Shirley Willis, 84, dies in Arkansas

Retired Southern Baptist missionary Shirley Jean Morris Willis, 84, of Bella Vista, Arkansas, died December 17, 2018, in her home, on what would have been her 63rd wedding anniversary to the late international mission leader, Dr. Avery T. Willis.

Shirley Willis

Mrs. Willis was born June 11, 1934 in Nowata, Oklahoma, to Clarence and Beulah (Ozbun) Morris. She graduated from Nowata High School in 1952 and Oklahoma Baptist University in 1955. She was a summer missionary to Native Americans in ­­­Arizona and Mississippi while in college. She was married to Avery Thomas Willis, Jr., on December 17, 1955, until his death in 2010.

“Avery Willis was a high-profile Southern Baptist leader from his missionary service in Indonesia, developing widely-used discipleship materials at LifeWay for churches, leading overseas strategies at the IMB and — even after retirement — directing a network of global orality strategies,” said IMB President Emeritus Jerry Rankin. “Behind the scenes was Shirley, raising and nurturing five children and, later, a host of grandchildren to love and serve the Lord. She was a relational person who never took formal roles and events too seriously, maintaining a casual demeanor and enjoying life. She balanced Avery’s vision-driven leadership with cultivating friendships and having fun as she followed in faithful support wherever God led.”

Shirley cultivated friendships and had fun as she followed in faithful support wherever God led.

A family obituary describes Mrs. Willis as “consistent, steady, faithful, and always had a willing heart to help others.” Avery Willis served 10 years in the pastorate in Texas and then the Willises served 15 years in Indonesia with the International Mission Board. The Willises were appointed as missionaries on March 12, 1964, and served until May 30, 1979.

Shirley and Avery Willis (center) meet with believers at a Baptist church in Indonesia in 1972. (IMB Photo)

She ministered in her church and home during the next 15 years while he worked at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tennessee, and when he returned to the IMB in Richmond, Virginia. At IMB, he served as senior vice president, and they traveled around the world ministering to families. She volunteered countless hours at IMB’s learning center, serving missionary families who soon would leave for new countries. Upon retirement in 2004, the Willises built their home on Lake Ann in Bella Vista. They were members of Bella Vista Baptist Church. Shirley loved to teach the Bible and was the initial teacher of the Radiant Rubies Sunday School class.

“She was also a paradox,” the family wrote in memoriam. “Born in the heart of the Depression, she was cost-conscious when spending on herself, but she was known as generous by others. Although she was born in a town of less than 5,000 and didn’t travel past Oklahoma City until high school, Shirley traveled to 116 countries, circumnavigating the globe multiple times. She preferred structure and routine, but she embraced uncertainty and chaos for the sake of the gospel when choosing to go to Indonesia as a missionary.”

“Shirley was a faithful follower of her Lord and supporter of her family,” said Clyde Meador, IMB’s interim executive vice president. “She was always fun to be around, and amazingly hospitable, greatly loved and appreciated by missionaries and missionary kids alike.”

Shirley and Avery Willis celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in 1980.

Willis is survived by her five children: Randy (Denyce) Willis, Sherrie (Steve) Brown, Wade (Suzanne) Willis, Krista (Cliff) McAtee, and Brett (Gretchen) Willis; 16 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren; her brother, Norman (Carolyn) Morris; and double-cousins Phyllis (Bob) Burger and Carol Peters. She is preceded in death by her parents, her husband, her sister Bette Lefler and cousin Galene Jordan.

Her life will be remembered on December 28, 2018, with visitation at noon and the funeral at 1:30 p.m. at Bella Vista Baptist Church. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the International Mission Board.

Arrangements are by Bella Vista Funeral Home & Crematory, 2258 Forest Hills Blvd., Bella Vista, Arkansas. Online condolences may be made at