Lutherans in Minnesota

Always ready to say ‘thank you’

St. Olaf College recognizes an alumnus for his contribution in social services in Minnesota

A fly fishing rod may point the way for retirement activity for Mark Peterson, recent recipient of the St. Olaf College Achievement Award. Peterson, who retired after 25 years as president of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS), was planning a trip to New Zealand with his wife Mary when Metro Lutheran caught up to them recently. His fishing rod will go with him.

However, Peterson’s zeal for the mission of Lutheran Social Service is undiminished in retirement. He calls himself a big “cheerleader” for LSS. And he sees even bigger days ahead for the social service organization. Since he took the helm in 1986, the budget of LSS has grown from $15 million per year to $100 million. About 80 percent of LSS’s annual budget comes from contract services provided for governmental bodies. The remaining 20 percent comes from philanthropy and fees for services.

Former LSS CEO Mark Peterson was named 2011 recipient of the St. Olaf College Alumni Achievement Award. Photo provided by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota

“Peterson’s extraordinary contributions and achievements have improved the quality of life in many different communities.”

Peterson is particularly proud that the board of LSS elected Jodi Harpstead, who had been chief operating officer, to be chief executive officer. Peterson had long worked toward a succession plan at the head of the large social service organization.

Peterson’s core philosophy appears in the 2010 LSS annual report. Across touching photos are these words: “God loves everyone without condition, no kidding.” On the reverse side are these words: “God yearns for us to love the neighbor.”

While Peterson had worked with Lutheran Social Service in Illinois and Michigan prior to 1987, he and Mary were drawn back to Minnesota by a unique blend of characteristics of its people: Minnesotans believe that they are responsible for the well-being of all people and that people working together can make things happen.

Prior to his retirement, Peterson and Harpstead toured the state visiting with hundreds of LSS employees who serve clients in all 87 counties in Minnesota. Peterson’s challenge to LSS employees was to:

* Integrate the majesty of this organization into your own being.

* Believe deeply in your own talent and ability to change the world.

* Be disciplined in your own learning and growing.

* Keep breakthrough thinking fresh in your work.

* Remember it is all about the mission.

Harpstead, the new CEO, had this challenge for LSS employees:

* Find margin and balance in your own life.

* Imagine the biggest possibilities of your work.

* Discover your unique gifts and offer them to the world every day.

* Go after your dreams, knowing that God’s intention is abundance for all, and that the universe will deliver.

* Offer grace to those around you when they make mistakes.

* Remember it is all about the mission.

When profession becomes legacy

Peterson graduated from St. Olaf in 1966 with majors in English and philosophy. He went on to earn a Master of Divinity from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania.

In announcing Peterson’s award, St. Olaf’s alumni magazine had this to say:

Peterson has pioneered countless projects and initiatives in his role at LSS. One was aimed at expanding disaster response services throughout the United States, another at creating a statewide system of accessible case management and counseling services for veterans. During his tenure, the Center for Changing Lives opened in Minneapolis, a venture that provides 48 units of affordable family housing and is home to a wide range of LSS services, including mental health support, adoption, housing services, refugee services, financial counseling, and employment services. In addition to providing all of these services, the building was constructed in an environmentally-friendly manner and was awarded a LEED certification.

At LSS, Peterson envisions a world in which all people have the opportunity to live and work with dignity, safety, and hope. This vision powers the LSS mission: to express the love of Christ for all people through service that inspires hope, changes lives, and builds community. LSS is Minnesota’s oldest and largest human service organization, serving more than 100,000 people in Minnesota today. Despite the progress that has been made, Peterson knows that this type of work is far from finished. ‘After 146 years, we feel we’ve only just begun,’ he says.

Kathy Schuurman, Associate Director of St. Olaf Alumni and Parent Relations, had this to say about Peterson’s selection, “Mark Peterson was chosen to receive the Alumni Achievement Award for his outstanding work within his field. He did not merely accomplished his job competently, but has excelled in his profession. His extraordinary contributions and achievements have improved the quality of life in many different communities.”

Although LSS broke new ground in numerous ways during his years of leadership, Peterson is particularly proud of two programs:

* Camp Noah, initiated after the Red River Valley floods of 1997 and which continues to minister to the needs of children affected by disasters. Camp Noah is a long-term program that comes into disaster locales long after the Salvation Army and the Red Cross have left town. Its programs have been conducted in 20 states and Puerto Rico. After the 9/11 disaster in New York, a variation called Camp New Ground was held in New York and New Jersey.

* Center for Changing Lives in Minneapolis which combines housing with numerous services for low-income people. Peterson says that the most challenging part of the Center for Changing Lives project was “getting the vision right, and that took 15 years.” After that things fell into place quickly.

Part of the legacy Peterson hopes to leave at LSS is a “restlessness within the organization that looks for ways to improve lives.” He describes his management philosophy in the following sentence: “Mozart it ain’t; it’s just jazz.” While he loves Mozart, jazz is about improvisation and different people taking the lead. In short, he has four observations about leadership; “it defines reality, guides, equips, and says ‘thank you.’”

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