Following His Calling
Business executive and Master of Divinity student Michael Corrigan is reinventing his career—and himself
by Carolyn Shea
I feel like my life is unfolding… and finally, I’m not resisting it.
Michael Corrigan ‘77 devoted the first 35 years of his professional life to high finance and insurance, building a successful business career and fulfilling a lifelong goal to become an entrepreneur. Now, he’s on track to leading a life of devotion: He’s studying to become a priest.
Every week, the father of five commutes 335 miles from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif.—where he’s still chairman of the firm he established, Corrigan & Company—to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the Episcopal Church’s residential seminary in Berkeley, where he’s a student.
Next year, after graduation and ordination, he says he’ll likely become a chaplain in his county’s regional hospital, providing spiritual support to patients, staff and families.
When Corrigan makes his weekly trek back to Santa Barbara, he can often be found tending to his clients, preparing a sermon he’ll give in a few days to the parishioners of the small, rural church where he is interning, or connecting with patients at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where he’s already worked with people struggling with profound life-and-death challenges. “I’m there to provide solace and spiritual comfort in whatever way they need it,” he says.
The “most intense experience” he’s had so far, he says, involved counseling a terminally ill woman, a single parent with a young son, who was contemplating suicide. “I listened to her and asked her to think about what lesson her son would get from each of the choices,” he says. “It’s not about imposing one’s own value structure on people. You’re there to help them get clarity so they can make their own decisions. That doesn’t mean you can’t give information. I told her that in families where there has been suicide, the incidence of people in subsequent generations taking their lives is two to three times higher. It becomes a pattern where it’s okay to make that choice. I asked her to think about the possible outcome—that she could potentially be training her son and that she needed to weigh that. It wasn’t so much that I was talking her out of it as I was saying, ‘Have you thought about this? Have you thought about what can come from dying with nobility and dignity and what can be learned from suffering?’”
On the surface, Corrigan’s career change may seem surprising. He’s not dissatisfied with what he does for a living. But he’s felt called to a religious life throughout much of his life, and he hadn’t heeded the call.
“I went to church as a kid and like most kids, I didn’t want to go. But I have some memories most kids don’t have,” he says. “One of my earliest memories is playing church in our home. My brother and I created an altar, had Eucharist, and played church. I was five years old.”
He also had an extraordinarily influential role model: his grandfather, Rev. Daniel Corrigan. A prominent Episcopal bishop during the 20th century, the late Rev. Corrigan demonstrated for peace, civil rights and social justice. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C., and sat with him when he delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963. Rev. Corrigan worked on behalf of Native Americans, against segregation, and was among the first clergymen to speak out for gay rights and the ordination of women at the Episcopal Church’s general convention in the 1970s.
“My grandfather was a great man and an inspirational man,” says Corrigan. “He had a big impact in my life.”
Yet as an undergraduate, Corrigan aspired to an occupation not focused on religious faith. “I moved towards studying economics. By the time I was done, I thought I’d be a banker. At that point in my life I really wanted to make money—not a common aspiration among Evergreen people,” he jokes. “It seemed to be important to me and I had a clear sense of where I wanted to go: Business.”
Corrigan was bound for Harvard when he first visited Evergreen to see his father, Robert W. Corrigan—the first president of the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles and a former dean of New York University’s School of the Arts—give a lecture at the Olympia campus. Impressed by the college, he changed his mind.
During his time at Evergreen, when he wasn’t in a program or doing independent contracts, he relished playing the role of devil’s advocate as a writer for the Cooper Point Journal. He penned a column, called “Conservative Backlash,” which was, as he describes it, “a kind of counterpoint to the crazy things going on on campus,” he says. But, he adds, “I really wasn’t very conservative.”
From Evergreen, he entered graduate school at the University of Washington, earning his MBA, and then joined the brokerage firm, Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith, in Seattle, moving through the sales, investment and management ranks. He left Merrill Lynch to help start up the Great Northern Insured Annuity Corporation—also in Seattle—which grew into a $2-billion enterprise.
Several career and geographical moves later—including a stint as president of a subsidiary of a $12-billion securities firm— Corrigan purchased the investment unit of a failed savings and loan in Santa Barbara, where his Corrigan grandparents had retired. That business became Corrigan & Company.
There, he carved out a specialized niche in the world of finance, becoming a pioneer in the field of bank-owned life insurance (BOLI). BOLI plans, introduced in the early 1990s, cover financial institutions’ executive officers and are tax-free investments often used to fund employee benefit obligations. With about 75 clients, Corrigan’s firm serves financial institutions in the Western U.S., mostly small community banks. “I got involved in a business that was highly conceptual,” he says. “Most banks do it now—but for a long time, about the first ten years, it was not conventional.”
Corrigan originally planned to retire when he was in his early 50s and “have a second life,” he says. “I didn’t know what that would be until after I quit. I built everything around that.”
His plan crumbled when his wife informed him that “she didn’t want to be married anymore,” he says. “Initially as a part of surviving the divorce, I just started praying, and eventually the deeper I got, the closer I got to listening to the voice that had kept popping into my head all my life that I was called to the ministry.”
When he first began his ministry studies, he thought he would leave his business—which employs several people, including his oldest daughter and her husband. But with his vocational destination as a hospital chaplain becoming evident through his experience in L.A.’s Good Samaritan Hospital, he says, “I’m excited about having an important ministry and being able to do it without being a financial burden to the community I’m serving.” His current intention is to stay on at his company, although he says, “that’s still unclear to me. I do like certain aspects of the insurance work, and I’m really good at it.”
To Corrigan, Evergreen has been pivotal in helping him get where he’s headed. “I think what Evergreen does is to show people that you can put puzzles together in a lot of different ways and to not feel constrained about fitting the pieces in a certain direction…It’s okay to be in business and then become a priest.”
Which is fortunate because now that he’s aimed toward the ministry, Corrigan says, “I feel like my life is unfolding as God intended it to be—and finally, I’m not resisting it.”