The first step for an interim pastor is to settle into the life of the congregation.
Four months into his call to Mount Zion Lutheran Church in Hudson, the Rev. Mark Peters has done that -- although plunged might be a better verb to describe the transition.
At 2:15 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, he was just sitting down for a bowl of soup in the church fellowship room when a reporter stopped by for an interview.
That morning Peters had led a weekly Bible study in which the group examined the text he was going to use for his sermon the following Sunday.
“It generally names the place within the text that people wrestle with,” he said. “And to me, that’s where I like to go. Where is the tough question here?”
Peters had postponed lunch to meet with a family preparing for the funeral of a loved one.
Within a week’s time he had conducted three funerals. In the first few months of his ministry at Mount Zion there were five weddings.
“And that’s the rhythm of congregational life,” Peters said cheerfully. “I consider myself an adaptive leader … The church is the church of the Reformation, but it always needs to be ceaselessly reforming and being made new.”
“If it’s not dynamic, it’s dead,” he added with a laugh.
Peters’ return to parish ministry follows 18 years of service as the executive director of the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in Minnesota.
His job was to advocate for public policy goals of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
His office was across the street from the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul. He was employed by the six ELCA Minnesota synods and their bishops, and traveled the state from corner to corner visiting congregations.
“I related to government officials in Minnesota from Jesse Ventura to Tim Pawlenty to Mark Dayton,” Peters said. And there were changes in bishops.
“A lot stays the same, but a lot changes,” he said. “What I found is, in order to navigate in that area -- to be authentic -- one really needs to focus on the common good, not the partisan ideologies, especially when representing the church.”
Peters said the Lutheran Coalition advocates on “issues of denominational consensus,” which covered a broad range of concerns over his time as executive director.
The coalition’s website, www.lcppm.org, says it “addresses biblical values such as concern for people living in poverty and struggling with hunger and disease, hospitality to strangers, and care for creation.”
“Lutherans believe advocacy is a public witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ where the Church speaks with and on behalf of others in need,” the website says under the heading “Who We Are.”
Peters was drawn to the coalition while a student at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
He attended a noon forum hosted by the new coalition director and liked what he heard.
“It was church that was relevant. I guess I have been seeking a relevant faith -- an applied faith -- ever since,” Peters said.
After graduating from the seminary in 1991, he served a year’s internship with the public policy coalition, as well as the Minnesota Interfaith Ecology Coalition.
Then he was called to First Lutheran Church of Lake Lillian, a small town in western Minnesota where he pastored for three years.
“It was a great place to hone ministry skills,” he said.
“They were a very grace-filled community. I think any congregation welcoming a new pastor needs to be that, because there’s a lot that seminary doesn’t teach that is learned from the people,” he added with a laugh.
When the executive director of the public policy coalition resigned and Peters was offered the position, he accepted.
“I thought about one second and said yes,” he said.
Eighteen years later, he had come full circle and was looking to return to parish work.
Being executive director of the coalition required considerable travel.
“I did not want to look back on my life and see my kids’ lives in the rearview mirror,” he said. “I needed to be in a ministry setting … where I could be more the parent and husband I needed to be.”
Peters’ wife, Janeen, also a graduate of St. Paul Seminary, currently is a stay-at-home mom. They have been married 29 years and have two sons, Noah, 13, and Alek, 10. The family resides in the Twin Cities.
Peters grew up in Madison, where his father, Dr. Henry A. Peters, was a professor of neurology and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine.
Peters was a political science and education major at UW-Madison. He interned at the state Capitol with then-assemblyman David Prosser, now a member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
“I had a good learning experience. He was a good mentor,” he said of his relationship with Prosser.
Peters began his interim ministry at Mount Zion Lutheran on April 1, taking over from Pastor Brian Ferguson who resigned after 10 years in the pulpit to relocate to Cincinnati.
Part of Peters’ role at Mount Zion is to assist the congregation in calling a new pastor.
“It’s been just a great place,” he said of the church.
Peters said he’s seen the ELCA’s motto of “God’s work, our hands” on display.
“Every week the announcement page is full of things that the church is doing in the community,” he said. “It’s exciting to be a part of. As difficult as this past week has been with the funerals, I see people coming together, volunteering to serve the suppers and cater the food and set up the tables and tear it down.”
Church members returned from a week of building a Habitat for Humanity house in Centuria “on fire” and “energized to do more.”
“They’re looking outward and I’m excited to be part of that,” Peters said.
The church was organized as the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Zion Church in 1895. The first building was located on Fourth Street, and is now occupied by Cornerstone Church.
It became Mount Zion Lutheran in 1968 when the church moved up the hill to its current location at the corner of 13th and Summer streets.
In 2012, the church added 12,000 square feet of ministry space featuring a commons, a fellowship room, a modern kitchen, offices, Sunday school and meeting rooms, a large youth room and restrooms.