From Corporate Life To the Ministry
The Rev. Patricia Harris, former pastor of the Community Lutheran Church in Enfield, stands in her yard in New London with her dog, Conan. Harris once was a vice president of AT&T. (Valley News - Nicola Smith) Purchase photo reprints »
Religious faith has wound its way through Patricia Harris’ work in substantive ways, with faith complementing science, and science complementing faith. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
In 2002, at age 49, Patricia Harris, a vice president at AT&T, felt a strong call to the ministry. She didn’t hear a voice or music, or see a radiant light. It was a sensation that is difficult to describe, she said, a “compulsion that I needed to do something different.”
People experience such moments in unique ways, she said, and for each powerful testament there is a singular story behind it. “Theologically, I think God calls people to do certain things,” Harris said; what she felt the need to do was to minister to people in church.
She’d felt the tug of religious work for some time without knowing exactly what form that might take, but she’d also spent her career advancing steadily up the corporate ladder at AT&T, managing production lines and divisions, and overseeing international joint ventures while her husband stayed home with their children.
When Harris told her husband John and two children, daughter Kristin and son Michael — they were living in central New Jersey, near AT&T’s network operations center — that she’d decided to apply to Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, “they were surprised,” she said, and then paused. “Stunned would be a better word. I didn’t really talk about it until the ideas were jelling in my head.”
Hers was not a Road to Damascus conversion. Her parents were devout Lutherans and she had a religious education in the church. “I felt very at home in the church,” she said at an interview at her house in New London, where she’s lived since 2003 with her husband of 40 years. Her faith had been part of her life since childhood, but even so, it was a leap to imagine going from a international sphere of rapid business transactions to a life that, while it emphasizes public service, also calls on the power of introspection and prayer.
“You have a certain vision of where people are in their lives and this was not a typical thing to do,” Harris said.
Time to Explore
Harris retired at the end of December as pastor of the Community Lutheran Church in Enfield, a position she’d held since her ordination and installment in September 2005. At 60, she could have continued to serve in the church, but she’d had in the back of her mind the words of her father after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“You work all your life and it comes to this,” he’d said. He died six months later at age 62, his plans for retirement unrealized; Harris was 28 and pregnant with her first child, a daughter born a few weeks after her father’s death in 1981. This turn of events convinced Harris that she would not find herself in a similar position later in life of regretting things she hadn’t done, or roads she hadn’t taken.
“I wanted to have time to have that opportunity. ... I lived my life thinking I wanted to create some time to explore some things I hadn’t had a chance to,” she said.
The view from the Harris’ living room, on the morning after a heavy snow fall, looks over the white expanse of Messer Pond, which is more lake than pond. Two Brittany Spaniels are sprawled on their dog beds, one snoring gently, while Harris sits in a rocking chair in front of a fireplace. With short, blondish hair and a steady gaze, Harris is precise in her speech, using just the right number of words to convey what she wants to say, and sometimes stopping short of where you think she’s going to land.
Raised in Baltimore, Harris had a strong interest in science from childhood, and excelled at math and science in school. Her father was a civil engineer who worked for the B&O Railroad, which became CSX; her mother worked as a substitute teacher and office worker. Her maternal grandfather was of Irish descent, her other grandparents were German immigrants who’d come to Baltimore at the turn of the 20th century.
If the Lutheran Church in America had ordained women when she graduated from high school in 1969, Harris said, she might have pursued a seminary education then. But the church ordained its first woman, the Rev. Elizabeth Platz, a year later, by which time Harris was studying at the University of Maryland, where she received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
From there she went on to get her Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she was recruited by Bell Labs, a division of AT&T. Harris had wanted to go into industry; the business world intrigued her, she said. She went to work at an engineering research center in Princeton, N.J., for two years and then moved on to an AT&T semiconductor factory in Allentown, Pa., in 1980, managing a group of men who were the same age as her father.
“They weren’t sure what to expect and I wasn’t sure what to expect,” she said with a hint of a smile. She was one of the first women managers in the factory, coming into a male-dominated world with workers who had, she said, “no context for dealing with a female boss.” When asked how she maneuvered through a potential minefield, she said briskly, “I just performed. I did what I knew best how to do, I understood technology, I listened to people, I demonstrated technical competence.”
After seven years there she was transferred to a branch of Bell Labs in Andover, Mass. As a department head in one of the great American powerhouses of innovation,, she worked on designing circuits for transmission and switching equipment. She remained there until 1991, while she and her family lived in Londonderry, N.H.. and was transferred again to AT&T’s network operations center in Bedminster, N.J.
Then came a two-year move with her family to Frankfurt, Germany, where she helped to plan a joint venture between AT&T and the German multinational Mannesman. Back to New Jersey. Shuttling between New Jersey, Bermuda, Europe and Asia for work. And then the decision to apply to seminary.
When she entered the seminary she exchanged business suits for blue jeans, contracts and blue prints for Hebrew and ancient Greek, a vice presidency for study of the Lutheran Confession and the liturgy. As a student she could have pursued a theological education in one of three ways: social justice work, advocacy or parish ministry. Harris chose the last. “It’s a chance to be more giving on a one-to-one basis of working with people,” she said. “It’s taking the Word and putting that in the context of their lives.”
