One of the elements I’ve thoroughly enjoyed about my seminary experience is the ability to get to know my professors outside of the classroom. Dr. Derek Cooper is a professor – who I’d now call a friend – and who has enhanced my seminary education through his teaching. (Although I thought that being friends meant that he could have given me a better grade in my last course, but I could be wrong…)
I asked him a few questions about life, seminary and a book that he’s written that deals with both. If you’re thinking about seminary, check out this interview below:
J.R. Derek, tell us a little bit about yourself (family, job, hobbies, etc).
Derek: Although most people would not think this about me, I was born and bred in East Texas. I’ve only been living in the Northeast for the past several years. I originally came to the area because my wife is from suburban Philadelphia, but we have managed to stay here ever since. Together we have three young and wonderful children. I love the historical charm of the area and having four distinct seasons.
Right now I’m navigating between two jobs. I am a professor at Biblical Seminary, where I teach classes in New Testament and Church History. And I also work at a church, where I oversee pastoral care and adult education. When I’m not with family or working, I enjoy traveling, eating out, and being outdoors.
You mentioned joining the staff of a local church as well. How did that happen and why was that something that you desired to do?
Ever since I finished my PhD and began working full-time as a seminary professor, I felt that something was missing in my professional life. I love being a professor, but it does not usually allow you to do other things that I think are of vital importance when it comes to Christian ministry: being with people in their times of need, counseling and praying with them, and spending time with them and their families on a regular basis.
I am also aware of the growing chasm between the church and the academy. I don’t think this is helpful, and I want to illustrate to my students that I love the body of Christ. True theology arises from lived experiences with God’s and God’s people. Too often theological education lives in the abstract world, but I don’t believe that God lives in abstraction. Too often theological education teaches students how to love God, but I don’t believe it has done a great job of teaching people how to love one another. I want to love God and others, and I want my students to do the same. Working at a seminary and a church allows me to do both of these.
It’s encouraging to see that modeled, Derek. I know you recently wrote a book called So, You’re Thinking About Going to Seminary: An Insider’s Guide. Tell me why you wanted to write this book.
I got the idea for this book when I was taking a nap one afternoon in the summer. (My wife and I were teachers and didn’t have kids then, so we took naps everyday!) I woke up and wrote for several hours about a way to help people who were thinking about seminary. I later learned that no one had ever written such a book, so I stuck with it.
I wanted to write the book for several reasons. Not only am I passionate about seminary education, but I think there are a lot of people who desire or need a seminary education but don’t know how to begin the process or where to look. I wrote the book to help people who are thinking about seminary as well as for people who are currently in seminary. I literally tried to answer every thought or question that a person would have about seminary: What is seminary? Do I have to go? How much money does it cost? How do I choose between all the different schools? What program do I pursue? What will I do when I graduate?
I’m sure people might assume that you endorse or recommend one or two particular seminaries in the book, but you didn’t do that. Why not?
I intentionally decided not to endorse any particular school in the book. Nor do I say anything negative about any school. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, the book is designed to help people who are considering seminary regardless of their theological background. It is for Protestants and Catholics, so-called liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and mainliners. It’s not my intention to convert anyone to my brand of theology. I want to help them connect to their brand of theology: to attend the school that is best for them and their circumstances. Although I am an evangelical Protestant, I am not so arrogant as to assume that only such seminaries provide quality educations. That’s simply not true.
Second, people go to seminary for a variety of reasons. Some people want to be educated laypersons, others want to become pastors, and still others want to become licensed counselors or missionaries or college professors. In the same way, some seminaries are excellent at training scholars while others excel at training Christian counselors. The book is designed to help people find the right program and school for them, which will almost always be different from the needs of someone else.
What was your seminary experience like?
I had a unique seminary experience. I have taken classes at six different seminaries over the years—including both urban and suburban schools, denominational and non-denominational ones, ones that are part of larger universities and ones that are independent, liberal and conservative ones, large and small ones, wealthy and poor ones.
But one thing that I have learned over the years is that students—even students who attend the same school at the same time—can have vastly different experiences. You get out of seminary what you put into it. When I was a student, I read and studied a lot—and most of my friends did likewise. So, I look back at seminary and think that it prepared me well for getting a PhD. Some of my other friends don’t have the same impression, because they invested in other things.
If someone reading this was seriously thinking about attending seminary what advice would you give them?
I think there are many things to consider—such as cost, location, theological tradition, type of program, and career objectives. In the book, I discuss each of these in depth, and offer advice on a variety of different topics. I’d recommend that people read through the book to get an idea of whether seminary is right for them as well to learn what to look for when considering their options. Then I’d recommend that they speak with their pastor and family.
I’d love to give more specific advice, but I’ve found that people’s situations can by very different from person to person. If anyone has any specific questions, however, they are welcome to send me an e-mail! I’ve had people write to me from all over the country (even abroad) about their seminary options. I’ve never given the same advice, because their circumstances and locations and backgrounds are usually very different.
Anything else you’d want to say?
Well, having just gotten back from a week of visiting my family in Texas, there are a few things I’d like to say. It’s ironic that houses in Texas don’t have basements (while those in the North do), considering all the tornadoes Texas has.
That’s a good point. I guess I never thought about that…
Also, I wish restaurants in the North would serve sweet iced tea and Diet Dr. Pepper, and have more restaurants that served Tex-Mex and Southern classics like chicken-fried steak and corn dogs and biscuits and gravy. I’m convinced that Northerners would be friendlier if that were the case.
Hmm. that’s an interesting assumption…
On a more serious note, I would love to see a new generation of seminary students who were utilizing their seminary education in innovative ways and learning how to bridge the gap between the church and the academy. I think we are in a transitional stage in terms of theological education, and I’m excited to see what God has in store for us.
Now, about that last paper I turned in…
If you’re interested in knowing more, check out these links:
The Biblical Seminary website (where he teaches and I attend).