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Bowen Rodkey for WORLD

Morgan's mission

Religion | The leader of a venerable Manhattan ministry to the poor has goals beyond behavioral modification: "We are snatching back souls from the enemy"

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 18, 2010

NEW YORK CITY-Ed Morgan leans forward, his face stretching into a grin. "It's like a conspiracy, a conspiracy of the Holy Spirit, a mission." An Air Force officer during the Vietnam War, Morgan knows about missions, but the mission he's talking about is The Bowery Mission, one of America's oldest outreaches to homeless men and women.

"Our mission is to create opportunities for God to change and transform lives." He starts talking faster, holding his hands together in front of him: "What makes me so excited is that I can be a part of the city-wide gospel movement here in New York City." November and December are busy months for a ministry CEO-more people coming in as the weather gets cold, more donors to reach as the year's giving peaks.

Seventeen years ago, Ed Morgan traded a 20-year career at General Electric to become president of the struggling Christian Herald Association, an organization that ran the Bowery Mission and put out The Christian Herald, a magazine dating from 1879. The publication no longer exists, but the mission now thrives on Manhattan's Lower East Side, operating "in line with the best practices of American businesses, in a way that creates value for our donors," Morgan says.

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His career change was partly a matter of curiosity-he was intrigued by the idea of resurrecting a business. But it was more than that. It was, he says, a desperate need to live for something bigger than himself.

Some might use numbers to show how Morgan has resuscitated the Bowery Mission: In 2009 it gave out 340,000 meals and over 4,000 full outfits of clothes. Big numbers, though, can also suggest a problem: If the same people keep coming back, is a ministry merely enabling people to stay poor instead of helping them change their lives? This is why a different number is more impressive: Last year 156 individuals graduated from Bowery's long-term transformative program. This year, 170 are scheduled to graduate.

Morgan looks for results: "Most charities measure process-how many meals are served and how many beds they have, but we measure permanent results. We are outcome-focused." He leans back, relaxed in a bright red leather chair, and summarizes his business methodology. Principle one: strategic planning and an emphasis on concrete results. Morgan counts off on his right hand what a person needs to graduate from Bowery's long-term program: He must be 1. Connected to Christ, 2. Connected to family 3. Clean and sober, 4. Employed with a place to live, and 5. Have a plan for the future.

Principle two: hiring the best. "You're only as good as the people you have called to the ministry. It's people first, second, third." Principle three: laser-beam focus on mission and purpose. Morgan notes that businesses emphasize quarterly earnings, but the mission's bottom line is "lives changed one at a time. It's a very scriptural thing. You don't change lives through social services. That's called behavioral modification. Recovery from homelessness is an affair of the heart."

So how did a successful businessman become concerned about homelessness in the first place? What convinced him to accept a 60 percent pay cut (with a son recently accepted into pricey Vanderbilt) to inherit a 114-year-old company with a $500,000 deficit and a rapidly decreasing endowment?

Ironically, Morgan's transition to ministry began when he read a quotation from author Henry James: "The best use of life is for that which outlasts life." Morgan considered himself a Christian and was active in church leadership, but he was restless: "I felt like something was missing-a connection with the Lord." So in 1986, he and his wife decided to be baptized as adults: "We declared ourselves to the powers above that we are Christians . . . and that's when the trouble started. It's like joining the army, the first thing you face is basic training."

Basic training for Morgan included tension with co-­workers, intense physical suffering (they thought it was pancreatic cancer), and clinical depression. For two years he dragged himself to work, came home, and hibernated: "I literally thought my life was over." He now believes that God used that suffering to change his heart and prepare him for a new work that required compassion he had never had before: "Some of my best friends are homeless people going through our program at the mission. . . . I identify with them in a way I never thought I would."

As president, Morgan casts vision and builds both the organization and relationships with current and potential donors. A mid-morning meeting with his event planner, Sara Alonzo Maier, adds several follow-up calls and breakfast appointments to his agenda. The two of them work carefully through a coded list of names, stopping at certain points for Morgan to make notes. For one family, he notes a change in capability. For another, the need to visit. He interrupts occasionally to tell friendly stories about the people and their families. He also talks about how Bowery is working with some at-risk younger people as well: It has tutoring programs for 150 children and brings 1,000 to a summer camp.

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