Evangel University President Mike Rakes says he and his wife, Darla, are a bit adventurous when it comes to making life decisions.
They married as teenagers and have moved around the country to follow passions and professional pursuits. Oklahoma, Florida and North Carolina are among past stops. Rakes has led as pastor of Winston-Salem First Assembly of God in North Carolina since 2006. But they’ve left family behind in the Tar Heel State for Rakes to pursue a leadership position he says God inspired him to accept.
That’s not to say coming to Springfield to become the fifth president in Evangel’s 65-year history was an easy choice.
“It was the hardest decision we’ve ever had to make because we were leaving everything that felt comfortable to us,” Rakes says, noting it took him about 30 days – a period that included fasting and prayer – before he decided to become a candidate for the position that opened after the retirement of Carol Taylor late last year. George Wood served as interim president prior to Rakes’ arrival this month.
“Being president is not a job, it’s a calling,” Rakes says, noting he leads a combined faculty and staff of around 230. “I wanted to make sure that God was asking me to do it.”
Rakes was selected among five finalists, who were narrowed from around 50 candidates, says Rick Ross, chair of Evangel’s Board of Trustees. Ross, who is superintendent of the North Carolina District of the Assemblies of God, says he’s known Rakes for over 15 years.
“He’s a great visionary,” Ross says. “He’s very aware of the landscape of our society – the church world and the Christian university world. He understands that uniqueness. We believe he’s going to be able to rally all the constituents of the university: the faculty, the cabinet, the students, the parents, the alumni.”
Rakes’ new job marks the third time he and his wife have called Springfield home. They first came to the Queen City of the Ozarks weeks after getting married in 1982 to attend college – Mike at Central Bible College and Darla at Missouri State University. After Mike earned a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministries in 1985, the couple moved to Oklahoma before returning to Springfield six years later. In 1993, he graduated from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, where he received a master’s degree in biblical literature. The seminary and CBC consolidated into Evangel in 2013.
Rakes says his past connection to the Springfield area and familiarity with Evangel was a strong influence on his return.
“I love Evangel and have always loved Evangel,” he says. “I had a deep appreciation for the people here. Coming in, I probably knew 50-60 people that are on the staff or faculty here from our time when we were here before.”
His work in higher education began in Lakeland, Florida, where he started in 1993 as a faculty member at Southeastern University, an Assemblies of God institution. He became the school’s vice president for student development in 2000 – a position he held for six years before his path led to Winston-Salem First Assembly of God.
During his time in North Carolina, Rakes still was involved in higher education, founding Bridges Christian College in 2009 and serving as president until 2012. The school, which is accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education, prepares students for full-time ministry and is a precursor to a seminary education. It moved its main campus in 2015 to New Orleans, according to its website.
Rakes also began service in 2013 on the board of trustees at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was board chair at the time of his resignation, which was accepted by the trustees upon him becoming a finalist for the Evangel president job.
Darla says her husband’s ongoing higher education connection over the past three decades was an indicator that his career path was pointed toward a new leadership opportunity.
“The academic thing kept coming around. It’s always been there,” she says. “At heart, he’s an academician.”
She says coming back to Springfield “was a God thing,” although leaving behind family, including their 33-year-old son Brayden, daughter-in-law Heather and grandchild Blake, was tough. A second grandchild is expected in September.
“At first, it takes a minute to get used to the idea of moving this far,” Darla says with a laugh.
Rakes says he didn’t plan to become a university president but was appreciative of his wife’s counsel when considering pursuit of the Evangel post.
“She encouraged me because she said, ‘If I look at your resume, this is what you were meant to do all along,’” he says.
The importance of family has been a constant for the Rakes – never more so than when their daughter, Whitney, died in 2019 after a four-year battle with cancer. The 27-year-old was worship pastor at Winston-Salem First Assembly of God.
“It was very hard on our congregation to lose her,” Rakes says, noting her death led him to write a book about his disappointment with God. In “Surrendered and Unafraid: The Flourishing of Faith During Seasons of Suffering,” Rakes says he unpacks why God didn’t provide a miracle for his family. The book is scheduled to be published in November.
Rakes says Whitney’s death fuels his and Darla’s faith and dedication to college-age students.
“We believe in divine healing and the miraculous. But God doesn’t always give you what you want,” he says. “Life is very hard and is full of suffering. I want these students to know that. Yes, we believe in the God of miracles, but we also know that life is very hard. You’re going to need to be encouraged along the way.
“Faith is not what you need to get a miracle. Faith is what you have to have when you don’t get a miracle.”
The president of a university has two main assignments, Rakes says. One is to set the direction for the future, and the second is to pull the right people together at the right time.
A self-described goal-setter, Rakes says he wants to collaborate with people on campus to envision what the university of the future looks like.
“Right now, I’m focused on the first 100 days, which is a collective listening process and establishing the priorities for the next three years,” he says.
An avid fisherman and reader, Rakes says he starts a new book around every two weeks. Favorite topics include ancient literature, history and art, and he says he’s read most everything published about artist Vincent Van Gogh. His favorite book is “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” by Thomas Kuhn. Writing more books is on his to-do list. “Surrendered and Unafraid” will be his second published book following “Slings and Stones” in 2015.
As he embarks on the newest chapter in life, Rakes is reflective on the nature of leadership. The church he leaves behind in North Carolina is in the process of building a new campus in the heart of Winston-Salem.
“Leadership is about initiating things. You don’t always get to finish things,” he says.
With his first academic year leading Evangel underway, Rakes is looking at the bigger picture, committing the university to serve the community beyond its campus footprint.
“Our campus will be all in on helping the city of Springfield,” he says. “We want to bless the community and want to be a blessing in every way we can.”
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