In difficult economic times, graduate school becomes a refuge for students who hope for better days ahead. Already, applications to Dallas Theological Seminary have spiked 10 percent, keeping with historical trends for theological training during unstable days. Seminaries, enduring their own financial woes, would happily welcome more refugees. Applicants don't even need to expect that they will enter pastoral ministry, says Derek Cooper, author of So You're Thinking about Going to Seminary: An Insider's Guide. Cooper, a visiting professor of New Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary, draws on his experience of attending classes at six such schools.

What is the biggest misconception about seminaries?

There are generally two. First, those who attend seminary assume that one of seminary's main purposes is to provide the answer to this or that great biblical or theological question. Instead of understanding seminary or theological education in terms of a mathematical formula to be solved, however, it is more like a tension-filled narrative that is to be lived out. Seminaries, in other words, are better at asking questions than answering them.

Second, those who do not attend seminary assume that only people called to the pastorate or some other full-time Christian ministry are encouraged or even eligible to attend seminary. The truth is, however, that seminaries are filled with students who will pursue a variety of professions after graduation.

You've attended classes at six seminaries. What lessons stand out?

I've learned that there is no such thing as the perfect seminary. Instead, each seminary has its own unique personality that distinguishes it from others. These personalities are not necessarily good or bad, just different. ...

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