From the Ladder to the Pulpit
Eschewing the corporate ascent for a spiritual one
Diane Rhodes underwent a life-transforming experience in 1998-in more ways than one. First, she retired. At age 49, she snapped up an enticing early retirement package and withdrew from AT&T's corporate cocoon, a world that had shaped her adult life.
After graduating cum laude from the University of Chicago in 1971, Rhodes landed a job with Illinois Bell Telephone Co., and moved on to AT&T's Basking Ridge, N.J., headquarters in 1979. She made a classic climb up the corporate ladder, juggling managerial duties with earning an M.B.A. For years, she traveled the country to conduct sales training and speak at industry conferences-addressing up to 400 listeners at a pop.
When AT&T began trotting out early retirement packages, Rhodes didn't qualify. In fact, she was busy developing programs to help with downsizing, including job counseling for employees. But she found herself thinking: What might I do if I had the chance?
And then the offer came. "I was proud to work for the corporation ... but I had the feeling that maybe I was being called to something else-something more," recalls Rhodes, her sparkling blue eyes softening.
She looked inward to her lifelong religious faith for guidance and also asked those around her for help in deciding about the buyout. After prayer and soul-searching, she accepted AT&T's package. "My hands were shaking when I took the paperwork to the post office," she remembers.
Waiting. Like many people who retire young, she was badgered by her contemporaries about what was next. She waited. She spent the next year dabbling in administrative jobs at her church. "You really have to take the time to be unsettled until the opportunity presents itself to you," she says. "It's hard to let ourselves live in that tension of the unknown, of not having the questions answered."
Ultimately, Rhodes was led by her faith. She enrolled in a course at Drew University Theological School and began working as an executive assistant to the dean of the seminary. Five years later, she graduated summa cum laude with a master of divinity degree.
Last December, Rhodes was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood. "It was a breathless moment," Rhodes says. "Something metaphysically happens." She's now a priest at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Lincoln Park, N.J., where her salary is well under $30,000, about a third of her former pay. Luckily, she doesn't fancy sporty cars, designer duds, or deluxe vacations. She prefers to read, do needlepoint, walk, and listen to classical music.
Rhodes presides over baptisms, weddings, and funerals, as well as worship services. She regularly visits three nursing homes. "You make eye contact and look beyond into the heart and soul of a person who needs to know that he or she still matters and is a child of God," says Rhodes. She also delivers her sermons to her 86-year-old mother, who lives nearby in an assisted-living community.
Before leaving AT&T, Rhodes had divorced. The nine-room home was sold and the profits split. She put money down on a condo.
Savings from her AT&T 401(k) plan plus her pension buyout provide her retirement fund. She has AT&T retiree healthcare coverage, to which she contributes.
The corporate speaking gigs have given way to heartfelt sermons to 60 or 70 worshipers, amid the soaring beams and stained-glass windows of her tiny Main Street parish. The audience may be smaller than in her AT&T days, she says, but the spiritual message is deeper.
The hours are still long, more than 60 a week, yet the rhythm is different. Rhodes might be catching a train in New York's Penn Station, and a young woman with tears in her eyes sees the priest's white collar and asks to talk. Rhodes pauses in her journey and takes the time to listen.
This story appears in the November 6, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.