When Mike Rakes became president of Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, this past fall, anyone who knows him knew that university leaders had made a strong choice; those close to him could have also safely predicted that impacting changes were in store for the liberal arts campus.
“When I first arrived on campus, we led it off with 60 days of prayer,” say the genial Rakes. “I hadn’t come in with a predetermined plan about what we should do — in fact, this transition from pastor to president was one of those unexpected ‘suddenlies’ in life . . . but being a CBC (Central Bible College) graduate, we learned that we don’t always get prepared for what God has called you to, but the Spirit will lead you in fulfilling that calling.”
Rakes, although a minister for the previous 15 years at Winston-Salem First in North Carolina, is no stranger to higher education. In addition to his own personal education that includes a masters from AG Theological Seminary (AGTS) and a doctorate from Biola University, Rakes has served as the vice president for student development at Southeastern University (Lakeland, Florida), founded the Bridges Christian College, and hosted an onsite accredited master’s degree on the campus of his church in North Carolina.
But his prayers for Evangel were in earnest — he wanted the Spirit to lead in whatever steps were taken. Combined with the prayers of staff, the student body, and alumni from around the world, after the two months of seeking God, Rakes felt a clear sense of initial direction for the school: elevate the student experience.
THE STUDENT EXPERIENCE
“I felt it was vital for students to feel a stronger presence of God in the chapel and also that the students and community on campus could connect with one another,” Rakes says, “so I began to pray about what the students might need to experience that.”
For spiritual vibrancy help, Rakes turned to AG General Superintendent Doug Clay who assisted him in bringing in outstanding speakers throughout the semester to minister to students and faculty. For upgrading the community experience, the first step was to remodel the student union, called “The Barracks,” to include a coffee shop, a giant-screen TV, plenty of plug-ins for phone charging, a lot of community spaces, along with other upgrades — that project will be completed by the time students return in mid-January.
A recently started community upgrade for students is the construction of a series of outdoor basketball courts in the center of the campus quad. Scheduled to be completed in March, this addition will also include numerous tables for students to gather around.
“I got a report just a few weeks ago that showed that 40% of students who come to chapel stay at least 20 minutes after chapel dismissal,” Rakes says. “Students are also really excited that our plans are not futuristic — the upgrades are happening right now — and they are getting the opportunity to enjoy them.”
Another initiative Rakes has instituted following the 60 days in prayer is something he calls CLP – collective listening process.
“We provide opportunities for employees and students to speak and we listen to hear what God has been saying to them,” Rakes says. “This has been a huge thing for us.”
Rakes’ wife, Darla, has also been a part of the growing of “community” at Evangel as she adds to the campus life through attending events, interacting and praying with students, and — as a licensed minister herself — periodically speaking in chapels.
“My wife and I have literally worked every night— we’ve just been in and around the students all fall attending all kinds of events — that’s helped us to really fall in love with them,” Rakes says. “We have immersed ourselves into the life of Evangel University and we love it.”
While serving in ministry in North Carolina, the Rakes were heavily involved in compassion ministries that focused on outreach and service-focused opportunities, including founding the Love Out Loud program and the Do Good initiative — both which respond to the command to “love your neighbor.”
The Rakeses also personally know the blessing of compassionate love during a time of loss and pain; two years ago, they lost their 27-year-old daughter, Whitney, to cancer.
“Through that experience,” says Rakes, emotion evident in his voice, “our daughter taught us that little things done with great love can change the world.” The loss of his daughter, where prayers weren’t answered the way so many desired, led to Rakes authoring a book: Surrendered & Unafraid: The Flourishing of Faith During Seasons of Suffering.
The compassion to love people to Christ combined with being in the position of experiencing the compassion of others in his own life, have formed in Rakes the passion to plant the seeds of compassion within the Evangel student body. In fact, this was part of what drew Rakes to Evangel as a new partnership with Convoy of Hope was exciting to him and “opens up a world of possibilities.”
“We want to become the first Spirit-driven university known for its compassion for others,” Rakes states. “Compassion will be embedded into every student’s curriculum through volunteer hours, community service projects, and internships . . . it is my desire to see that whatever job Evangel students come into, they’ll be agents of compassion, carrying the love of Jesus into every vocation.”
In addition to bringing compassion to the forefront of the Evangel educational experience, Rakes has other changes in store — several dozen initiatives and upgrades for the Evangel family, many of which will take place during the spring semester.
“A few of them I can share with you, include increasing our online availability for adult learners, announcing the 50th anniversary of AGTS and the 100th anniversary of CBC and the celebration related to both of those events, the addition of a cabinet position for the vice president for compassion and belonging to assist our global efforts for serving students from all nations and backgrounds, and a number of new initiatives related to Convoy of Hope.”
Although there are more upgrades and initiatives to announce, Rakes says he’s going to hold onto some of the breaking news until Jan. 10, when a comprehensive release will be made to staff, students, and alumni of what the future holds for the university.
“There are great, great days coming to Evangel — great things are in store,” Rakes says.