Missouri United Methodist Church sees growing diversity with pastor, congregation

Monday, September 30, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 6:48 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Members of Agape Singers provide worship music during the 8:50 a.m. service Sept. 15 at the Missouri United Methodist Church. The ensemble focuses its repertoire on gospel, contemporary, folk and oldies.

COLUMBIA — For more than 80 years, the 1928 Skinner pipe organ at Missouri United Methodist Church droned out hymns at services led by male pastors.

Today, the organ is still there, but a bright-eyed woman has taken over as senior pastor, the first female cleric to serve in that role.

The Rev. Amy Gearhart greets her congregation with a cheery "Good morning all; come in!"

"In most of the churches that I've been appointed to by a bishop to serve, I've been the first clergywoman," Gearhart said. "Not only was I the first woman senior pastor in this church, I was also divorced and a single parent, and those were all new experiences for the senior pastor's role, so this church really had to do some generous work in rethinking what their picture of a pastor looked like."

The pastor's gender isn't the only change at the church since it was constructed in 1929. On any Sunday morning, a mix of ethnicities, ages and cultures gathers to worship.

The congregation includes divorced spouses, same-sex partners and people of different ethnicities, Gearhart said.

She said she wants to see even more diversity in her church at a time when women make up half of the denomination's clergy.

Relationships are key to breaking down stereotypes, Gearhart said. Some people initially judge her ability as a pastor because of her gender, she said, but once they get to know her, they find there isn't any reason for concern.

"I believe the vision that God has is for us to be churched together and to figure out how to live together peaceably in our differences," Gearhart said. "If we can't do that as a church, how can I expect the United States and Russia and Syria to do that?"

Supervising editor is Derek Poore.

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