Joanne Negstad was surrounded by Lutheran pastors all her life. Her grandfather, father, husband and brother all dedicated their lives to the ministry.
But having grown up when the Lutherans didn’t ordain women, Joanne answered a different call — social ministry. She helped her father start the American Lutheran Church in Oslo, Norway, and became dean of women at Augustana College in Sioux Falls and an executive at Lutheran Social Service in Minnesota, South Dakota and Illinois, and the Minnesota Social Service Association.
Mark Peterson, former CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, hired Joanne and promoted her to a senior leadership position. “She had a great capacity to enroll people in the mission of serving people,” he said. “At board meetings, Joanne would tell stories of how we had changed people’s lives instead of just giving facts and figures.”
Negstad died on April 12 at age 82, a few weeks after a cancer diagnosis.
“She was an amazing witness to all of us,” said Jodi Harpstead, CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. “When she got the diagnosis, she was grateful that she had time for goodbyes, even though she knew her time was short. In her final weeks, so many people came forward to say what a mentor she was to them.”
The Vietnam War and the battle for civil rights were formative for Negstad in the 1960s and ’70s. She became a public leader who never called attention to herself but effectively combined leadership and personal relationships. “She helped people discover their own gifts,” said her brother, Mark Hanson.
Some wondered why Negstad, a natural leader and extrovert surrounded by pastors at family gatherings, didn’t later become one when Lutherans began to ordain women. “She didn’t need to be a pastor to exercise her gifts,” said Hanson, presiding bishop emeritus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Lars Negstad, her son, said he never heard his mom express an interest in being a minister. He remembers that she consistently took aim at unfairness and injustice.
In 1967, when she was a pregnant high school counselor, she protested that she and other female staff members had to quit working six months into their pregnancies. “The principal was uncomfortable talking about pregnancy and women’s bodies, but mom knew it was important for female staffers,” Lars said.
Negstad also excelled at fundraising. She was queen of the phone bank, logging hundreds of hours for causes that championed disenfranchised people, democracy and inclusion. “She wasn’t Pollyanna-ish,” said her son. “She wanted to get involved and not throw up her hands and complain while sitting in an armchair. She had so much energy and drive that she didn’t sleep a lot so she could accomplish more.”
Jenine Jordahl, of Decorah, Iowa, a longtime friend and college roommate, said that friends, co-workers and family loved getting Joanne’s greeting cards and handwritten notes for birthdays, anniversaries and significant events. “She developed a system where she’d write out a card, address it and put the date when it should be mailed where the stamp would go,” Jordahl said. “She should have had stock in Hallmark.”
Lars got cards from her on the usual occasions, but also Valentine’s Day and the anniversary of his baptism. “Every card had a personal note, and words were underlined for emphasis.” She sent out nearly 30 cards each month.
Besides her brother and son, Negstad is survived by her husband, the Rev. Allan Negstad; daughter, Lisa; two granddaughters, and another sibling.