This is the fifth post in a 9 part series on frequently asked questions about Summit’s counseling ministry. The 9 questions in this series are:

  1. What is the difference between meeting with a Summit campus pastor and a member of the counseling team?
  2. What is the relationship between Bridgehaven and Summit?
  3. What are the differences between a Summit small group and a G4 group?
  4. How do I know if Bridgehaven or the graduate program is a better fit for me?
  5. How would the counseling provided by a formal pastoral counselor compare to a licensed counselor? (This Post)
  6. How do I know if my life struggle merits counseling?
  7. What can I do to place myself in the best position to benefit from counseling?
  8. How do I find a good match in a counselor for my needs?
  9. How do I find a good counselor in [name of city]?

There are two questions that can guide this discussion:

  • What is the difference between formal and informal pastoral counseling?
  • What is the difference between pastoral and clinical counseling (i.e., LPC, LMFT, LCSW)?

The first question was largely addressed in another FAQ about the difference between the role of a campus-based Summit pastoral staff and a member of the Summit counseling team [link]. But to summarize, informal pastoral counseling is a “doing life together” relationship of mutual care that occurs in natural community, while formal counseling is a private relationship forged on the basis of a particular need where there are clear role differences between the helper and helpee.

The second question can be answered from several angles. We will consider seven differences between formal pastoral and clinical counseling.

  1. Authority and Accountability: A pastoral counselor is accountable to the local church or ministry board under which he or she serves. A clinical counselor is accountable to the state licensing board (e.g., LPC, LMFT, LCSW) whose credential he or she holds. The entity to which a counselor is accountable sets the standards by which that individual can practice and serves as the point of appeal if a counselee believes the counselor behaved unethically.
  2. Diagnostic System: A clinical counselor defines the counselee’s struggle according to the criteria of the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders in order to operate in compliance with the managed care system; which allows the financial advantage for the counselee of paying for counseling through their insurance (see compensation point below). In this sense, clinical counselors work predominantly from a perspective that counselees struggle with “mental illness” because their practice is part of the healthcare system.Pastoral counselors work predominantly from a perspective that the source of the counselee’s struggles are “problems in living” (i.e., beliefs and values enacted in choices and relationships) or “meaning of life” issues where temporal struggles are interpreted in light of their eternal significance. A pastoral counselor operates from a worldview that utilizes the categories of Scripture to advise a counselee as they navigate life struggles of sin, suffering, or identity.Note: There are many clinical counselors who hold a high view of Scripture and many pastoral counselors who are clinically-informed. This distinction is not mean to portray that pastoral and clinical counseling are mutually exclusive. The same could be said for “therapeutic strategies” point below.
  3. Values: A clinical counselor seeks to work within the value structures of each counselee and not impose their values on their client. A pastoral counselor believes that Scripture provides the values that contribute to human flourishing because the Bible reveals God’s intent for how people and relationships were designed to function.
  4. Compensation: With a clinical counselor, counselees are usually able to process their counseling expense through their insurance. With a pastoral counselor in a parachurch setting like Bridgehaven, a donation is made to the ministry at which the counselor serves to support the ministry and counselor in their service to the community.
  5. Treatment Strategies: A clinical counselor works with the counselee to identify goals and selects best-practice therapeutic strategies to reach those goals based upon the leading diagnosis in the counselee’s life. A pastoral counselor seeks to make practical application of Scripture to the problems in living the counselee has identified and encourages these to be lived out in the context of Christian community to reach the counselee’s desired goals.
  6. Training: A clinical counselor has standardized educational and supervised experience criteria which are set by the state in which he or she practices. A pastoral counselor’s education and experience may vary. It is important for the counselee to understand the education and experience level of their pastoral counselor. For Bridgehaven and the graduate intern program, those explained here [link to question 4].
  7. Professional Cooperation: When other professionals are involved in the counselee’s life – physicians, social workers, psychiatrists, attorneys, etc – these professionals are more accustomed to working with a clinical counselor and there may be advantages that make meeting with a clinical counselor decidedly advantageous for the counselee. When these professionals consult with a pastoral counselor, they do so more as a clergy member providing life history or a character witness than as someone providing a mental health assessment.

It is important to note that The Summit Church (TSC) believes both pastoral and clinical counseling are good professions/ministries that God uses to restore people to the full functioning he desires for them. We affirm Christians serving God and receiving care in both settings.

However, TSC counseling ministries have chosen to offer pastoral counseling options in our ministries because these allow for the most free expression of a Christian world-view.

We would encourage you to use these criteria to help you assess whether a member of TSC counseling team – that is, Bridgehaven and the graduate intern program – or a clinical counselor with a Christian world-view would be the best fit to serve your counseling needs.