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Holy and Whole: Toni Collier on redemption, reconciliation and the unexpected benefits of brokenness

toni collier Jun 01, 2022

 

By Matt Green

Toni Collier was only 25 years old, but her ministry life was over—at least as far as she was concerned.

A single mother, she had just been through a divorce to escape a toxic and abusive marriage. As a youth minister, she’d endured manipulation and unhealthy leadership from her boss and senior pastor, and he had warned her that, if she left his church, she would be cutting herself off from God’s blessing and from any future in ministry.

Toni found herself in the nonprofit world, working in the inner city for the Girl Scouts with girls and their mothers who were in abusive family situations.

She was familiar with abuse and family crisis and the impact it can have on a young person’s development. Growing up in Houston in a blended family, Toni’s father was verbally abusive and aggressive, and her mother suffered a stroke when Toni was in the third grade. As a result, she spent much of her adolescence and teen years caring for her mother.

“I lost a lot of my childhood,” she notes. “So, I just had kind of the thought that I was an adult—because I was taking care of business.”

When she reached adolescence, Toni rebelled. She partied, drank, took drugs and lost her virginity at 13. Then she graduated high school at 16 and immediately left home. Toni put herself through college, graduating at 19 with a business degree from Sam Houston University. She had planned to go to law school but ended up falling in love with a young man and moving with him to Georgia, marrying him after being together for only four months. Soon, there was a baby on the way, a daughter named Dylan.

At 21 Toni came to faith in Jesus, and her gifts in communication and leadership were quickly noticed, propelling her into ministry.

“My pastor saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” she says. “I ended up in youth ministry, became ordained and kind of changed my whole life around.”

The couple’s relationship soon soured, however, as Toni grew in her walk with Christ and became more involved in ministry.

“My husband at the time just wasn’t ready for that shift and that change,” she explains. “And so it got real toxic, real fast—a lot of jealousy there. When my daughter was one, I decided to transition from the marriage and divorce so that we could be safe and have a healthier life.”

Unfortunately, the church where she was ministering was not much healthier than her dysfunctional marriage.

“At the same time, I was battling with church hurt and spiritual manipulation,” she recalls. “The lead pastor at my first church was really just manipulative and narcissistic and prideful.”

When Toni left church ministry and got a job in the nonprofit world, she ended up attending North Point Community Church in Atlanta, where she met her current husband, Sam. Toni laughs when describing the contrast between her early life and that of Sam.

“I was fresh off the salvation bus,” she says. “Sam had been slinging holy oil and praying for people in the high school parking lot.”

In addition to North Point, Sam’s ministry background includes leadership roles at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was co-pastor from 1960 until his assassination in 1968.

The couple have been married for five and a half years and have a new baby on the way—in addition to Toni’s daughter from her previous marriage.

“I got another chance at love and restoration and redemption,” she says. “God’s just redeeming my story.”

Most recently, Sam was tapped to launch Hillsong Atlanta, which had its first service in June 2021. Although Hillsong is an international movement, with congregations on every continent but Antarctica, the Atlanta branch is the first campus in the American south, and Sam is the first African American senior pastor of a Hillsong church.

There are many majority-white and majority-Black congregations in Atlanta, but Sam and Toni are working to create an environment at Hillsong Atlanta that will incorporate the gifts, styles and perspectives of a racially diverse congregation.

“Rarely do you have a church that fights for the middle,” Toni notes. “And that is what Sam has been pursuing. That’s what he talks about on Sundays, and it shows in the congregation, it shows in the staff and it’s beautiful. He always says this: if he builds a Black church, he’s failed. If he builds a white church, he’s failed. It’s not the goal. The goal is to look like heaven.”

Their leadership of the new plant has also given Sam and Toni an opportunity to shape a style of ministry that addresses some of the dysfunction both of them saw in previous churches. A key to the model they hope to cultivate is that of collaboration and partnership, versus placing focus on a single, charismatic leader.

