Ministry training in Australia: An interview with Ben Pfahlert

Ben, as director of MTS you’re very involved in seeing the next generation of ministry workers trained up. Tell us about your own ministry training experience.

God grabbed me by the scruff of the neck in 1988, in my first year of university. I suddenly and inexplicably had a desire to know what was the meaning of life. I’d come from a completely non-Christian background so had very little exposure to the Scriptures, to Jesus or to the meaning of the cross. In about March of that year, I met a bloke called Rhys Bezzant at the university congregation of St Jude’s Church, Carlton (Melbourne). When I mentioned to him that I was trying to find out what the meaning of life was, he asked, “Would you be interested in reading one chapter of Mark’s Gospel together each week? I can come over to your residential college. You read it ahead of time and when I come I’ll see if I can answer the questions you have.” I agreed. Rhys discipled me in such a way that I could copy it with others. I became a Christian, 8 months later, in January 1989, and guess what I did with friends seeking the meaning of life? I read a chapter of Mark with them each week. That was the beginning of my ministry training!

I soon got involved with the AFES group up the road at Melbourne University (I was at RMIT University) and my training continued. I attended TNT, (Tuesday Night Training)… it was dynamite. (That was our daggy running joke). Over the next 12-24 months I did several awesome Matthias Media courses: Two Ways to LiveJust for StartersThe Leadership Papers (which later became The Blueprint) and Growth Groups. And they were taught really well, in that the leaders helped us to not just understand the concepts (e.g. evangelism), but they also helped us do the activity (i.e. actually explain the TWTL gospel outline to each other and to our non-Christian friends). It was the Christian equivalent of Kapooka: basic training for soldiers in Christ’s army.

I did this stuff on the side whilst I studied Civil Engineering. In 3rd year of Civ Eng, I started working with a fellow RMIT’er called Fiona Cheng on re-starting the lapsed RMIT Christian Fellowship (the AFES group on campus). By God’s grace that got rolling again and grew significantly through 1990-1991. I finished uni at the end of 1991 and then did something that I now discourage every Christian bloke from doing: I stayed on campus and started a ministry apprenticeship instead of first heading out of the university bubble. I trained under Gordon Cheng who was the Melbourne Uni AFES staffworker (and Fiona’s husband). I was a ‘satellite’ apprentice, as I was down the road at RMIT. But every Tuesday I would walk up to the St Jude’s vicarage and join the Melbourne Uni AFES staff team meeting. I was one of a whole batch of apprentices that were Melbourne’s first MTS Apprentices. Gordon had trained under Phillip Jensen and Col Marshall at UNSW, and then travelled to Melbourne. He had talked with us about this ‘ministry apprenticeship’ idea for years. And lo and behold, in 1992 about eight people said, “let’s do this”. It was a huge batch of 1st year apprentices that year. It was so much fun. (There was this girl Emma in the group too – we married in 1993).

After a 2.5-year apprenticeship I got a job as a Civil Engineer for the Heidelberg City Council in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs, in 1994. I worked for almost three years and then headed north, with Emma and our adopted son Shaun to Moore Theological College where we stayed from 1997-2000. (We adopted Shaun in 1996 – he was Emma’s foster brother during her high school years. Shaun was an orphan and when we talked about getting married Em said, “Are you ok with a package deal?” I said, “Yep”). I did 4 years, and Em did 3 years at Moore College. They were great years. We were student ministers at St Swithun’s Pymble where Roger Chilton invested deeply in our formation, in addition to the Moore College faculty. 

What ministry were you involved in prior to becoming national director of MTS? What made you decide to take up the role at MTS? And what does that role involve?

After finishing Moore College, Emma, Shaun and I (with one-week-old Isabella) returned to RMIT University to work for AFES. Steve Williams was the AFES Campus Director and an amazing trainer. It was a joy to work on his team. During 2001 to 2006 I basically wore three hats: RMIT University AFES staffworker, pastor of the Scots Presbyterian Church evening congregation and MTS Network Coordinator for Victoria. It was hard juggling those responsibilities (especially with a young family – Isabella was born in 2000, Edmund in 2003 and Samuel in 2005). 

But it was my work with MTS Victoria that eventually led to a move to Sydney. Around the middle of 2006, Col and Jacquie Marshall came to our home in Brunswick to meet and talk. Col mentioned that MTS was looking to employ a new National Director and he invited me (and many of the other network coordinators around the country) to apply for the role. Emma and I prayed a lot and then applied; and in November 2006 we were offered the role. We accepted, with fear and trepidation, and moved the whole family from Melbourne to Sydney in January 2007.

