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Robert H. Spence leaves presidential legacy

April 22, 2014 | Ian Richardson


When Dr. Robert H. Spence became Evangel’s president in 1974, he thought his time in the position would be brief. A pastor with 20 years preaching experience already, Spence thought that after a few years in the presidency, he would return to a local church.

40 years later, Spence is the longest-tenured college president in the state of Missouri and one of the longest in the nation. On April 30, Spence will retire from the position he has held so faithfully over the years and transition into his new role as chancellor of the university. Beginning May 1, he will work with Dr. Carol Taylor, currently serving as president-elect/CEO, when she becomes president of Evangel University.

Road to the presidency

Spence had not planned on a career in ministry when he left home to attend the University of Alabama. He was the son of an Assemblies of God pastor and evangelist, but entered college studying to become a doctor.

It was a Sunday evening prayer service during his sophomore year that prompted him to change his major and enter the ministry after graduation. He spent two decades pastoring, and was leading a church in Mobile, Alabama when he was called into higher education leadership.

Spence was a member of the Evangel College Board of Directors for six years, serving as the minister representing the Southeast region. When Evangel President Robert Ashcroft retired in 1974, the board of directors asked Spence to take the leadership role.

Spence accepted, and says he saw the presidency as a revised pastoral role, one he would fill for a period of maybe five years. However, multiple five-year periods came and went, as did offers to leave Evangel for other institutions and churches. But Spence continued to feel the Lord prompting him that Evangel was where he belonged.

“The Lord just opened doors in a way that I knew there was more He wanted me to do here,” Spence says.

President Spence

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As he stepped into the presidency, Spence admitted that he felt intimidated. Still in his 30s, Spence was young for a college president.

However, he had a supportive board of administration behind him and the assurance that God had called him where he needed to be. With that confirmation, Spence says he knew that God would provide the grace, direction, support and encouragement he needed to complete the job.

One of the major tasks Spence faced was the renovation of Evangel’s campus. He gradually facilitated the building of new structures to replace the World War II Army barracks that had comprised the land of O’Reilly General Hospital.

“I think a lot of people will remember him because of the physical structures he has left and the campus development, turning it from just this motley collection of worn-out buildings to what we see today,” Glenn Bernet, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, says. “I think it’s a testament to his steady and persistent staying on task with what the university is all about.”

Along with his structural legacy, Spence built a relational one as well. He became one of the most beloved chapel speakers in Evangel’s history over the years, and received a standing ovation nearly every time he walked to the pulpit in recent years.

Unlike many speakers, Spence does not use notes. He says his goal is not to be complicated or rhetorically stunning but instead to be relevant to the students’ lives.

“My messages are not long, and they’re simple, and it’s a matter of my trying to convey a truth that has been made real to me,” he says. “If I can do that, that’s my objective.”

Spence’s legacy in the chapel building was cemented during homecoming of 2013 when a decision from 1982 came to fruition. The chapel building was officially dedicated under the name: Robert H. Spence Chapel.

Spence was loyal to not only Evangel during his tenure, but also to the surrounding community at large. Has served as chairman of Springfield’s board of city utilities, on the airport board, Chamber of Commerce board and many others.

Looking forward

As Spence transitions into his new role as a chancellor for the university and looks toward his retirement, he says his goal is to help the university however he can.

“The time that I have been here has been intended to help Evangel be everything that it can be,” Spence says. “I want to make sure that anything from this point forward is simply advancing that.”

His main responsibilities as chancellor will be to serve as an ambassador for the university, continuing to nurture relationships with the community and Evangel alumni while also forming new ones.

After 40 years of hard work as president, Spence says he is also looking forward to several relaxing activities. He has stacks of histories, biographies and business books he is eager to read, several home improvement projects on his to-do list and – most of all – three sons and numerous grandchildren to travel to visit. He is also looking forward to some future trips to the Gulf Coast—his favorite vacation spot.

As Spence retires from the position he has filled so faithfully, the work he has dedicated his life to and the legacy he is leaving will not be forgotten. His retirement is a new chapter in a story that shows how God has led him in his willingness.

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