Pastor Joel L. Buckner has had the unique opportunity to influence multitudes throughout his lifetime as a minister, worship leader, and songwriter. For the past 8 years, Buckner has served on staff at National Community Church (NCC) in Washington, D.C., which is led by Mark A. Batterson.
Yet while this flourishing Assemblies of God congregation sits near the heartbeat of a nation in a vibrant urban center, it’s clear that NCC has a heart focused on meeting individuals at key seasons in their lives. Buckner is passionate about working with young adults wrestling with their place in life and role in God’s kingdom.
Buckner grew up in a pastor’s home, “born under the pew,” as he describes it. While pastoring, his father, Otis, owned a construction company, while his mother, Bailene, worked as a nurse and served as a Sunday School teacher. So he always knew ministry as something that happens in the community as well as the church.
Beginning at age 12, he led worship, then the church choir, as well as directed youth projects and events.
“I’ve been in leadership positions most of my life, mainly in areas of developing people.” explains Buckner, 41. God’s call upon Buckner’s life appeared evident as a youth, but in ways he did not yet imagine.
After high school, Buckner earned a psychology degree from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. While there, he found himself shaping lives through learning programs for young adults at transitional moments. This led to a position at the University of Dayton, overseeing student services for African American students.
“Yet I always felt like there was a greater passion and calling on my life,” he says.
While in Dayton, others often asked him to lead worship or direct a choir.
“I always loved singing and writing songs, but I had tried to stay away from it,” he says. Soon, however, God guided him into what he calls his “dual passions” of working with young people along with writing and singing songs.
Ultimately, Buckner moved to Nashville to pursue his passion for music. There he flourished, as God opened doors for singing and songwriting in gospel music. He spent six years performing and composing music for prominent artists and worship leaders.
That changed with the Great Recession of 2008, with Buckner laid off from his job at a learning center for young people.
“I lost my car, my house, and everything that was about my identity,” Buckner says. “But it was also a year when God reshaped my view.” The wilderness experience became a source of blessing as he gained insights from God during prayer while he walked several miles a day to his new job.
“It is easy for us to align ourselves with the American Dream of success, where we attain a certain status, yet we are so far away from God’s purposes and calling,” Buckner says.
Then a minister friend, Kurtis Parks, approached Buckner with a life-changing proposition. Buckner accepted his offer to move to Washington, D.C., and help lead worship at NCC. Parks has returned to Nashville and is now pastor of Bridges Church.
These days, Buckner, along with his wife, Winta, is writing music and leading worship at the AG church’s Lincoln Theater campus. The church has strategically planted itself in three unique settings in the area: an urban setting (Lincoln Theater), a suburban setting (Capitol Hill campus), and a northern Virginia campus that serves a rural setting and a smaller congregation. This diversity reflects an appreciation by NCC that there are churches of all sizes and in all locations serving effectively in the kingdom of God. In the same way, each person has inherent value within their settings, callings, and skill sets. Such value blossoms within Buckner’s other ministry passion: providing leadership for NCC’s Protégé Program, a role he has served in for 5 years.
“Protege is a fancy word for discipleship, for mentoring,” Batterson says. “Protégé is how we pass the baton of leadership to the next generation.” However, the impact of Protégé reaches far beyond what is often defined as discipleship.
Each year, up to eight young adults are accepted into an intensive 9-month program of exploring who they are in Christ and discovering how He has called them to serve. Typically those enrolled are ages 23-26, and endeavoring to discover their calling, which doesn’t necessarily translate into full-time ministry. Usually, only a quarter of the learners become pastors or missionaries. The rest move into vocations such as real estate agents, entrepreneurs, social workers, and other nonsectarian careers.
The eight participants chosen each year become part of the staff of NCC. However, they don’t spend their time making copies at a printer or monitoring the coffee machine. They interact with and learn from the various ministerial staff, even as they offer new perspectives, fresh eyes, and welcome zeal to the ministries of the church. Their role is integral to what is happening at NCC during their time in serving.
Buckner has come to view such one-on-one discipleship as his niche, investing in individuals, rather than seeking out the masses.
“If Jesus were walking the earth today, I don’t know if we would find Him on Facebook or Instagram, building follower numbers,” Buckner says. “I think He would be on a street corner, sitting with 12 people, telling them, ‘Let me come to you, and feel the weight you are carrying. Let Me show you a different way.’”