A Deacon in Heaven


For more than 30 years my mother, Eva Aldredge Henley, advocated for the ordination of women deacons and pastors in her West Texas Baptist church. But that still hasn’t happened. She didn’t live to see this happen—at least not on earth. One of her church friends wrote in the memorial service guest book: “She’s a deacon in heaven!”elh-32

For 90+ years Mother prayed, along with Christians around the world, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our Creator’s will for her was finally done in heaven. But why not on earth as in heaven? Why didn’t the churches she served so faithfully for so many years give her the freedom to become all she’s created to be in the divine image while she was on earth? Far too many churches still deny the divine image in women by denying them the right to be deacons, pastors, or priests.

motherpreachingAll her long life Mother was a dedicated Christian and faithful church member. She taught Sunday school for 82 years. The Sunday before she went to heaven, she even taught her class. Her class, “Any and All,” is aptly named because she not only welcomed all to her class but actively sought them out. She invited anyone she saw—from the grocery store casher to waiters at restaurants. Her class members have been of 5 different races, various ages, genders, and economic backgrounds—many who don’t feel comfortable in other Sunday school classes and churches. She lived Jesus’ words: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). She ministered to a diversity of people also in her role as pastor’s wife in four churches. Like my father, she had a seminary degree and abundant pastoral gifts. Her gregarious personality, dynamic speaking voice, and exceptional leadership skills made her every bit as qualified as my father to pastor a church. But she served churches as an unpaid, untitled outreach worker, events organizer, educator, and development officer. She co-founded a missions organization and led mission trips to eight countries, including 46 mission trips to Ukraine. She raised money for missions around the world. In addition, she ministered to students for 25 years in her position as a high school English teacher.

In spite of her long, faithful service, churches did not consider her “qualified” to be ordained as a deacon or a pastor because she was a woman. They ordained men half her age and younger with far fewer gifts and far fewer years of dedicated service. They counted them worthy and qualified because they were men. But no woman, no matter how gifted or called or how faithfully she served the church, was deemed worthy and qualified—simply because she was female.

Sadly, churches’ discrimination against women is still widespread. This discrimination has consequences. In a Baptist Standard article titled “How Do Evangelicals Enable ‘Locker Room Talk’ about Women?” editor Marv Knox calls out “male-dominated patriarchal” evangelical churches who contribute to “rape culture” by treating “women as objects” instead of as “creatures of infinite worth who bear the image of their Creator.” He writes: “Women are the backbone of the church, but in most congregations, they are not allowed to exercise leadership equal with men. Few allow women to be deacons; fewer still allow them to be pastors. So, no matter how many times they tell their daughters, ‘God made you, and you can be anything God wants you to be,’ they don’t mean it. Girls and women have their limits.”

President Jimmy Carter writes in A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power that “discrimination and violence against women and girls is the world’s most serious violation of human rights,” and he points out the religious basis for this discrimination and violence. “There is a system of discrimination, extending far beyond a small geographical region to the entire globe; it touches every nation, perpetuating and expanding the trafficking in human slaves, body mutilation, and even legitimized murder on a massive scale. This system is based on the presumption that men and boys are superior to women and girls, and it is supported by some male religious leaders who distort the Holy Bible and other sacred texts to perpetuate their claim that females are, in some basic ways, inferior to them, unqualified to serve God on equal terms.” A Baptist Sunday school teacher for more than 70 years, Carter gives thorough biblical support for the equality of women. “There is one incontrovertible fact concerning the relationship between Jesus Christ and women: he treated them as equal to men, which was dramatically different from the prevailing custom of the times. The four Gospels were written by men, but they never report any instance of Jesus’ condoning sexual discrimination or the implied subservience or inferiority of  women. It is ironic that women are deprived of the right to serve Jesus Christ in positions of leadership as they did during his earthly ministry and for about three centuries in the early Christian churches. It is inevitable that this sustained religious suppression of women as inferior or unqualified has been a major influence in depriving women of equal status within the worldwide secular community.”

Churches’ discrimination against women has consequences. Our recent Presidential election is a striking example. The majority of evangelicals and Catholics voted for a man who denigrated and abused women through his words and actions, even bragging about sexually assaulting women. This majority of evangelicals and Catholics didn’t value women enough to find this candidate’s behavior reprehensible enough to keep them from voting for him. Their churches have taught them that women are not really worth that much, not worthy enough to be ordained deacons, pastors, or priests. So it’s little wonder they don’t think a Presidential candidate’s misogynist words and deeds are a big deal. And since their churches have taught them that women are not qualified and worthy to be deacons, pastors, or priests, they don’t believe a woman, no matter how qualified, is worthy to be President either. They have learned well what churches, through words and actions, have taught them about the inferiority of women.

How long, how long will churches contribute to discrimination and violence against women by denying them freedom to fulfill their calling to be deacons, pastors, or priests?


Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross
Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross

Now more than ever, I feel the urgency of the mission of Equity for Women in the Church, an organization I co-chair with Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross. Equity for Women in the Church is an ecumenical movement to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society. Since the fall of 2013 this ecumenical, multicultural organization has been working towards justice and equality for women and girls. We work to tap all the unused talent and training of culturally diverse women. We advocate and network for women across denominations and cultures so that they have opportunities to fulfill their calling to be deacons, pastors, or priests. We work to change churches so they affirm the divine image in women and girls as making them worthy and qualified to be included as equals in every aspect of ministry. Love demands it. Scripture teaches it. Jesus modeled it.


