September NCCA Member Spotlight: Sarah Rieth

NC Chaplains’ Association Member Profile:

Sarah Rieth’s first chaplain position feels like home

Sarah RiethSarah Rieth describes chaplaincy as “trying to play tennis on roller skates.” Like many professional chaplains, Rieth said, she is constantly pivoting, stopping, refocusing, and lurching in all kinds of directions. “You think you are going to accomplish one task, and then there is a code,” she said, laughing. “But I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my whole vocation.”

In June 2014, while in her early 60s, Rieth got her first chaplain position when she was hired as chaplain of Penick Village in Southern Pines, NC. Penick Village is a “life plan community,” formerly known as a “continuing care retirement community.” The industry changed the name to better represent the vibrant and varied needs of contemporary seniors. Penick Village hosts 285 residents: some live completely independently in apartments or cottages, others are in assisted living, still others utilize skilled nursing for rehab or long-term stays, and some are in hospice care.

Rieth leads worship on Sundays, makes regular hospital visits to any hospitalized residents, provides home communion, facilitates weekly Bible studies, and ministers to staff. Since starting this job, Rieth has introduced a regular Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and developed a volunteer program where some residents of the community visit their neighbors who are more vulnerable because of loneliness, failing health, or grief. One resident in particular who has some cognitive impairment herself still goes once a week to read to another resident.

Rieth’s vocation has taken a lot of twists and turns. Rieth grew up in Buffalo, NY, and completed her seminary education in 1977. That was the first year the Episcopal Church was ordaining women to the priesthood, and the people in her diocese did not make life easy for her. She initially made her living as a counselor in various agencies, since many bishops denied women the opportunity to work as priests in local parishes. She later transitioned to pastoral counseling, earned her diplomate in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, and went into private practice, most recently in Charlotte, NC.

After the economic crash of 2008, Rieth lost a lot of her clientele. During those very hard years, she was given the opportunity to serve a church in an interim role. A retired bishop in that church encouraged her to visit the retirement facility where he lived. Rieth started volunteering there and “fell in love” with that type of ministry. Rev. Karen Moore, the chaplain at that facility, became a mentor for Rieth.

Last fall, Rieth attended her first NCCA conference and this year, her first APC conference. She said she loved them. “I felt so welcomed. I felt like this was my new tribe. People were welcoming and wonderful. I learned so much.”

One of Rieth’s passions is to develop community. At Penick Village, she would like to extend the sense of community not just among residents, but between residents and staff. While the residents largely fit the marginalized category of the frail, the elderly, or the dying, the front-line staff are often the working poor. Rieth says there are cultural and racial divides there that need to be addressed. This fall she is beginning work to invite staff and residents into deeper conversation and understanding so that they can all grow as a community together.

For fun, Rieth tends a small garden, reads, and cooks for friends. As an introvert, she doesn’t need a packed social calendar. It is enough to feel at peace doing the work she feels called to do.


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