Downline Ministries graduated their fifth Emerging Leaders class last month, and their alumni retention is making an impressive mark on the community. Of the 41 participants in the year-long program, 36 have decided to make Memphis their home after the institute. But they’re not just staying here – they are staying here to continue giving back and making a difference.
The most recent class gave 168 hours of volunteer community service in Memphis every week during the Downline Institute year from August 2014 through May 2015. This kind of community engagement is what, studies show, attract Millennials. The demographic is known to be civically engaged who are motivated to take on the challenging aspects of making a positive difference in the lives of people locally and globally.
The story of Downline didn’t begin with a desire to attract and retain Millennials, though.
Downline is not the traditional path of seminary training, but rather an institute that offers “discipleship” training. The organization was originally established to serve local church leaders and lay leaders, offering education for men and women who are seeking to further their faith, but who do not want to train to be actual ministers. Originally launched in the auditorium of Memphis University School, classes and offices are now based at Baptist East Hospital.
“Not everyone wants to be a pastor or earn a seminary degree. The command of Christ is not a pastor’s movement, it is a people’s movement,” explains Shad Berry, CEO and Executive Director of Downline Ministries. “The organization’s premise is the restoration of discipleship in and through local churches. We are patterned after the training of the original 12 disciples. They were regular people who were invited to follow Jesus Christ. These disciples, the apostles, were with Jesus for a season and then sent out into the world to reproduce their training in the lives of others.”
Berry defines the term “disciple” as a follower, a learner and a reproducer of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“Those receiving discipleship training at Downline Ministries learn how to help someone else grow their relationship with Christ,” said Berry. “The institute is a platform to point people back to the original strategy, with a multiplicative effect on the whole church, not just a few select members. We are building disciples to reach the masses; thinking globally, but acting small.”
Downline Ministries was founded in 2006 by Dr. Kennon Vaughan. Steve Winstead and Roy “Soup” Campbell joined him in the quest to find a means to restore discipleship in and through local churches. Kennon met with 12 pastors, asking them what discipleship looked like in their respective churches. The common answer was that there were few people engaged in discipleship.
Vaughan asked the pastors to help him bring this training into the local community by sending their leaders to his institute—key people who the pastors wanted to have this vision. And the pastors also committed to help teach at the nonprofit, parachurch organization. Kem Wilson, Jr. now serves as the Chairman of the Board, and Campbell serves as a board member.
Each year, approximately 180 students, from about 40 different churches, attend the Downline Ministries Institute on the basis of a referral from their pastor. Those individuals become more empowered to offer leadership within their own churches, as well as further entrench themselves in the community from within their own church.
Denise Jennings is a May graduate of the year-long discipleship training program.
In addition to working with people who are already a part of the Greater Memphis community, Downline Ministries has an “Emerging Leaders” program, started five years ago, that has become a recruitment tool for Millennials. Designed with young professionals in mind, the Emerging Leaders program is rigorous and competitive and attracts college graduates from all over the country to come to Memphis.
“I taught Sunday School at the Methodist Church in Oxford and was asked to lead a Bible study. I felt unqualified to do it. I had never been formally trained to take initiative for the benefit of others. My degrees were in journalism and political science, not theology,” said Jennings. “However, through my training at the institute, I now hope to lead a discipleship of Ole Miss collegians through Campus Crusade at the University of Mississippi.”
Upon acceptance into the program, participants move to Memphis for the August-through-May school year. “They get jobs, join local churches, and live together in strategic neighborhoods such as Binghamton, Crosstown, Orange Mound and Vollintine-Evergreen,” said Berry. “Also, they work a set number of volunteer community hours while they attend the institute.”
Sixty students are accepted into the program each year, with 85 percent of them coming from outside of Memphis. “In addition to the program’s fundamentals, students have a choice of three specialized tracks for their training: international missions serving overseas in a cross-cultural context, urban ministry serving in an inner city context, or marketplace ministry, where they learn to apply ministry through their work,” Berry added.
The students are encouraged to experience their community as neighbors and are plugged into different ministries within their community. Jobs of the students’ jobs are often those working with churches or organizations like Service Over Self (SOS), Memphis Athletic Ministries, Eikon Ministries, Fellowship Memphis, and Young Life Urban Ministry-Memphis. However, some students find work in the private sector.
The program grows the participants’ affinity for Memphis, and for serving the city’s needs. “Upon completing our program, of the 300 Emerging Leader students we have worked with so far in five years, over 80 percent (250) of these young leaders have chosen to stay in Memphis and make it their home. They are not just working for their own gain. They will be an influence and have an impact on their areas of responsibilities, playing a long-term role in the renewal of our community.”