Meet an Alumnus
August 21, 2012
Jonathan Talley (M.Div. '07)
Westminster alumnus Jonathan Talley is currently the campus minister at Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. We asked him a few questions about his current ministry and Westminster's impact.
What is your current ministry role with RUF? How long have you been there? Describe your day-to-day tasks.
I am currently a campus minister with RUF at Washington and Lee University (W&L) in Lexington, Virginia. This fall, I’ll be starting my 6th year on campus, although the ministry will be beginning its 11th year on campus.
During the school year, my job responsibilities offer a fair amount of flexibility and diversity regarding what I do day-to-day. Ministry for me looks probably not all that different from what a lot of pastors at churches would be engaged in. The avenues of ministry are the same: Our weekly large group gathering on Tuesday nights, small groups during the week, and one-to-one meetings with students during the week. Where RUF is different from other forms of vocational ministry is that we’re not ministering to professionals and families. Rather, we’re working with full-time students whose schedules look pretty different from the rest of society! That means that I’ve got to be flexible for when I meet with students and when I hold small groups, etc. I might meet a student for coffee, one for lunch, and another for squash on a Thursday, and then that night, lead a small group at a fraternity house at 9 pm. Of course, I have to find time to squeeze in the dreaded administrative tasks and whatnot, but it always seems to get done. I really enjoy the flexibility that working with students affords me.
Why did you choose to work for RUF?
I had a strong desire to work with RUF right out of college. RUF started its chapter at the University of Georgia (my alma mater) in the fall of 1999, which was my junior year. Rob Edwards, another WTS and UGA alum, started the work there and I got involved in the organization fairly early on in its first few months on campus. Without going into too much detail, in the course of roughly 18-20 months, God had radically shifted the course of my life and RUF played a large part in that change. When I started at Westminster in the summer of 2003, it seemed to be a “no-brainer” that I would – Lord willing – work for RUF when I finished seminary. College is such a formative time in young people’s lives, and RUF – by God’s grace – has an amazing opportunity to minister to students in the midst of that crucible. I know of no other place in ministry where one can see such dramatic change take place in someone’s life, in such a short period of time. That’s why I love working with RUF and college students.
What are some of the particular challenges you face in your current ministry?
I would say that one of the biggest challenges I face in my current ministry is the level of apathy I see in the students I minister to. The prevailing attitude is either “I’ve got this all figured out already”, or “This really isn’t all that important”. The challenge I face on my campus is trying to get students who have never lacked for anything, that they lack the one thing that will give life – Jesus himself! In many ways, I regularly minister to the Rich Young Rulers of our society: churched (or religious), fairly moral, smart, well-put-together and looking for the cherry on top of their lives. But Jesus deconstructs all of that, and shows what they lack. My challenge is to preach that same message of grace and change that is only possible with God.
How has your time at Westminster impacted your current ministry role?
My time at Westminster greatly shaped and impacted my current role in ministry. Quite frankly, I don’t think I would be nearly as effective in ministering the Word of God to students if I had not received the training I did at Westminster. That’s not to say that guys coming out of other Reformed seminaries don’t get a great education, but it’s just not the same as a Westminster education. Case in point, there are only a handful of Westminster Philly graduates still serving with RUF. We often chuckle together that other RUF ministers often ask us what books they should be reading! So many guys in ministry have never been exposed to Vos, Van Til and Ridderbos. These men and their work (along with the professors I had) have provided THE interpretive grid and framework for how I read, study and apply the Scriptures to students at Washington and Lee. One of our most popular small group studies at W&L with RUF is a small group on “The Jesus Storybook Bible” by Sally Lloyd-Jones. This beautiful book – for children, no less – is nothing more than Vos, Ridderbos and Clowney distilled down to manageable portions. My students love it, and what they come away with is a full-orbed picture of the redemptive story of God, as it’s unfolded in the Scriptures and consummated and completed in Christ.
