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A Pastor And A Therapist Walk Into A Bar

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

...and the bartender says "What is this, a joke?"


A very common question that faithful people ask themselves is "Do I need a pastor or do I need a therapist?" This blog post will clarify the normal roles for both of these important professions to help you understand their individual roles.


Short Answer: You'll probably need both a pastor and a therapist at some point in your life. Maybe that's today.


Longer Answer: This is one of the most common dilemmas that people with deep religious affiliations face. The truth is, both a pastor and a therapist can offer helpful insights into difficult life situations. Both can also offer encouragement and challenge you to see adversity as an opportunity to grow and mature. Competent members of both professions will refer you to the other when the issue is more suitable for different expertise. So let’s dig into it and look at how to know when you need a pastor and when you need a therapist. (Note: While I appreciate and respect all forms of spirituality, my background is in the Christian church. I will default back to my understanding of traditional Christian clergy when I refer to “pastors” below.)

For starters, a pastor is generally a church employee who is focused on your church involvement and your “vertical relationship”, or the ways you relate with God. A pastor will offer programs and teaching to build the foundations of faith as you grow to understand the scriptures. (Some pastors also offer short-term help navigating difficult relationships within the church.) A pastor will highlight for you how the scriptures apply to your life, particularly in times of adversity and loss. A pastor generally has at least some training in grief counseling and can help you process the sadness you feel after a major loss. A pastor can help you find groups within their church body that can offer social connections. In highly traditional circles, a pastor must be male, which might add complications for those with reactivity to men.


A therapist is either self-employed or the employee of a group counseling practice. A therapist is focused on your “horizontal” and “inner” relationships. Horizontal relationships are those we have with one another in our families and larger communities. Inner relationships are how we regard and treat ourselves. So, a therapist is more concerned with how you interact with yourself and others than how you interact with God. As you can imagine, there is a lot of overlap in these areas. Therapists wind up having pastoral conversations and pastors wind up having therapeutic conversations quite often. (These conversations must be governed by the professional’s competence and training on the topics at hand.) A therapist has highly specialized training in coping with anxiety, depression, trauma, grief/loss, and a host of other issues. Almost all state licensed therapy providers (i.e. LPC, LCSW, LMFT, etc) have earned a Master’s Degree or higher. We are not usually seminary-trained, though some in our field are.


I’ll be the first to admit that I can be far too practical. I think this comes from being raised on a farm, but it’s true. My first inclination is to ask “how much does it cost?” about almost everything in life. So, how much does it cost to receive the services of a pastor versus a therapist? A pastor’s services are generally free, but you may be asked to contribute to the church at some point. A full “tithe” is not generally expected, especially for people who are new to the church. If you become more heavily involved, a tithe is generally understood to be one tenth of your income, and it is collected to cover all of the expenses of the church. Another approach would be to hire a pastor as a consultant (or “pastoral counselor”) at whatever agreed-upon rate you establish with them. Your relationship with a therapist is structured somewhat differently. You’ll first sign an Informed Consent Agreement, detailing the uniquenesses of the therapist-client relationship and setting the fee. In the Metro Atlanta area, self-pay therapy ranges from $100-$250 per session, depending on area, expertise, and many other issues. Just to be super clear here — Pastors and therapists offer very different services and should not be thought of as having the same roles. Both cost money eventually, but they serve very different purposes. It’s kind of like a home-builder asking what an electrician costs versus a plumber when both are needed to build the home.


So which one do you need? Both of them. If you choose me to be your therapist, I will never insist that you go to see a pastor or go to church. I won’t judge you as right or wrong for what you believe or for going to church or not. I won’t ever force my spiritual perspectives onto you, and I’ll always respect your viewpoints. I strive to operate within the unique perspectives brought into the counseling room by each and every client. If you’d like to schedule a session with me as your therapist, click Book Now on my website at www.altmancounseling.com or call 770 615 6300.

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