Todd Unzicker, candidate for executive director-treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, quotes Revelation 5 as the heartbeat of his family.
“Our desire and what we long for … we can’t wait to join with every tribe, tongue, language and nation on earth and say, ‘Worth is the Lamb that was slain.’”
Unzicker and his wife, Ashley, first met on the mission field more than 14 years ago. Their two older kids have gone on international mission trips. In recent weeks their 9-year-old son, JD, has been adamant about praying for and sharing the gospel with a new friend. The boy who recently moved across the street is his “one,” in reference to the “Who’s Your One?” evangelism initiative Unzicker helped develop.
A native of the Washington D.C. area, Unzicker grew up going to church and even remembers making a profession of faith in his childhood. But until he was 28 years old, his life did not resemble one of faith, he says.
“I tried everything the world had to offer,” Unzicker said. “I found the bankruptcy and emptiness of chasing after every pleasure that I could get my hands on.”
‘I’ll follow You anywhere’
Unzicker was working his dream job in Georgia when his life “instantly” changed. While covering college football as a sports reporter, he met Mark Richt, the new head coach for the Georgia Bulldogs at the time. Unzicker remembers Richt speaking differently about faith than what he described as the “typical” cultural Christianity in some circles.
Richt talked about his family’s adoption experience, love for his wife and belief that God sent him there for a purpose. It made Unzicker curious.
For a year Unzicker attended Prince Avenue Baptist Church in Bogart, Ga., sitting in the balcony of the sanctuary and taking notes.
“Every invitation, I would wrestle with giving my life to Christ,” he said. He still has the notes today.
Then on Sept. 25, 2004, early on a Saturday morning, “in total desperation,” Unzicker fell to his knees and cried out to God, “I need You to save me, and I’ll follow You anywhere.”
“It was like scales fell from my eyes,” Unzicker remembers.
Richt, who now serves as spokesperson for the North American Mission Board’s Send Relief, discipled Unzicker and later covered the costs of their daughter’s adoption. Her name, Georgia, is a nod to those acts of kindness.
A few weeks after that Saturday, Unzicker knew of some pastors going on a disaster relief trip with Georgia Baptists. He had no training, but he “snuck a yellow shirt, threw it on just to join.” While there, a pastor invited him to go on an international mission trip. Unzicker agreed to go without hesitation.
“I just thought that’s what every Christian did,” he said.
Toward the end of the international trip, a ministry director asked him to consider staying. “What do you have to go back to?” Unzicker remembers him saying.
“That simple question wrecked me. All of a sudden my dream job didn’t seem like what it was before I left.”
He was on a plane back to South America as a missionary just weeks later.
Missions, marriage and providence
While serving in South America, Unzicker hosted short-term teams from the United States. There was one couple, Brian and Lee Sullivan, who regularly asked him to pray for their daughter. Having never met her, he prayed when they said she started attending church, and he prayed when they said she would be joining them on their next trip.
Their daughter, however, had no idea what a mission trip was. When her parents said they’d be sharing the gospel, she didn’t quite understand the gospel herself.
The day before leaving for Honduras, she attended a conference on how to share one’s faith, where she received a Bible and a tract.
At 25 years old, sitting on a plane, she read through the tract and Isaiah 59 and realized, “I have a huge problem.”
In her seat on that flight, she surrendered her life to Christ.
When she got off the plane, Todd was the first person Ashley met. They married less than six months later.
In 2007, one week after their wedding, Todd and Ashley moved to the Florida panhandle, where Todd served as an associational mission strategist (formerly called director of missions) at the Holmes Baptist Association for four years. Ashley served as a children’s minister at First Baptist Church of Bonifay.
In Florida, they adopted their oldest daughter, Georgia, and had their second child, JD. Then they met Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS), who invited Todd to finish his degree at SEBTS.
Serving a ‘global God’
The family relocated to North Carolina in January 2012 and moved into family housing at SEBTS with their 16-month-old and three-month-old. Todd served as a campus pastor with The Summit Church for four years and then as pastor of sending for another six. For the past three years, he has served as chief of staff, working with J.D. Greear throughout his terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In 2014, their youngest son, Trey, was born. Trey, now 6, is the family’s comedian. He loves sports and is known as their “little linebacker.” JD, 9, is the “wild man” and is almost always found outdoors. He was baptized last year. So was Georgia, now 10. She’s empathetic and “extremely funny,” her parents say. She plays soccer and softball and participates in a middle school small group.
When the Unzickers lived in Durham before moving to Wake Forest, Ashley started an initiative reaching refugee families at an apartment complex near their home. The kids remember the visits as their “weekly mission trips” – befriending migrant children as Ashley and a growing set of volunteers led games and Bible stories.
Although she no longer heads the initiative, the work there continues through The Summit Church, Waypoint Church, First Baptist Church of Durham and other N.C. Baptist churches.
Ashley, who holds a master’s degree from SEBTS, currently disciples teen girls. She’s still involved in children’s ministry, leading kids’ worship at The Summit. She serves on the development team at Hope Reins, a horse ranching ministry that helps children in crisis find hope and healing, and previously served as part of the leadership network of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
She hopes to connect with pastors’ wives and associational missionaries’ wives – a desire that has increased even more in recent months.
“I just have a burden for them, that there’s a heavy weight on them,” Ashley said. “How do we get that lifted off?”
From COVID-19 to a changing culture, Todd senses “at best, there’s uncertainty, at worst, there’s fear” among pastors and their families. He says Ashley, whose friends affectionately call the “minister of merrymaking,” “is uniquely equipped to bring the joy of the Lord.”
“Jesus said that the world would know us by our love for one another, and certainly Ashley exudes that.”
The Unzickers continue to build relationships with those in their community. When they first moved to their neighborhood a couple years ago, they invited all 27 households over for a cookout. It was the first time many of the families ever met.
“We want to reach all peoples because our God is a global God,” Todd said. “Evangelism, church planting, missions – Acts 1:8 is all that Ashley and I have really known.”