COLUMBIA — Senior pastor Amy Gearhart owns a voice that reaches the farthest pews of the Missouri United Methodist Church sanctuary chapel.
“By about eighth grade I knew I wanted to be a pastor,” she said.
Every year, Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase evaluates and assigns pastors to serve the 900 churches in Missouri. The process begins in January. This year, Gearhart learned in late March that she was re-assigned to Columbia’s Missouri United Methodist Church on Ninth Street. She is replacing the Rev. Jim Bryan, who served Columbia for 10 years.
“I felt very excited about that because I was ordained in this church in the '90s and have known all the pastors in the recent years,” Gearhart said. “This church has a great reputation for serving its community and the student community.”
On Gearhart's first Sunday, the choir came out," she said. "Usually they take a little break in the summertime, but they were all there.”
The turnout was as big as Easter, which was remarkable since Easter is typically the biggest day for churches, she noted.
“I sensed the congregation was checking me out,” she said with a laugh, “and wanting to know about me. But they also wanted to welcome us and make us happy to be here. The service went beautifully.”
With her luminous blue eyes shining, she recounted the wealth of experience she gained before she was an officially ordained pastor.
Gearhart readily admits that attending church when she was a teenager “was not a fun, popular thing for me to do.”
“Then I got caught up in a youth group in the church I was a part of,” she said. “It really helped me experience leadership skills and realize there were gifts I had to offer to lead other teenagers. They saw something in me that made them want to cultivate the gifts in me.”
Gearhart grew up in a family from the St. Louis metropolitan area that regularly attended church. It was a family of helping professions — teachers, nurses and doctors — so she felt right at home honing her passion for helping others.
“Usually when you talk to pastors what you hear is that their stories might be very different in the past, but they’ll often say ‘we felt God guiding us into experiences that taught us and called us more into this job’,” she said. “That’s what I feel I had. Lots of people, lots of experiences that told me this is what God wanted for my life.”
She recounted a particular experience in eighth grade. She said at a church camp, she sat in the middle of a beautiful field and “just felt the love of God come over me. And this sense of ‘you’re mine, I love you and I have this incredible job for you.’”
She attended Illinois Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts school, majoring in religious studies, where she said she was the only “religion major on the whole campus.”
“I had a lot of opportunities on campus to preach and lead worship services,” she said. “I was in charge of the student government of getting the big names to come to campus.”
Duke Divinity School proved another positive experience for Gearhart. She attended in the early '90s and earned a master’s degree in divinity.
“It’s a long process because you’re not only getting educated, but you’re working with the church in a series of interviews, confirmations and papers to demonstrate that God has placed this call in your life and that you’re effective in your ministry,” Gearhart said. This was not an obstacle for her, but instead “part of the professional development.”
What proves challenging to Gearhart is not education or service but sexism and ageism.
She said she struggles when “I feel misunderstood or undercut by my gender or age.”
Growing up, women mentors surrounded Gearhart.
“There were a lot of women clergy in my pathway, so I saw pictures of women doing things that in our culture are still considered pretty unorthodox,” she said. “But I saw women who were pastors and lay leaders in the church, and that made me feel really comfortable.”
Since 1956, the Methodist denomination has officially ordained women with full rights. Prior, there were branches of the movement ordaining them.
“The core doctrine of our church is that God calls all people by their baptisms to be in service,” she explained. “So we started pushing that and saying ‘OK, if by our baptism we’re all called to be in ministry, then why would our gender get in the way of that?”
Gearhart said, “Now we believe in the next 20 years the church will be half and half, led by women and men.”
Before Bishop Schnase appointed her to Columbia, she worked at Central United Methodist Church, a smaller and more urban church in Kansas City.
“The reason they wanted me to come here was because I have a lot of experience working with the student communities of the churches,” she said. “I was next to UMKC at my last church. I have a lot of experience helping churches financially.”
Gearhart has two daughters, Hannah, 14, and Chloe, 11, and two cats, Max and Prince — “Who’s really king of the house,” she joked.
Her goal for serving Columbia is simple.
“Helping people to know there’s hope in the world. There’s a lot of hard, hard realities in this world, but there’s more hope, more light than darkness,” she said.
“I know some folks who are grieving and missing their former pastor because he was a great pastor, but I think they’re ready for us to go forward,” she said. “What I preached about was not that I wanted them to deny their history to love me. I’m asking them to welcome me to this next chapter of the story.”