By Kristen Gowdy and Samuel Kuperman of the student publication “Ithaca Week.”
ITHACA, N.Y. — After 15 years in the ministry, Reverend Jane Thickstun has finally come home — even if it’s only temporary.
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The walls in her upstairs office at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca are still nearly bare, though she has inhabited the space for two months now. Ordainment certificates hang over her desk, and a lonely wall clock resides above her computer. Thickstun promises to purchase more furniture to accompany the three swivel chairs and Victorian-style couch.
But she hardly has time to focus on office decor. Instead, Thickstun has been scurrying from meeting to meeting — the times and dates of which are stored in the iPad that has become her schedule consultant — working to catch up on the day-to-day goings-on of her new congregation.
The Ithaca branch of the Unitarian Universalist Association announced Thickstun’s hiring as interim minister in June , and the Potsdam, New York, native returned to her Upstate New York home in August after a six-month period in which the congregation was without a minister.
“I love Ithaca,” she said. “I’m not a big city gal. I drive around, and it’s just so gorgeous here. I’m constantly going, ‘Wow, wow!’”
For Thickstun, the excitement of returning to a smaller college town is evident, especially since her last assignment — an associate interim minister position — was located in Atlanta, Georgia.
Location, however, is not the only change between the two positions. At 333 members, Thickstun’s Ithaca congregation is less than half the size of the congregation she worked with in Atlanta.
Senior Congregational Administrator Mark Pedersen said Thickstun has done a good job of translating her ideas from her old congregation to Ithaca. In particular, Thickstun is looking to increase involvement in the community — she invited a group to participate in a Black Lives Matter teach-in on Oct. 24 — and a greater connection with both the Unitarian Universalists Association and the local colleges.
“She’s brought lot of new ideas,” he said. “Which is important for any organization because you do lose sight of the fact that you don’t have to do things a certain way. Maybe 20 years ago it was great, but times change, communication changes, so she is great because she is bringing a fresh outlook on things.”
‘I decided I wanted to find a church again’
Coming from a relatively unique theological background, Thickstun found her calling in the ministry in the fall of 1996 after she had spent years as a computer programming analyst. Despite having drifted away from Christianity following high school, Thickstun had always been a spiritual person.
She couldn’t, however, seem to find a specific religion that fit with her beliefs.
“I went through a period of calling myself an atheist, and yet I was very much trying to connect with something larger and express that, and that was the journey I was on,” she said. “It wasn’t until I decided there was something I could call God, the whole universe, I decided I wanted to find a church again. That’s when I found the Unitarian Universalist church. It was an immediate good fit.”
From there, Thickstun realized that she wanted to go into the ministry. Her computer analyst job wasn’t giving her a sense of fulfillment in life: she wanted something more.
“I felt like the work I was doing was good, but it was still just a job, just something I was doing in order to survive,” she said. “I wanted some more meaning in my life, some more purpose. One day in a meditation session, word just came to me in ministry.”
Fifteen years later, Thickstun has compiled an impressive resume in her trade. She’s worked at several Unitarian churches and has worked at Keene State College, teaching philosophy while serving as a campus minister.
But now, she’s back in Upstate New York, where her journey began, ready to lead the Ithaca congregation for the next two years. Rick Hendrick, who is part of the pastoral care team and sits on the church’s board of trustees, said Thickstun has brought positive change to the congregational community.
“Our congregation’s response to her new interim ministry has been very positive,” he said. “Many of my friends have voiced excitement about the improvements now underway in our congregation.”
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