“Susan Thistlethwaite has never been afraid to tackle the most difficult issues in theology and society, from war and peace to gender, race and prostitution,” says Herzog. “The fact that she has reached the top of her profession is of enormous importance not only for women and for the academic world, but also for the church, especially since she is active in international ecumenical relations.”
Thistlethwaite is frequently asked questions about how she was able to succeed as a mother and a professional. In an interview for Working Mother Magazine, she rejected images of juggling and balancing family and career, which she noted are typically used to describe mothers, but not fathers, who work outside the home. She advocates building networks so that children have a solid and extended web of care from family and others.
It was her husband, Dr. James Richard Thistlethwaite, who urged her to accept the CTS presidency. “When I said I wasn’t sure I could do the job, he put his arms around me and he said, ‘Sure you can.’”
A professor of surgery and president of the medical staff at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Dick Thistlethwaite says that while he and his wife live in different professional worlds, “Our joint commitments to help those who are less fortunate and more vulnerable resound nicely.
“Sue has convinced me that peaceful solutions are always available if people are brave enough to seek them,” he says. “I’ve benefited greatly from these lessons since polarized opinions and conflict are not foreign to the field of medicine, especially in surgery.”
Her best preparation for the role of seminary president, said Thistlethwaite, came from motherhood and the local church. “Being a mother of toddlers teaches you to live with distractibility,” she said. “You just can’t get from A to B to C because you’re always interrupted, and that’s the same now. I just cannot get from the beginning of the day to the end following any particular plan.”
As president, Thistlethwaite also serves as pastor-in-residence to her seminary’s board of trustees. In July, she went to visit a life trustee in the hospital. She arrived just after he had died, and she stayed with him, praying, while his family was notified. Afterward she felt a profound sense of her role in relationship to the students, faculty, staff and trustees of CTS. “We are an academic institution, but we are also really a church as well,” she says. “The transition to president was more like going back to the local church than anything else.”
Thistlethwaite has devoted much of her career to addressing cultural stereotypes, the exclusion of women in traditional church structures, and a more equitable church for the 21st century, including 15 years translating Scripture into inclusive language. She worked on two translations: The Inclusive Language Lectionary (Pilgrim) and The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version (Oxford).
“I think language shapes our perceptions of reality in the most profound way possible, and therefore inclusive language both about humans and the divine is critical,” she says.
Women’s ordination, which has been a UCC practice for more than a century, is normative for her, says Thistlethwaite. “I won’t say there isn’t discrimination, certainly, but it has not been a big part of my experience of the ministry, of being an academic in religion, nor of being CTS president.”
But Thistlethwaite cautions that political power for women may not translate into a more compassionate society: “I don’t hold a particularly sentimental view that women are the be all and end all of human salvation. Women are human beings, which means they are conservative human beings; they are liberal human beings; they are stupid human beings; they are smart human beings; they are compassionate; they are cruel.”