A wide range of individuals -- clergy members, social workers, individual church members -- describe what they do as pastoral counseling. And in most parts of the United States, anyone can claim to be a "pastoral counselor" or even a "licensed pastoral counselor," because the use of these terms is not legally protected.

Individuals considering engaging with a pastoral counselor should carefully investigate the person's training and professional affiliations. Membership in a professional organization, such as those described below, may provide a level of oversight, but this is not universally the case.

Certified Pastoral Counselors Pastoral counselors certified by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org), the gold-standard membership group, have postgraduate degrees from accredited universities; experience and training in the ministry; a current relationship with a local religious community; plus significant training and supervised counseling experience.

The best-trained and best-prepared certified pastoral counselors are certified by AAPC; are members of AAPC; and have state licenses as social workers, marriage or family counselors or psychologists. Licensure usually requires a national board exam plus a state exam. (Most states do not license pastoral counselors separately.) AAPC membership alone does not require certification or licensure, though all members agree to abide by a code of ethics.

AAPC provides oversight of individual pastoral counselors who are members, accredits pastoral counseling centers and approves training programs. AAPC-certified pastoral counselors come from a variety of religious backgrounds and will not aim for religious conversion of clients.

Christian Counselors These counselors adhere to a biblically based approach to counseling combined, in some cases, with psychological techniques. But there is no common set of credentials, degrees or certifications required, and no single organization has emerged as the primary source for regulation or oversight.

Membership organizations such as the National Christian Counselors Association (www.ncca.org) and the American Association of Christian Counselors (www.aacc.net) include licensed professionals from other fields, clergy or church members with little or no formal training.

States do not license individuals to work as Christian counselors. Organizations may offer their own certification, sometimes upon receipt of a membership fee alone. Some Christian counselors believe the religious conversion of a client may be required for a successful counseling relationship.

Biblical Counselors Biblical counselors reject the psychotherapeutic model altogether, using only precepts, concepts and advice found in the Bible. There is no common set of credentials required to become a biblical counselor, other than a commitment to Christianity.

Biblical counselors are not licensed by the state; affiliations with a particular church or organization are more important. Membership organizations include the Southern Baptist Association of Biblical Counselors (www.sbabc.org), the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (www.nanc.org), and the Association of Biblical Counselors (www.christiancounseling.com). Practitioners typically require that clients share their religious beliefs.

-- Alison Buckholtz