Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Mark Peterson is about embracing people

The LSS head has 35 years of ministry under his belt

What gives Mark Peterson his energy? The head of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is not your typical CEO. As he lays out his priorities and shares his passion, it’s clear he’s more interested in giving people hugs than managing them.

Well, perhaps not literally. He didn’t wrap his arms around this reporter when we spoke for over an hour one day in July. On the other hand, he made it clear he wants his social ministry agency to stay, primarily, in the embracing business.

In the middle of our conversation he got out of his chair, went to the other end of his office, and took down a copy of LSS’ strategic imperatives. Handing them to me, he said, “This is our five-year plan. We’re almost halfway through the period, and we’re on track.”

What’s on the list?

* Minnesota’s children, youth and families will have safe, stable homes and the opportunity to thrive in community.
n Minnesota’s people with disabilities will have access to services and a full life in community.

* Minnesota’s older adults will have choice in their services and opportunities to contribute to community.

* Energize the other imperatives by stirring up a “Movement of Hope.”

* Create the Center for Changing Lives in South Minneapolis in 2008.

That last item is coming to fruition right on schedule (see another story on this month’s Web site).

It was not automatic that Peterson, a lay person with 35 years of social ministry under his belt — 20 of them at LSS of Minnesota — would end up here.

If his mother had gotten her way, he’d have gone to seminary and become a pastor. Well, he did part of that. After graduating from St. Olaf College he enrolled at Gettysburg Seminary, a Lutheran school perched on the edge of a Civil War battlefield. The son of a lumberman and a beauty salon operator from Traverse City, Michigan, he discerned at seminary that ordination was not right for him.

“My vocation became caring for the neighbor,” he says. He went to the University of Pennsylvania and earned a Master’s in Social Work.

Looking back, he admits, “My mother was [initially] disappointed when I wasn’t ordained. But now that’s changed. She’s affirmed everything I’ve done.”

And what he’s done is to immerse himself, heart and soul, in the needs of people in a brand of ministry he might never have experienced as a pastor.

After stints in social ministry in Illinois and Michigan, he got an opportunity to bring his passion to Minnesota. “I was at a St. Olaf College homecoming event. While there I was reminded of the unique take Minnesotans seem to have about caring for one another. Unlike a lot of areas of the country, Minnesota doesn’t have a finger-in-the-dike mentality. I hadn’t appreciated that before.”

When the opportunity came to head LSS of Minnesota, he hesitated — but not for long.

Peterson shares the optimism of the leaders of the ELCA’s St. Paul Area Synod, where the goal is to help end poverty in Minnesota by 2020. “I think that’s a totally realistic project,” he says.

As for LSS, he adds, “By 2015 we intend to assure there are no homeless children in Minnesota. We have 3,000 of them on any given night. Shouldn’t we be able to solve that?”

He marvels, “We now have no institutionalized people with developmental disabilities in this state. Who would have guessed we’d accomplish that?”

But then there’s another problem. “Why do we have people out there with homeless signs?” It’s a matter of will, he asserts. “It’s a decision we make not to care. We’ve elected people who tolerate this sort of thing.”

It’s clear that Mark Peterson isn’t ready to tolerate anything of the sort. And so, he presses forward.

His mother should be proud.