I would not be the minister of the Word that I am, were it not for my having encountered these works during my time at Westminster. There is certainly more that I could share about how Westminster has impacted by ministry with RUF, but this is probably the foremost way, in my estimation.
What are some memories you have of Westminster that you'd like to share? Favorite class, professor, memories with fellow students, etc.
One of my fonder memories from my time at Westminster is the two and a half years I spent as the RA for the men’s off-campus dorm. My wife and I got to meet some amazing students from all over the world and that experience made a huge impact on my understanding of the Kingdom of God on a larger scale. Dining with students from Korea, Palestine, Nigeria and China around our kitchen table was such a sweet and refreshing time. It was nothing less than a small taste of what’s to come!
Another set of my favorite memories involves Dr. Poythress. When I was a lonely summer Hebrew student, caught in the doldrums of parsing and translation, Dr. Poythress invited me into his home for a home-cooked meal around his table with his family. Though simple and plain, it was a powerful picture of hospitality that really ministered to me. My wife and I were separated for that first month of school and for Dr. Poythress to extend grace to me in that way really meant a lot. The other memory involving Dr. Poythress was from my hermeneutics class with him during my first year of school. I can’t remember the exact lesson where were covering, but I remember that Dr. Poythress was becoming more and more “caught up in the Spirit” as he was teaching, until having completed his thought he simply looked up at the class and said, “well, let’s take a moment to pray and offer thanks to God for His wonderful gifts to us.” I’ll never, as long as I live, forget the impact of that moment. It deeply affected the way I understood what true knowledge is, and where it comes from, and what true humility is. I’m truly grateful for that experience.
There are so many more memories that I could share that mean so much, school picnics, meals in the café, conversations on the porch of Machen Hall – so much. But these are a few that stand out to me.
Photo from his days at Westminster, L-R: Rev. Steve Percifield (MDiv. '08), Rev. Jonathan Talley, Rev. Dr. Hunter Powell (MDiv. 07), Rev. Dr. Lane Tipton, Rev. Alex Graham (MDiv. 08), Rev. Alex Watlington (MDiv. 08). From Jonathan: "This photo is from Dr. Tipton's Salvation 2 class, from Spring of 2007. We were all in there at the same time. Great, great class and great company! Another fun memory."
What things are you learning now that you couldn't learn in a classroom?
I think one of the biggest things I’m learning now in ministry “on the field” is that life is messy and everyone’s messiness looks different! You see small glimpses of this in seminary, but for the most part, most of the folks studying in seminary are cut from the same cloth and have similar goals and desires, and hence, similar struggles. That’s a generalization, but I think it’s relatively true. In ministry, however, you meet folks who come from such a wide array of backgrounds. There are believers and unbelievers, Catholics, Jews and Muslims. There are atheists and skeptics; seekers and followers. Everyone has a different story and a different idea about how life works. As you enter into these people’s lives, the “mess” gets uncovered and for each individual, the issue varies. The reality of the incarnation is that Jesus waded into a world of mess – quite literally – and ministered in the midst of that. Anyone who wishes to do ministry in the Lord’s footsteps has to know that they’re signing up for the same thing!
How would you encourage current students in their studies?
I would simply encourage them to soak up as much as they can from their professors. They are knowledgeable men and women and seminary truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Don’t take it for granted! Alongside of that, I would say get active in a local church. The church is the proving ground of what you’re learning in the classroom. For all of its warts and flaws, it’s Jesus’ favorite tool to bring about eternal change in not only people, but the world itself.
How can the Westminster community pray for you?
I would just ask that you pray for the students of Washington and Lee University. As I minister here with my family and others who seek the coming of the Kingdom, pray that hearts would change and that the seeds of the gospel would take root in the hearts of these students. Pray that RUF here at W&L wouldn’t be viewed as just another Christian activity, but as a welcoming community of faith that welcomes seekers and believers alike.
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