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Biblical Counseling Coalition: Grace & Truth

How Should Seminaries Train Pastors to Counsel?—Part 1

How Should Seminaries Train Pastors to Counsel - Part 1

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading the first of a two-part blog by Dr. Bob Kellemen that he adapted from his presentation at the 2012 Evangelical Theological Society Annual Conference. You can read the entire paper at our BCC Free Resources Site under: Pastoral Counselor Preparation in Evangelical Seminary M.Div. Programs.

The Problem

The Association of Theological Seminaries (ATS), in their Master of Divinity (M.Div.) Degree Program Standards section states that the M.Div. “should educate students for a comprehensive range of pastoral responsibilities and skills…and for exercising the arts of ministry.”[1] Of those ministry arts, Gregory the Great, in his treatise on pastoral care, called shepherding souls “the art of arts.”[2]

Powlison noted that “during eras when church life has been vibrantly responsive to Scripture, pastors have counseled well and wisely. They have understood that their pastoral calling includes a significant ‘counseling’ component.”[3] Recognizing distinctions in calling and giftedness, Powlison further observed that, “Some pastors will do a great deal of hands-on cure of souls, some relatively little. But every pastor ought to dedicate some percentage of his ministry to the delicate art of intentional conversation…”[4]

These are not mere academic perceptions. Ellison, Vaaler, Flannelly, and Weaver reported that clergy are often viewed by those in their church and community as front-line “mental health workers.”[5] Additional studies validate these findings that clergy play a vital role as counselors and are frequently the professional of choice for relational and “mental health” concerns.[6] The desire for value-centered counseling is particularly acute among Evangelical Christians.[7] Southern Baptists, for example, have shown a pronounced preference for receiving counseling within their churches as opposed to professional counseling from outside the church.[8]

Lunn reported that many conservative Evangelical seminaries, perceiving this increase demand on pastors to be counselors, overhauled their curricula in the 1970s to produce pastors who were trained to counsel.[9] However, Gillette noted that the majority of Baptist pastors still viewed their training to be inadequate.[10]

Firmin and Tedford indicated that “subsequent surveys over the past two decades have repeatedly suggested that pastors feel unprepared to function in the role of counselor.”[11] Buikema’s research revealed that eleven out of twelve (92%) pastors believe that seminaries are responsible for training them in counseling. However, these pastors cited insufficient seminary preparation as their primary reason for feeling inadequate in this role.[12] Loskot reported that pastors rated their preparation as inadequate for half of the counseling needs they face.[13] In a study of the effectiveness of seminarian versus master’s-level counseling students, Watson found that the single best predictor of counseling self-efficacy was the amount of counseling-related seminary coursework.[14]

In a study of pastors representing nineteen denominational affiliations, almost one third reported having no counseling training at all in seminary.[15] In Firmin and Tedford’s study of 31 Evangelical seminaries which have traditionally served Evangelical Baptist students, the data showed no seminaries requiring more than two counseling courses. Of the 31 examined, only two required two courses, seventeen required only one counseling course, and twelve had no counseling courses at all listed among their requirements for M.Div. students.[16] A 2012 survey of ATS member schools revealed that of the 228 institutions that had the M.Div. or equivalent programs, 32% required no specifically-identified counseling course, 55% required one counseling course, and 13% required two counseling courses.[17]

The problem is clear:

  • ATS requires seminaries to equip M.Div. graduates in the art of arts.
  • Parishioners anticipate that their pastors will be skillful pastoral counselors.
  • Pastors expect seminary M.Div. programs to equip them for their role as pastoral counselors.
  • The typical Evangelical seminary M.Div. program requires zero to two pastoral counseling courses.
  • Typical seminary M.Div. graduates believe that their training leaves them inadequately prepared for the personal ministry of the Word—pastoral counseling.