As a “deacon in heaven,” Mother continues to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—our Creator’s will for women to have equal freedom to become all we’re created to be. I’d like to believe that as Mother now has this freedom in heaven, she may be able to help make it so on earth.

13 thoughts on “A Deacon in Heaven

  1. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to your mother. She and my mother may well be serving together as deacons in heaven. I remember my mother coming straight from working third shift at Goodyear to work in Vacation Bible School. When Mother died, we were not allowed to have her funeral at the church where she was an active member for 52 years because I asked two women to read scripture. Our church, Heritage Baptist in Cartersville GA, honored her like one of its own. On All Saints Day, without explanation or comment, Mother’s name was called along with the members of Heritage who had died within the past year, possibly the first posthumous transfer of church membership in Baptist history.

    1. It is heartbreaking to read of the cruelty of your dear mother’s church. I thank God for Heritage Baptist’s compassion in recognizing her that way. (I just read your post aloud to my husband. Upon hearing about her church’s refusal to allow the funeral to be held there – and why – he said, “That’s sick!” And when I read your last line, he literally applauded!) Your mother sounds like a gem. Adding her to the list of people I want to introduce myself to in heaven some day!

  2. I grew up a faithful member of the Southern Baptist denomination. After decades of doing everything they would let me do, I finally followed my call to parish ministry through the Presbyterian Church (USA). It’s a great “fit,” in part because there are a lot of Presbyterians are former Baptists. I’m only sorry I didn’t make the break sooner. Maybe one day the SBC will acknowledge their hypocrisy regarding women, who, as the Gospels tell us, were the first to tell the good news of the Resurrection.

  3. Thank you, Julie, Sarah, Jane, and Lamar, for your kind words.

    Jane, I’m delighted you found welcome for your gifts and calling in the PCUSA. I join you in hope that one day the SBC, Catholic church, and other denominations that bar women from ministry will acknowledge their hypocrisy and follow the Gospels.

    Lamar, I’m glad you found a Baptist church that honored your mother and her gifts.

  4. WOW.. Thank you for this article, I feel so inspired to fight that poisoned “old way of thinking”! You and your mom inspire me to try harder and to keep going no matter how tired or discouraged I become. I’m so grateful for you both, you’ve both changed my life and hopefully I can make a drop of difference in this ocean of hope y’all have created. We will FREE SOPHIA in our lifetime!!

  5. Thank you, Colette, for your strong support and encouragement!

    And thank you for the big difference you’re making–far more than a drop in the ocean! Together with many others, we are freeing Sophia!

  6. Thank you, Erica, for your kind words. I’m glad she’s among the people you want to meet someday in heaven!

  7. I almost never comment on stuff… But this made me cry, and I am so moved and encouraged. Bless you, and wow what an incredible sister… I am looking forward to meeting her

  8. Janna while I don’t agree with all your conclusions, I believe the most honest reading of the scripture suggests that Phoebe was a deacon in the early church. I believe your mother was one too, with or without the title. Women like Eva demonstrate that there are called and gifted women among us and we must respect and nourish those gifts. At the same time, we are not free to disregard difficult passages that seem point to differing roles for men and women. Navigating the biblical roles of men and women in the church is a complex one and we all have to approach it with some humility. Apart from all that, I knew Eva fairly well. She was an amazing, godly, and gifted woman that God used mightily. She touched my life and the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of others through her mission efforts. However the church navigates these waters, we must do so in a way that does not put out the Spirit’s fire in God called women like Eva. I was saddened to hear of her passing, but know that she received a rich welcome into the Father’s eternal kingdom.

  9. Thank you, Charissa and Gary, for your kind comments. I’m glad this article moved and encouraged you.

    Gary, I’m delighted you knew Mother, and I appreciate your sharing how she touched your life and the lives of others.

    I understand about the difficult passages in Scripture that seem to point to differing roles for men and women. I grew up hearing mostly about those; so when I first felt God calling me to ministry, I couldn’t accept the call. But the Holy Spirit kept guiding me through study of Scripture and through godly people until I could hear and accept God’s call. I had to know that this was biblical before I could accept God’s call to become an ordained Baptist minister and to serve in a variety of roles as chaplain and pastor. Mother supported my ministry with enthusiasm and participated in my ordination. My father, a Baptist pastor, had already passed away when I was ordained, but I felt him smiling from heaven and blessing my call to pastoral ministry.

    Here are some of the biblical passages that the Holy Spirit used to guide me:

    Women and men are both created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). Men and women are both gifted by God
    (Romans 12) and called to use their gifts in ministry (1 Peter 4:10). Paul proclaims, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Ethnicity, social standing, or gender is no reason for exclusion in the ministry of
    Jesus Christ.

    Both Old and New Testaments affirm the role of women contrary to the cultural norms of the day. Deborah
    was a prophet, judge, and military leader (Judges 4:4-9). Junia was an apostle (Romans 16:7). Phillip had
    four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). Euodia and Syntyche were coworkers with Paul (Phil. 4:2-3).
    Phoebe was a deacon at the church in Cenchreae (Romans 16:1-2), and Lydia opened her home as a place
    of prayer, perhaps the first house church (Acts 16:14-16, 40)!

    Jesus invited, included, and empowered women to participate in his ministry, even commending Mary of
    Bethany when she sat at his feet and listened as he taught (Luke 10:39). Women supported his ministry
    and accompanied him as he traveled (Luke 8:1-3). Women were the first to witness the resurrection and
    the first to proclaim the Risen Christ (John 20). Finally, the Spirit was poured out upon both men and
    women, and both women and men were empowered to carry out the Gospel (Acts 2:17-18).

    May God continue to bless you!

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