Greg Peters was supposed to be a preacher. At least, that’s what he’d always assumed. After all, the calling fit his personality, a natural amiability that let him connect easily with people, all kinds of people.
Raised in Roanoke in a family that lived by the Golden Rule, Peters watched his parents and extended family practice what they preached, serving others, helping where they could and staying active in the church. A career in ministry just made sense.
He became an Eagle Scout, and soon he was off to Bridgewater College where he would earn a degree in Religion and Philosophy, and the vision for his future began to fall into place. Even before he graduated, he became a licensed minister, taking a logical step toward his chosen profession. However, his senior year of college his favorite sociology professor encouraged him to complete an internship at the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Harrisonburg
After college, he was hired after his internship as a Juvenile Probation Officer and took what he had assumed at the time would be a brief detour. Peters became exposed to young people and their families who were experiencing different kinds of challenges than he had seen before, and he wanted to help. He had the opportunity to participate in a year-long training with preeminent family therapists which inspired him to learn and grow to serve children and their families.
Peters never looked back. While he didn’t know it at the time, his first steps toward a mission of helping children and their families would lead to an extraordinary career, including 40 years at United Methodist Family Services (UMFS), an organization that he has led for the past two decades as CEO, propelling it into one of the most impactful nonprofit agencies throughout the commonwealth.
Roots in therapy and social work
Peters first walked through the doors of UMFS in 1980, hired for a newly created position to create the Treatment Foster Care program after receiving his Master’s of Social Work degree. He began to feel a calling for the kind of work that he found could make such a profound impact on the well-being of youth and their families. He threw himself into the field, eventually completing a one-year therapy training program with leading family therapists across the country and later an MSW in Social Work at VCU.
“In many ways, the kind of field work that I found so rewarding was much like a ministry,” said Peters. “There’s an opportunity to connect on such a personal level with people and help guide them toward decisions that will improve their conditions and their futures. And the spiritual element to it all is undeniable.”
Over the years, Peters discovered another talent – a capacity for vision and aptitude for growing organizations, two skills that would become the hallmarks of his leadership. He saw gaps in services and devised programs to fill them. He envisioned bold solutions and tackled challenges beyond his immediate horizon.
Since his appointment to CEO in 2000, Peters has literally transformed UMFS from a parochial nonprofit with a narrow scope to a statewide enterprise whose tentacles touch virtually every corner of the commonwealth. In the past two decades, UMFS has grown from three programs to almost 20 and expanded its reach beyond Richmond.
When Peters first joined the agency, there were three full-time social workers; today there are 60. In all, UMFS has some 340 staff with another 1,000 regular volunteers working side by side with the full-time team.
The new programs created under his leadership have become synonymous with a range of services: Project LIFE, My Sister’s Children, Leland House, adoptive family preservation, family support partners and on and on.
“Greg’s legacy is the fact that he transformed a children’s home into an innovative community-solution provider that created cutting-edge programs that are replicated today throughout Virginia,” said Nancy Toscano, UMFS, chief operating officer and Peters’ successor when he retires next spring. “He has an incredible capacity to identify the essence of what is needed and then create workable solutions that are effective and scalable.”
When Peters recognized that UMFS did not have the capacity to take on solutions on its own, he forged partnerships, more than 30 collaborations with other nonprofit, government and for profit organizations over the years. He also led two affiliates, Charterhouse School and Guardian Place, which is a for-profit corporation.
As much as he sees the big picture, Peters leads from within the trenches.
“Greg’s a phenomenal leader,” said Sonja Lawson, UMFS’s associate director of administrative operations. “One of the amazing things about him is that he’s such a great listener. He leads beside you, not above you.”
When he retires next April, Peters has full confidence that the organization that has been such a big part of his life will be in good hands and on secure footing. While there are challenges ahead, particularly in how to best harness technology and resources toward addressing the needs of families, he sees in Nancy Toscano a leader who has shown a talent for developing a strong, value-based culture.
“Nancy builds and cultivates strong internal and external networks, and together with her business acumen and commitment to the cause, she is ideally suited to lead UMFS into the future,” said Peters. “And I’m excited to watch the ascending arc of the organization’s success under her leadership.”
While he does, you’ll also find him gardening, cooking, reading, traveling, and spoiling a new granddaughter. At least that’s the plan, but with the one-time aspiring preacher, you never know.