Tony recalls her senior pastor at one point telling her, “Your purpose is connected to me. Only one seed can be planted in this house, and it’s me. So, I’m a tree, and you’re a branch. As you serve the ministry and you serve me, I’ll bless you.”

In contrast, at Hillsong Atlanta “it’s all hands on deck,” Toni explains. “We have a teaching team, like a rotation. That’s intentional because oftentimes you’ve got a pastor that’s preaching 35, 40 weeks a year and he becomes this kind of figurehead that God flows through versus God using all of these people with a unique gift to communicate. It’s OK to give a little power in the pulpit.”

Sam preaches twice a month, Toni preaches once or twice a quarter and the other Sundays are given to others—both from within the church and guest speakers.

“We have a very flat organization,” she explains. “It’s a lot of collaboration. It’s a lot of leaning on Holy Spirit. I believe God’s a God of unity. And if seven people are on the team, and five of us are like, ‘Hey, I really think we should go this route,’ then you know, there’s some unity and synergy there. But if there’s only one of us and everybody’s like, ‘No, really, I just don’t think this is a great idea. I don’t think this is online with our mission in line with what God’s doing,’ then you need to sit down and listen to that as a leader.”

“One of my biggest pet peeves is this kind of like celebrity culture, especially in the Christian space,” she notes. “I think it starts with the leader. If I could say anything to a leader with a ministry organization or a church or whatever, it would be just not to play God. You are not your followers’ or your organizations’ or your members’ Holy Spirit.”

She describes ministry settings in which everything from a leader’s stage presence to their social media accounts are designed to create distance and an aura of success and privilege.

“It has a connotation that makes you feel like they’re untouchable,” Toni explains. “So I’ve had to put some practices in place. People don’t call me ‘Pastor,’ and if they do, I say, ‘Please call me “Toni.”’ People don’t get drinks for me and do things that I can actually do on my own. When people say, ‘Oh my goodness, I want to be just like you, I admire you,’ I say, ‘No, you don’t. You want to be you. You want to be who God’s created you to be. And you really need to be more like Jesus, as I am trying to—to be more like Jesus.’”

Toni acknowledges that there is a natural human tendency to identify with leaders and model one’s life after them. But, just as often, this pattern can lead to disappointment and even abuse.

“I’m very open about those things because I just think people naturally idolize people,” she says. “But it’s also our fault as leaders for accepting people treating us like idols.”

The two bring their experiences in both Pentecostal and nondenominational megachurches to create a style of ministry that addresses broader cultural issues through apologetics and biblical teaching, as well as emphasizes personal spiritual health and wholeness.

For Toni, wholeness and holiness are inseparable, and her realization of this dynamic was what brought her back into ministry when she was 25, after her stint in the nonprofit world following her divorce.

“That’s kind of when things shifted for me, and I went from this very hidden life, hiding all the broken pieces, flashing all of the fake, no broken pieces,” she says.

Toni still wanted to do good in the world, but she also assumed that, in light of her past, God was done using her in ministry.

“When God started opening doors in the ministry space, I was like, Are you sure, like, is it OK?” she recalls. “He didn’t just open them all at once, but He allowed me to tap into some therapy, resources. He opened this world up and He said, ‘Not only am I not done with you, but I’ve actually got a healing journey that’s available to you, and you are going to be and do so much more as you heal.’”

Toni knew if she was going to reenter ministry it would have to be different than the way she’d done it—and seen it done—in the past. Rather than “flashing the fake” as she describes her former approach, Toni seeks to ground her ministry in the words of 2 Corinthians 12:9: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Instead, church leaders have a tendency to boast in their strengths and conceal their weaknesses, Toni notes.

“What has happened over time is that we have believed that God wants holy people—just holy people and not holy people that are also whole,” she contends. “We have been able to spit out Scripture and call ourselves holier than thou and put together a fancy little metaphorical message, but we aren’t able to be kind to the people that serve us.”

She traces dysfunction—whether in ministry leaders or in those they lead—to trauma, neglect and other unresolved issues.

