“I don’t know where I’m going in this life, but I know I’m going to be a bridge builder.”
These words were written thirty years ago by Sarah Greenfield Culp—then a junior at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana—in a letter home to her parents. “My major was human development and social relations, and I knew I wanted to do something to help build connections between people,” remembers Sarah. “I just didn’t know how I was going to do it.”
After graduation a year later, her desire to foster these connections led to her enrollment at the Rochester Crozer Colgate Divinity School here in Rochester. Upon completion, the newly ordained Reverend took on the challenging role of Pastor at East Penfield Baptist Church. The congregation, the vast majority of which was over 70 years old, provided her with an appreciation for the unique needs of an elder population. Additionally, Sarah recalls a guest lecture that was given during her first years of ministry that continues to stand out over two decades later. “He explained that when a person loses their memory, it is the responsibility of the community to hold on to that memory.” Those words have not only been foundational in the development of her ministry, but have proven to be profoundly relevant to her current work at St. John’s.
Since her early work at East Penfield Baptist Church, Sarah has continued to strengthen connections throughout the communities she has served while also challenging some common misconceptions of the role that a spiritual leader can play. “One of the joys in my life has been to break the mold a little bit,” says Sarah, whose community outreach work for a large church in Irondequoit eventually led to a similar role as Constituent Services Coordinator for former Town Supervisor Adam Bello. “Sometimes people have in their head what a Minister is. The thought is that we only do Sundays or we can only talk about god. The reality is that we can do much more than that.”
In July of 2016, Reverend Sarah Culp was named Spiritual Care Practice Partner at St. John’s. Here, she leads a team of dedicated chaplains to provide pastoral guidance to the nearly 1,000 elders and residents who call St. John’s home. While considering this opportunity, Sarah was impressed with management’s commitment to pastoral care as a part of a holistic view towards the lives of the elders. “The dedication and compassion of our leadership is very gratifying,” she says. “I feel really good about being here.”
Sarah is quick to praise not only the several practice partners from other disciplines throughout the organization for their spirit of cooperation and inclusion, but the four chaplains she oversees. Because each constituent may have a different level of spirituality, she sees the role of her department as a flexible group of caring individuals who can assess who each person is and provide spiritual care for them in an appropriate way. As she puts it: “for me, it is about being accessible to everyone. There is something in all of us that connects us. I call it God, but I’m fine with framing the discussion differently for others.”
Spiritual care at St. John’s means organized services and prayer sessions, as well as spontaneous gatherings. In addition, the team recently launched a new program meant to provide the same type of opportunities to St. John’s employees. “Soul Food” is a chance for staff members to engage in a group dialogue that is spiritually meaningful for them. The goal of the program is to build connections with staff members on a regular basis, not just during stressful times.
“Soul Food” is an intentional move towards developing even more of those non-traditional connections. Again, that is what Sarah has been doing throughout her entire career. “I have come to embrace this idea of a bridge builder, especially since coming here (to St. John’s). I think about all of the ways we are headed from one place to another. To be a part of that is very exciting for me.”