The reason I took on the role was the same as the reason I looked after MTS Victoria: the world needs more Bible teachers, and more gospel proclaimers. I had realised within 10 minutes of becoming a Christian that there were not enough Christians in Australia doing for others what Rhys Bezzant did for me. I was searching for the truth in 1988, and praise the Lord, God put Rhys in my path. There are hundreds of towns and hundreds of suburbs in Australia that do not have many (if any) gospel workers (let alone towns and suburbs around the world). According to the McCrindle Research titled “Faith & Belief in Australia”, 8% of Australian adults do not know a Christian… that is almost 1.5 million people. One in 29 have never even HEARD the name Jesus. It is catastrophic. It was as plain as day to me that more workers needed to be raised up… more soldiers needed to be recruited for the front. How can a Christian look out on Australia and not feel what Jesus felt in Matthew 9:36? How can we not feel a gut-wrenching “compassion” for the lost? The non-Christian middle-aged Dads that I spend a lot of time with do not know how to cherish their wives, communicate with their kids or even work out what meaning there is to life… they are harassed and helpless. They are lost. They are despairing and stressed. They have no rudder, they are unhinged. Not only that, they are eternally lost. And we Christians so often just heartlessly walk past them on our way to a pot of gold called ‘My Career’. It is a travesty.

So what does my role involve?  Well a heap of interrelated things:

  • Vision casting – I am responsible, under God, for keeping the MTS Vision and Mission front and centre for the movement. Our vision (why we exist) is “to win the world for Christ by multiplying gospel workers through ministry apprenticeships”. Our mission (what we do) is “to recruit, support and resource MTS Trainers, as they multiply gospel workers through ministry apprenticeships”. MTS Head Office doesn’t recruit or train apprentices – MTS Trainers do. So our job is to support trainers in the best way possible. Our five  ‘Mission Objectives’ are how we go about achieving the vision and mission. They are:

1) Recruit and grow the number of active Trainers

2) Equip and Help Trainers to recruit apprentices

3) Equip and Help Trainers to train apprentices

4) Equip Trainers to become Entrusters (Entrusters are those who have trained apprentices that have gone on to train new apprentices).

5) Develop locally run MTS movements internationally

  • At MTS, we do for trainers what trainers cannot do for themselves. Most trainers don’t have the time to run a state-based apprentice recruiting conference – so we do that for them. Most trainers don’t have time to write a “Train the Trainer” course – so we do that for them. Most trainers don’t have time to sort out all the compliance for appointing apprentices – so we do that for them.

How has MTS grown from a local to a national level organisation? What has helped this (and what has perhaps hindered it)?

Col Marshall had grown MTS into a national organisation well before I came along. He was (and still is) a superb operator. He helped MTS go national (and international) by codifying the MTS DNA by writing, The Art of Ministry Training (MTS, 2005), Passing the Baton: a handbook to ministry apprenticeship (Matthias Media, 2007), The Trellis and the Vine (Matthias Media, 2009) and The Vine Project (Matthias Media, 2016).

Col also grew the movement through the appointment of MTS Network Coordinators Australia-wide. He gave people the MTS DNA and then supported them as they grew the movement in different parts of Australia. 

That is one of my key roles as well. I have 30+ network coordinators around the country. They each gather team(s) to run recruiting conferences, facilitate training days, and communicate the MTS DNA to pastors in their network. For example, Dave Pitt in Queensland has a team that runs the recruiting conference called QLD SPUR. He also meets informally with pastors, AFES staff and ministry leaders to say things like, “Hey, the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few. What can I do to help you multiply gospel workers through ministry apprenticeships?”

What hinders growth of the movement? A few things:

  • The absence of an ‘MTS champion’ in a ministry. The ministries who recruit and train apprentices consistently have a delegated MTS ‘champion’ appointed (lay or clergy).
  • The absence of teaching about heaven and hell. Annihilationism fuels consumerism and deadens the urgency of the gospel message.
  • The absence of a ministry training pipeline. Half the reason I had confidence to do a ministry apprenticeship was that I had been trained at Tuesday Night Training in things like evangelism and follow-up. Even a very simple and informal training pipeline can produce amazing leaders.
  • Focusing on the apprenticeship only. If I recruit and train apprentices, but never challenge them to become trainers one day themselves, then I am hindering the movement.

Why is it important to have this system of ministry traineeships? Ministry apprenticeships are really helpful for two reasons: quality and quantity. I say quality because apprenticeships produce high-quality gospel workers, who are trained for ministry through intense, long-term coaching by an experienced pastor. It doesn’t get any better than that. Apprentices are trained in character, conviction and competency. The key “C” of these three, IMHO, is character. MTS is constantly told by theological college lecturers and denominational leaders that past apprentices make higher quality theological college students, church planters and pastors. And I say quantity because apprenticeships increase the quantity of gospel workers. This is because they give tentative people the chance to try full-time gospel ministry. Godly people are humble. Godly people are aware of their flaws and sins, so sometimes they hold back from changing careers. But ministry apprenticeships allow them a chance to try ministry with a safety net of sorts.

What is your hope for the future of ministry training in Australia?

MTS would like to see:

  • 10% of Australia won for Christ
  • 400 apprentices (1st & 2nd yrs combined) in training in 2022 (there were 266 in 2018)
  • 237 active trainers in 2022 (there were 139 in 2018)
  • 26 Entrusters inspiring their trainees in 2022 (there were 9 in 2018)
  • MTS Apprentices being known as humble people of Christlike character, conviction and competency.