpoint of the therapist. (That being said, if you want to seek out Christian counseling principles, I recommend AACC’s Light University. Not a licensure program or master’s degree, but great material) It simple identifies your own personal worldview, identifying to other professionals and clients that you are an expert in talking about Christian principles and how that can integrate into your profession. Some clients prefer to work with an individual of the same faith, pastors typically want to refer to fellow Christians.
As a licensed professional counselor, social worker, marriage and family therapist, or other mental health professional, you can adopt this identifier. Socioeconomically, it is identifying your own perspective, just as I have seen some counselors identify as a military mental health counselor or black counselor. There is no special training that has to come with it, but it does very much bias your perspective.
What this does not do is exempt you from any ethics or legal proceedings. If you are licensed and operating under that licensure, you must still follow their expectations. One Christian therapist put it very well, “I have a section on my intake asking clients whether or not they would like to incorporate spiritual principles into our session as well as what their faith background is. Based on that (because then it aligns with client goals), our sessions either have a foundational Christian focus or are simply focused on the therapy, tools and principles.” As I stated before, you need to have a strong understanding of ethics and legal implications, a supervisor you respect and can help guide you, as well as consult legal representation and have a fully defined client rights and responsibilities policy.
What is a pastoral counselor or chaplain?
Pastoral counseling and chaplains are traditionally, a cleric, or a lay representative of a religious tradition, attached to a secular institution, church, Christian non-profit, or a private chapel. Many pastors I know have part of their job as a local pastoral counselor or chaplain.
Each denomination, church, or organization has different expectations of education, some requiring a Bachelors or Master’s degree, such as Liberty University’s Chaplain degree. Many degrees are heavy on theology and light on mental health, so ask questions before signing up for degrees to make sure it meets your expectations.
Further, a hospital or military chaplain may be required to serve many different person’s of faith in their time of personal crisis. Finally, pastoral counseling may simply be a title given to a lay person who has no formal education but hopes to meet the needs of individuals who are hurting. We do not endorse any individual who does not have a a formal understanding of mental health or the science behind it.