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Answering a Call

Catherine Good Abbott '72

In 2003, after 27 years in the business world, I left the executive ranks of a large energy company to answer God's call to ministry. A dramatic life change? Yes-a change that had its roots in my formative experiences at Swarthmore College. Thirty-five years earlier, I entered Swarthmore planning to become a research chemist. Instead, I graduated as a religion major, believing that, for my life to have meaning, I must act to make a difference in the world. Swarthmore taught me a great deal academically and intellectually. But more important, the enduring life lessons I learned there formed me as a Christian, gave me a sense of social responsibility, and set me on a life's journey in which changing fields and domains has become a way of life. What is it about Swarthmore that shaped my life so dramatically?

The Religion Department faculty-Patrick Henry, Don Swearer, and Lin Urban-had a tremendous influence. Patrick invited me to join him in teaching a Wednesday-night Christian-education class for junior high students at the local Presbyterian church. I can recall Patrick speculating about what it might be like if Jesus appeared among us today-how radical his message would sound to us and how few who called themselves Christians would embrace him. I can remember Don Swearer regaling us, over a meal at his house, with stories of his failure as a Fuller Brush salesman during his graduate school years. I marveled at the humility of this admired professor of Eastern religions, making himself vulnerable to his students by telling us about the low periods in his life.

In the fall of my senior year, the department chair, Lin Urban, counseled me to drop honors. He told me that the quality of my work was not up to honors standards, that I was merely parroting what I was reading, that I was not really thinking critically and coming to my own conclusions. In retrospect, I can see that my difficulties were caused, in part, by changing domains-while I was steeped in math and the sciences, I was still unsure of myself in the humanities and did not have the courage to try out my own ideas. My reaction was anger-I would show Lin Urban how wrong he was! I redoubled my efforts and really pushed myself to think more deeply and reach conclusions-and slowly the feedback improved. I had never come so close to failure. Eventually, I did graduate with high honors, much to the pleasure of the religion faculty. Today, I owe a good deal of my ability to think critically to Lin Urban and the push he gave me (as uncomfortable as it was at the time).  In recent years, Lin and I have become good friends as we have co-chaired an effort to raise an endowment for a Protestant ministry on campus.

From the religion faculty, I learned that you have to take risks in order to grow and that sometimes you learn the most when you are stumbling. These professors were people whose lives embodied their stories-professors who cared about their students as whole people, who respected us as persons (even if we were not doing well academically), and who helped us grow and develop our own visions of how to live authentic lives.

The Swarthmore years were a "coming of age" time for me, a time for developing a sense of social responsibility. The Vietnam War and the invasion of Cambodia, the occupation of the Admissions Office by African American students, and the death of our president Courtney Smith disrupted my college years (1968-1972). These painful experiences shaped me as I participated in a Swarthmore community that, in dealing seriously with these events, treated everyone with dignity, regardless of differing positions on these divisive issues. The way we struggled together with the moral and social issues persuaded me that religious convictions needed to be expressed in action in the world. These convictions led me to government service in energy policy and eventually to my current service on the boards of The Nature Conservancy and Resources for the Future.

My work in energy policy opened up an opportunity to move to Houston and work for the company that later became Enron. During the 10 years I worked for Enron, it was viewed as an innovative, fast-growing company. When I left in 1995, Enron was still much admired and was the darling of Wall Street. Early on, at Enron, I concluded that what I wanted was to become the president of a business unit. Slowly, however, I realized that I was unlikely to achieve my goal of running a company at Enron. And despite the external adulation Enron was receiving, there was something deeper that was bothering me about the company. I certainly did not anticipate the corruption and greed that led to Enron's downfall in late 2001. However, in 1992, my return to Swarthmore for my 20th reunion played a key role in my growing conviction that I needed to take a good, hard look at my life. A weekend's worth of long talks and thoughtful questions posed by my old and dear friends from Swarthmore led to a period of reexamination of my life and career goals. Was I really cut out to be a profit-and-loss corporate leader? Was Enron the right place for me?  Should I return to not-for-profit work? One friend even suggested that I consider the ministry.

These questions were pushed aside when, in 1996, an opportunity arrived for me to fulfill my ambition to run a business. I was offered the presidency of Columbia Gas Transmission, the largest subsidiary of Columbia Energy Group. I accepted the long-coveted role with a sense of mission. I wanted to deliver strong results for the shareholders, but I wanted to do it in a way that committed the employees to strive not just for excellence but for excellence with a heart-a goal that, I believe, came directly from my experiences at Swarthmore. The resilience I learned at Swarthmore in my near-failure with the Honors Program served me well in corporate life. However, in late 2000, another company acquired Columbia, and, two years later, I left corporate America to begin my new journey in God's service. While I had tried, in my own imperfect way, to live a responsible and faithful life, I now heard God calling me-in a direct and forceful way-to return to school and become an ordained minister.

So how, then, did Swarthmore shape my life? Swarthmore gave me a solid foundation for my search for meaning-not always successful-in a variety of realms. Swarthmore fed my intense desire to make a difference. Swarthmore gave me the courage to follow my curiosity, even if I did not have a concrete plan for my career path. Swarthmore pushed me to embrace challenges rather than to play it safe. And, perhaps most important, Swarthmore friends helped me discern the moral threat Enron posed for me and helped me on my journey back to service to others.


Cathy Abbott has left the corporate world to study at Wesley Theological Seminary with the intention of becoming a minister in the United Methodist Church.