The biggest difference between “Christian counseling” and secular or non-religious counseling is that state-licensed professional counselors are prohibited from bringing religious beliefs or values into the counseling relationship unless that is the client’s stated desire. Even then, such inclusion must be measured and cautious, lest it overtake or take away from clinical interventions, which a client expects to receive from a professional therapist. By contrast, clients seeking Christian counseling do so because they want some aspect(s) of the Christian faith incorporated into therapy. That may be Christian beliefs, values, scripture, prayer, spiritual disciplines, an understanding of the Holy Spirit and the process of sanctification, or other aspects of the Christian faith.

Secular and Christian

One can find secular, trained, state-licensed therapists who personally identify as Christians. This shared personal faith may give a client a sense of ease when seeing a mental health professional. The client can ask that their shared faith be included in the counseling process and clarify what is meant by inclusion.

If comparing secular/non-religious counseling to Christian counseling, one will find a broad spectrum of similarities and differences. At one end of the spectrum, the counseling one receives from a Christian counselor may be almost indistinguishable from secular therapy, using the same interventions and theoretical bases as non-religious counseling. At the other end of the spectrum, one might find rejection and sometimes demonization of secular approaches, relying almost solely instead upon Jesus, scripture, prayer, the Christian community, and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.

The “flavors” of Christian Counseling

The “flavor” of the Christian counseling one might receive will vary, depending on whether the individual or institution identifies as Catholic, Protestant, conservative, liberal/progressive, fundamentalist, evangelical, reformed, full gospel, charismatic, or another identification. Even with these distinctions, one can expect to find some shared tenets, such as belief in a trinitarian God, salvation through Christ, communicating with God through prayer, and respect for the Scriptures. One will also find variety in these tenets, such as the scope of salvation, methods of prayer and worship, the authority of and interpretation of Scripture, and the place of the fellowship and governing authority of the Church in the believer’s life.

It is, therefore, prudent to be aware of—or to ask—how faith would manifest in counseling sessions. One can then deliberately choose a form of Christian counseling that is consistent with one’s own beliefs or deliberately choose a form that will stretch one’s beliefs in a desired way.

Pastoral Counseling

For those affiliated with a church, pastoral counseling is often the first foray into seeking Christian counseling. (Some pastors do not counsel but will refer, often maintaining a list of local counseling options.)

Generalist pastors

Generalist pastors who do not have a degree or certification in counseling can be expected to counsel from their personal mix of experience, spiritual formation, formal or informal study, courses, and training.

A generalist pastor, therefore, may or may not be well-informed on a particular subject; there is a huge spectrum in this regard. Pastors will vary in their emphasis on prayer, scripture, cooperation with the Spirit, the fellowship of believers, research, and secular therapeutic approaches. The efficacy of counsel from a generalist pastor will thereby vary widely.

Counseling-trained pastors

There is another level of pastoral counseling, which is the pastor trained in, possibly certified in, and possibly having earned a degree in pastoral counseling from a Christian college, Bible school, or seminary. That training or education will be characterized by the same variety that distinguishes generalist pastors (see above). Pastoral counselors are often found in larger churches, where multiple pastors are on staff, including the one(s) designated as the counseling pastor(s).

Church counseling departments

In very large churches, there may be a counseling department. Depending on the church’s theology and its regard for secular credentials like state licensure, the department head may be a clinically trained, degreed, state-licensed therapist. He or she may also be a pastoral counselor, a biblical counselor, or have specialized training and credentials from a particular denomination or Christian organization. (See again the variety noted above.)

A large counseling department may also include interns who are either currently studying or have recently concluded their studies and are gaining experience. They will be supervised by a more seasoned counselor. If they are pursuing a degree that would qualify them for state licensure, their supervisor (whether on the church staff or not) would be a therapist with that license or higher. Interns and counselors under supervision (sometimes holding a provisional license) will be less experienced, but the quality and efficacy of their counsel will vary according to the knowledge and personal experience of the individual.

Biblical Counseling

Biblical counseling is a term that might be used generally to refer to counseling that relies upon scripture for truth, guidance, and its transformative power through the Holy Spirit. Or, the title “biblical counselor,” may indicate specific training as such and certification by a credentialing body. As the name implies, the Christian scriptures will be used as a resource in counseling, a source of truth, and a guide for living. Prayer and reliance upon the Holy Spirit to work through passages relevant to one’s presenting issue—often memorized and their implications discussed during sessions—will characterize the biblical counseling approach.

Finding Christian Counseling

Where does one find Christian counseling? Given the variety described above, one can ask one’s own pastor for recommendations for counselors consistent with the church’s beliefs. The denomination or local presbytery, synod, or district might have staff counselors., which hosts a large listing of counselors, is searchable by location, specialty, gender, and a number of other criteria, including faith identification.

An internet search engine will find a variety of organizations identifying as either clearinghouses for Christian counselors or as certifiers of Christian counselors. The criteria by which an individual qualifies for certification or inclusion on these sites will typically be found on that website’s “About” tab. I will not mention any of these sites or organizations by name because of the range of factors important to someone searching for a Christian counselor. The mention of a particular site might suggest an endorsement of that site and its criteria and a non-endorsement of other sites and their criteria.

Lay Counseling

A final category of Christian counseling available to followers of Christ is that of lay counselors. Churches of any size, but especially larger churches, likely have individuals or groups of laypeople with some level of vetting and/or training.

These laypeople are empowered to come alongside people in various situations, from grief to marriage struggles to parenting challenges, addictions, or what might resemble life coaching (likely called “discipleship” in Christian terms). The quality and efficacy of the help they provide will vary according to the training, experience, skill, and “fit” with the lay counselor(s).

Stephen Ministries

A highly organized system of lay counselors can be found in churches of multiple denominations of varied theological flavors around the globe through a ministry called Stephen Ministries (so named after Stephen, the first martyr of the church and one of the earliest deacons—or servant ministers—of the Church). The organization’s website describes it this way:

“Stephen Ministries… produces training and resources known for their excellence, practicality, psychological integrity, and theological depth. These resources cover topics such as caring ministry, assertive relating, spiritual gifts discovery, grief support, spiritual growth, and more.

Congregations and other organizations use these resources to strengthen and expand ministry. Individuals use them to improve their ability to relate to and care for others, grow in faith, and journey through life crises.”

Congregations may develop a team of “Stephen Ministers” who supplement the ministry of the church staff. These trained lay ministers might come alongside people in grief, marriage struggles, parenting struggles, divorce, addiction recovery, or any number of circumstances. The team is typically supervised by a pastoral staff member, potentially one trained in counseling and able to step in where circumstances are beyond the skills of a lay minister.


In summary, “Christian counseling” is a broad term encompassing various approaches to incorporating faith into the therapeutic process. These approaches range from counseling that is almost indistinguishable from secular therapy to counseling that relies heavily on scripture, prayer, and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. Christian counseling can be provided by licensed therapists, pastoral counselors, biblical counselors, or trained lay counselors. When seeking Christian counseling, it is important to consider one’s own beliefs and the specific approach of the counselor or organization.

Doug Burford, DMin, LPC, LCPC, is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, an ordained minister, and a Gottman-trained therapist licensed in Kansas and Missouri.