“We see it narcissism rooted in pride rooted in insecurity. Where did that insecurity come from? It came from neglect, from not ever being ever enough, from not receiving nurturing. We entered this world as [psychiatrist and author] Curt Thompson says, with these needs of feeling safe and secure and seen and soothed,” Toni notes. “And when we don’t get them, those four start to break down and they manifest themselves in different things from anger to narcissism to addiction.”

And she argues that the church can be a place where these hurts are not addressed but suppressed—all so the business of doing work for the kingdom can go on.

“And you take that, and you add the pressure of showing up on Sundays, the pressure of society. And the pressure that we created in the church.”

Toni notes that the consequences for this inauthenticity don’t just affect people in the church, but they hinder its ability to reach people outside the four walls.

“We built these churches and these ministries over time for the saints, for the unblemished,” she explains. “And we’ve got to keep the world out there so that they don't come and taint us in here. Thankfully, slowly, we’ve morphed into more of a church for the normal person, for someone who’s struggling and asking questions and has doubts.”

In addition to working to cultivate a healthy style of ministry at Hillsong Atlanta, in 20XX, Toni launched a women’s ministry called Broken Crayons Still Color. Inspired by an incident in which her young daughter broke a new box of crayons, Toni uses the illustration to teach that brokenness is not something to be covered in shame, but an opportunity for God to show His power.

Toni argues that brokenness is not something we deal with at one point, put it away and then move on into a victorious Christian life with our trials in the rearview mirror. Instead, the crises that shaped us become the context for a deeper walk with Christ and a more authentic and effective ministry to others.

Broken Crayons Still Color “helps women process through brokenness and get on the other side to hope,” Toni explains. With a Facebook community, email newsletters, devotional resources, an online course and events, she says the ministry’s goal is to “guide them through a healing journey. It’s just really focused on Jesus and healing—mental, emotional, spiritual healing.”

Toni is quick to point out that the ministry is not a substitute for mental health care and counseling—something she credits as a crucial facet of her own ongoing healing.

“I didn’t grow up with counseling. It kind of seemed like taboo, like voodoo,” she says. In an effort to destigmatize and normalize counseling and therapy, Toni incorporates encouragement toward mental health care into her sermons and talks, knowing that there are others who may share her own initial reservations with it.

“A hundred percent I would not be the woman I am today without counseling,” she says. “And so now I yell it from the rooftops because it is inevitably a part of the healing journey.”

In addition to Broken Crayons Still Color and serving alongside her husband Sam in planting Hillsong Atlanta, Toni is writing two books—one to hit the shelves in October—and she continues to travel and speak at women’s and student events around the country.

But what Toni finds most amazing about God’s work in her life has been the restoration of her relationship with her father, something that began around the time of her own healing journey. She began to recognize the impact of childhood wounds and trauma, and how they can become patterns that are passed from one generation to another.

“I decided I’m not going to be an unhealthy mom, an unhealthy wife and friend and coworker,” she explains. “I really started to understand my dad and had really hard conversations around questions like, ‘Why did you do this when I was little? Why did you talk that way? Why did you discipline us that way? I just don’t understand. Why did you work all the time?’”

In the midst of their conversations, trust was built, and her dad opened up to her.

“I honestly think my dad started to feel safe around me and talked about his childhood and the things that broke him,” she recalls. “And I remember about four years ago, my dad held me and prayed for me and told me he was proud of me for the first time. And it was like from then on out something just unleashed. I know not everyone has that story, but I would say it’s been the best thing—the best part of my life—is redeeming my relationship with my dad.”

Toni’s is a full-circle story, and she contends that it’s one that demonstrates that the wounds of the past can be the roots of our failures in the present. But that’s not the end of the story. God is in the redemption business, and He is able to take the very things that cause us so much pain and turn them around both to our joy and even the healing and restoration of others.

“Your brokenness doesn’t discount you,” she says. “Sometimes God does his best work in the weak.”

 

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