Toward a Best Practice Approach

Firmin and Tedford, in assessing their research, concluded that, “In light of the growing demand on pastors to function as counselors, we believe that seminaries should revisit their curricula and consider augmenting the amount of required counseling training for their M.Div. students.”[18] For this researcher-educator-practitioner, the research into seminary M.Div. counselor preparation suggests the need for seminary M.Div. programs to revisit the curricula to address:

  • The purpose of seminary pastoral counselor preparation in M.Div. programs: how should the seminary training location and the local church ministry setting impact and impart a distinctive pastoral counseling identity?
  • The theology of seminary pastoral counselor preparation in M.Div. programs: what view of the Bible shapes the way pastoral counselors form their theology and methodology of pastoral counseling?
  • The pedagogy of seminary pastoral counselor preparation in M.Div. programs: how could Evangelical seminaries in M.Div. programs equip students for pastoral counseling formation so that they think Christianly (content) and counsel effectively (competence) out of growing personal maturity   (character) in the context of local church ministry (community)?
  • The curriculum for seminary pastoral counselor preparation in M.Div. programs: given that the average seminary M.Div. curriculum allows for one course in pastoral counseling, and at most two in some select cases, what should be taught, why, and how?
  • The educator for seminary pastoral counselor preparation in M.Div. programs: given the purpose, theology, pedagogy, and curriculum of pastoral counselor preparation, what credentials best qualify the professor to equip pastoral counseling students for the personal ministry of the Word in the local church?

Based upon insights raised from engagement with the preceding five questions, this paper proposes a way forward toward seminary M.Div. pedagogical best practice principles that could most effectively serve to equip the pastoral counseling generalist to be formed in the areas of counseling-related biblical content, Christ-like character, and counseling/equipping competence in the context of ministry in the local church community.

The Rest of the Story

We invite you to return tomorrow for Part 2 of Dr. Kellemen’s research on counselor preparation in Evangelical seminaries. To read his entire paper, click here.

Join the Conversation

Why do you think Evangelical seminaries have been so ineffective in equipping pastors to counsel? What remedies do you suggest?


[2]Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care, trans. Henry Davis (New York: Newman Press, 1950; orig. 591), I:1, 21.

[3]David Powlison, “The Pastor as Counselor,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 26, no. 1 (2012): 23.

[4]Ibid, 28.

[5]Christopher Ellison, et al, “The Clergy as a Source of Mental Health Assistance: What Americans Believe,” Review of Religions Research 48 (2006): 190-211.

[6]L. Dupree, M. Watson, and M. Schneider, “Preferences for Mental Health Care: A Comparison of Older African Americans and Older Caucasians,” The Journal of Applied Gerontology 24, no. 3 (2005): 196-210; A. Weaver, “Has There Been a Failure to Prepare and Support Parish-Based Clergy in Their Role as Frontline Community Mental Health Workers: A Review,” Journal of Pastoral Care 49, no. 2 (1995): 129-147.

[7]Michael Firmin and Mark Tedford, “An Assessment of Counseling Courses in Seminaries Serving Evangelical Baptist Students,” Review of Religious Research 48, no. 4 (2007): 420-427; David Watson, “Counseling Self-Efficacy and Counseling Competence: A Comparative Study of Clergy and Counselors-in-Training,” Doctoral Dissertation, Purdue University, DAI-A, 54 (03) (1992): 824.

[8]Mary Ann Conaway, “A Survey to Identify the Counseling Preferences of Members of the Missouri Baptist Convention,” Doctoral Dissertation, Saint Louis University, DAI-A, 52, (05) (1991): 1641; Firmin, 420.

[9]Harold Lunn, “A Survey of the Counseling Functions of Ministers’ Doctoral Dissertations,” The Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, DAI-A, 41 (03) (1980): 1093.

[10]David Gillette, “Role Expectations of the Baptist Pastor as Pastoral Counselor as Viewed by Pastors, Pastoral Students, and Faculty in Selected Pastoral Training Institutions,” Doctoral Dissertation, University of Michigan, DAI-A, 42 (09) (1981): 3935.

[11]Firmin, 421.

[12]Jeffery Buikema, “The Preparation of Pastors in Premarital Counseling,” Doctoral Dissertation, Iowa State University, DAI-B, 62 (11) (2001): 5365.

[13]Donal Loskot, “Roman Catholic Priests as Counselors: Perceived Effectiveness and Actual Preparedness,” Doctoral Dissertation, University of San Francisco, DAI-A, (01) (1993): 47.

[14]Watson, 824.

[15]Lunn, 1093.

[16]Firmin, 422.

[18]Ibid., 426.

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