Featured Stories, Lutherans in Minnesota

Mark Peterson will retire from Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota

After 25 years at the helm of one of Minnesota’s biggest nonprofit groups

When Mark Peterson sat down with Metro Lutheran to talk about his legacy with Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS), a faith-based nonprofit he has led for 25 years, he began by talking about what the board is looking for in a CEO candidate and about the succession plan that is in place. Clearly, Peterson is still oriented toward the future of LSS, not quite ready to sit on his hands and talk about past accomplishments. Maybe that is in fact his legacy.

“I’ve had an eye on leadership transition for 10 years,” Peterson said. “About three-and-a-half years ago, I decided it was time for the [LSS] board to begin their succession plan process, … and we have gone through a thorough, thoughtful, and deliberate process.”

Mark Peterson, after 25 years as CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, will be stepping down no later than September 1. A replacement will be named in June. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Now the LSS board is poised to make a decision concerning the next president and CEO at its meeting in Duluth on June 10. Peterson is able to stay until September 1, if the new leader would like a long transition. But he is clear, “They want to get on with the next chapter, and I am not the next chapter.”

The path to LSS of Minnesota

Peterson took an interesting path into the social work profession and his position at LSS. “I was a senior at St. Olaf [College], and it dawned on me that I was going to graduate,” he said. “I had a vocational conversation with myself and came to the conclusion that my vocation was to help people.” He said there was nothing more scriptural, theological, or philosophical than that.

As a follow-up, Peterson talked to the campus pastor, since he thought “helping people” might mean becoming a parish pastor. When asked whether he was ALC [American Lutheran Church] or LCA [Lutheran Church in America], he replied, “I don’t know.” Together, they decided it might be good for him to get out of the Midwest, so off to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg he went.

The one point of clarity for Peterson about his seminary experience was that “for me, being a parish pastor would be a lousy idea for me and even worse for the church.”

Peterson regularly tells his co-workers, “it’s all about the mission.”

Luckily, a seminary mentor advised him to finish his degree, but encouraged him to get a Masters of Social Work degree as well. Peterson did so, with a concentration in community organization, because “I am not a clinician,” he emphasizes.

After two years with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and 12 years at LSS in Michigan, Peterson began wondering about next steps. He saw these two institutions as being dominated by long-term care services in large institutions.

‘Passion, commitment, and guts’

In 1986, while attending his 20th class reunion at St. Olaf, Peterson and his wife realized something about his Minnesota classmates. “They believed two things to their core. First, in society we have a responsibility to care for everyone. And two, there is a conviction that when we apply ourselves, we can really make a difference.” This realization changed him, because “it ain’t like that in Michigan, Illinois, or Pennsylvania.”

After 25 years here, Peterson is concerned that Minnesotans are losing “that edge” in the public policy sphere. “Partly, corporate leaders connect less [now] where they are and stay less time, so they don’t have enough context to clarify their values.”

Peterson sees a trend toward institutional devolution, which takes a huge toll on congregations. Although this trend began nationally in the 1960s, it has affected the church in Minnesota only in recent years, Peterson believes.

“The church recently has not given public voice to loving the neighbor in adequate ways.” In response, LSS initiated the Servant of Christ awards, to give public recognition to one congregation in each of the ELCA’s six Minnesota synods for its public witness for vulnerable people.

That’s the legacy that Peterson will actually leave with LSS and the Lutheran community in Minnesota: As he would say, “it’s all about the mission.”

Over the years, Peterson said that the organization has changed profoundly in how it delivers services. Today, services put individuals in the driver’s seat, giving them the responsibility to manage their lives with support from staff experts at LSS.

In 2008, in the midst of an economic recession, LSS opened the Center for Changing Lives, a unique space offering comprehensive services from multiple partners, affordable housing and a faith community on one campus to help people change their lives.

In the midst of 2011 budget debates at the State Capitol, LSS is talking about its “My Life, My Choices,” an innovation in disability services that aims to provide more choices and freedom for people with disabilities, less governmental oversight, and greater efficiency.”

“Mark is the personification of what makes Minnesota great,” said Rep. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka), “a person with passion, commitment, and guts.” He added, “His dedication to his mission of serving those with special needs has inspired many.”

But, rather than taking a victory lap, Peterson intends to find new and innovative ways to take responsibility and make a difference in people’s lives. In other words, a legacy of mission.

Words of Wisdom from Mark Peterson

At a senior directors’ meeting of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota on April 12, 2011, Mark Peterson offered the following suggestions to his staff:

1. Integrate majesty of the organization into your own being.

2. Believe in yourself.

3. Be disciplined in your own learning and growing.

4. Work on building the will of the public … always.

5. Keep breakthrough thinking fresh in your work and with your people.

6. It is all about the mission (keep that in your frontal lobe).

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