Leading Beyond the Pulpit: Pastoral Identity and the Future of Ministry with Gary Underwood

covocational pastors Feb 27, 2024
Pastor Identity and the Future of Ministry with Gary Underwood


What happens to your sense of identity and calling as a pastor when everything changes? You entered the ministry years ago with a certain set of expectations of what the church is and what your role is in it, only to find them challenged by continually changing circumstances.

We’ll talk about pastoral identity and the future of ministry, and how you can stay adaptable and on-mission in the midst of change, in this episode of the More than a Pastor Show. Let’s get started!

Links for Today's Show


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Introducing Gary Underwood

I'm excited to have my friend Gary Underwood on today's show for a conversation on pastoral identity, ministry, and the ever-evolving landscape of church leadership.

Gary has served as a lead pastor and campus pastor in churches of various sizes in the Akron and Columbus, Ohio areas. He’s also a pastor to pastors, and he finds great joy encouraging pastors and leaders in their relationships with God and those around them.

Over the last four years, Gary’s experience as Church Relations Manager at Compassion International increased his passion, network, and experience in serving ministry leaders in all types of churches, organizations, and networks.

In December of 2023 he took on a new role with Emerge Counseling Ministries in Akron, Ohio, where he serves as the director of ministry partnerships.

In this conversation...

  • Gary and I talk about his ministry leadership journey and how he discovered he was more than a pastor.
  • I ask Gary for his thoughts on what the future of the church...and the role of the pastor...looks like.
  • He describes his forays into podcasting and entrepreneurship and things he wished he'd done earlier in his ministry. And we explore how his wife’s cancer diagnosis shaped his perspective on grief, empathy, and self-care.

To connect with Gary and learn more about Emerge Counseling Ministries, please visit Emerge.org. And now, let’s get to our conversation with Gary Underwood…



Highlights from the Full Interview: Pastoral Identity and the Future of Ministry


Leadership Challenges and the Need for Self Care

Six years into his ministry as a lead pastor, Gary faced some serious challenges within his church, bearing burdens that he couldn't share because they were about other people. Joining a Leadership Network group provided him with invaluable mentorship, where older leaders affirmed his struggles but reminded him that the church didn't define his identity; rather, it belonged to Christ.

Gary learned to separate his role as a pastor from his core identity as a disciple, husband, and father, recognizing that his leadership in the church was a temporary assignment. Embracing soul care and authenticity in both life and ministry gave him the freedom to maintain a healthy life-ministry balance.


Reimagining the Pastor's Calling

In his early 40s, Gary faced a defining moment when presented with a unique ministry opportunity that seemed to fit him well, but he wasn't sure how it fit his pastoral calling. After a season of trying the discern the Holy Spirit's leading on the matter, he still wasn't sure which way to go.

A mentor prompted him to consider his desires, asking, "Well, what do you want to do?" After Gary replied that he wanted to serve God, the mentor asked him again, "What do you want to do?" Because he believed the Holy Spirit calls us to serve in ways that fit who he uniquely created us to be AND wants to fill us with joy that overflows through us into the lives of others.

This experience helped Gary to reimagine his calling and serve God in ways that resonate with his personality, passions, and dreams.

I love this idea of reimagining our calling, and I believe this will be helpful for every pastor who finds their ministry world turned upside down due to declining attendance and giving in their church or other challenges.


Pastors, Podcasters and (Entre)Preneurs

Gary caught a vision for "unconventional" ministry models thanks to his friend from seminary, Kary Oberbrunner. After graduation, Kary went on to serve in a large church for several years, and was on track to become the next lead pastor. But through various circumstances and conversations, Kary discovered he was called to impact people's lives and share Jesus outside the traditional church model.

So Kary pivoted his career and started writing books, delivering motivational speeches, organizing conferences, and offering coaching and mentorship to others. With the Lord's help, he has built a platform that impacts thousands of lives each year.

Observing Kary navigate through this pivot, Gary began recognizing the inherent entrepreneurial traits within pastors, and the numerous skills that could be leveraged in the marketplace. And he asked himself: What if I...

  1. Ventured into podcasting?
  2. Could launch an online business?
  3. Could create multiple streams of income?

So Gary launched a podcast called Hoops and Cards which explores his passion for basketball and basketball trading cards. He'd really love to interview LeBron James or Steph Curry some day, if you have any connections he could tap into! He also started generating income online by buying and selling sports cards and other stuff on e-Bay, earning commissions through affiliate marketing, and more.

Not because he wanted to leave pastoral ministry. But as a way to use untapped skills, pursue passions and interests he's had, do something fun with his wife and kids, and hopefully create some new income streams for his family.

Reflecting on his journey, Gary wishes he had embarked on his podcast and entrepreneurial endeavors during his earlier years as a pastor, because of all that he's learned and experienced, and the income potential from an online business.


What Does the Future of the Church Look Like?

Gary thinks we're entering a season of recapturing the New Testament freedom of what the church is and what it can look like in our communities. Churches and pastors will "come out of their boxes" in the future, and the traditional models of what church looks like, and what a pastor's role looks like, will give way to new unconventional models.

He thinks we'll see less division along denominational lines, more collaboration among churches in our communities, more creativity and fresh expressions, more churches that don't look like churches, and pastors that don't look like pastors. He cited a local ministry near his home called Brew Pastors, where pastors engage in meaningful conversations over a beer in local bars.


Lessons His Wife's Cancer Diagnoses Taught Him

Reflecting on his wife's battle with breast cancer three years ago and colon cancer last year, Gary shared how his perspective on connection, care, and grief has shifted.

He acknowledged how easy it was in the past, as a lead pastor, to give more attention to preaching, leadership, and church growth strategies than attending to the needs of those who were hurting. He realizes he often felt ill-prepared to support grieving families.

Today Gary believes it is important for pastors to seek counseling, to help them process their own feelings and needs, and continue to develop skills that shepherd our congregation members through tough times. Because everyone deserves to be seen and known and cared for.


Connecting with Gary

You'll find Gary online at emerge.org and [email protected].

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