The Harrises had bought the New London property in the 1990s because they liked New Hampshire, and wanted a second or retirement home in the state. When it came time for a required residency in clinical pastoral education, she researched doing it at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and they made the move north from New Jersey. After her time at the hospital, where she worked in the dialysis and neonatal intensive care units, she did a year internship at the Community Lutheran Church. When an opening as pastor became available she was invited to apply.
Faith and Science
Religious faith has wound its way through Harris’ work in substantive ways, with faith complementing science, and science complementing faith. The two are not, in her view, mutually exclusive, although there are partisans on either side of the ideological spectrum who see it that way.
“I don’t interpret the Bible word for word,” she said. “I see’s God’s work in the world as God’s love, and God’s work in the world is not inconsistent with theory of evolution or even the Big Bang. I don’t worry about literal interpretation. I see science as human beings’ attempt to understand our world and the world that God created.”
It’s not lost on her that a narrative thread runs from her work at AT&T, overseeing the production of sophisticated electronic technologies that have, in a remarkably short span of time, revolutionized how people communicate, to her work in the church, facilitating a different kind of communication, with God. All of this is happening within the context of a country that, even as it is viewed in some corners of the world as a nation steeped in religious fervor, is becoming more secular.
“We’re in a post-modern society and many people consider us to be in a post-Christian world. We don’t have as much religious adherence as we did in the 1950s,” Harris said. New England is the most secular region in the nation, according to a 2012 Gallup Poll, and New Hampshire and Vermont are the two states where religion was of least importance to those polled. With the diminishment of religious engagement comes a coarsening of the culture, Harris said. “I feel so lost for us as a country, as a country we’ve become more calloused and less caring.”
Asked why she thought some Americans have drifted away from religion, she thought for a moment. “If I had an answer to that I could write a thesis.”
Years ago, the church was more a fixture in people’s lives, a solid measure of community. But when Harris taught confirmation classes, the children in them knew almost no other kids who went to church regularly.
“As a church we need to think innovatively about how we reach people,” she observed. “Technology certainly has an impact: no point in making an enemy of it, let’s use it.” She has consistently applied the skills and technologies she learned at AT&T to church business and communications: email, the Internet, blogs, a website for the church, putting sermons online.
She learned, though, throughout her training and then first months at the church, that there were significant differences in how she talked to people as an executive and how she talked to them as a pastor.
“I had to slow down, and slow down in the sense that pastoral-people interactions take place at a different speed than corporate transactions. You have to train yourself to sit back and not necessarily act,” she said. “As a corporate executive, I’d have to hear people’s different perspective on things, but I’d also be accountable for making a decision. In pastoral interaction that’s not the case. You’re there to help people find their own path.”
Howard Shaffer, a former president of the congregation, said of Harris, “She’s a very caring person, very well-schooled. She was great at calling on people, and extremely organized in managing and overseeing the church’s business.”
Harris’ sermons showed a broad knowledge of Biblical history and text, said Susan Cronenwett, a parishioner. “I think her sermons helped people examine their faith and know the context of where the biblical sermons came from. ... It sits with her background: She wanted knowledge, she wanted facts, and she was clearly very bright.”
The sermons were a way for Harris of “looking at how your faith influences your life in the workplace. To me, that’s really important. How does what you hear on Sunday influence your week?” What you hear in church and read in the Bible is not to be left behind in the pew after the service is over.
In business, Harris said, “you make decisions that affect people’s lives. My faith influenced those decisions.”
During the formation of the global communications network named Concert, which was the result of a merger in 2001 between AT&T and British Telecom, she was asked to build a 500-person organization within the network. Harris recalled that as part of the organizing she told the team she worked with that one definition of justice, using the language of her faith, is to plan what a world will look like before you know what your role in it will be. “I asked them to help plan the organization before telling anyone what their role would be, so they would work as a whole and not maximize one person’s role over another.”
That said, the years 2001 and 2002 were also dubbed the Tech Wreck, because of the collapse of the dot.com bubble and telecom networks, a time, said Harris, of insider trading and illegal accounting and unethical practices. While she missed some of the people she’d worked with, she doesn’t regret leaving the business world when she did.
Open to Change
In the last sermon she preached on Dec. 30, Holy Family Day, Harris drew on the story of Jesus leaving his parents during a trip to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover so he could go to the Temple to learn from the rabbis. Harris likened Jesus’ adolescent independence and subsequent separation from Mary and Joseph, to the coming parting of the ways between herself and the Community Lutheran Church.
“Mary had to grow into a changing relationship with Jesus,” Harris recalled saying, and to the congregation she said that the relationship between pastor and congregation was also changing and that there would be a period of uncertainty ahead, for the congregation and for herself and her husband. But out of life’s unpredictability can come renewal and rebirth, as Harris often tells people, drawing on her own experience. When intuition speaks, listen.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 27 edition of the Valley News.
Michael Harris is the son of Patricia Harris, the retired pastor of Community Lutheran Church of Enfield. His name was reported incorrectly in Saturday's Close-Up section.