We were both at a swim school in Darwin, waiting for our kids to finish their training. We chatted briefly, she laughed with her eyes and I was smitten. I had no idea who this lovely engaging woman was but I very quickly slotted her in as one of the women I would pray for so that she could come into a relationship with Jesus. We did the ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ for a few weeks, my prayer continuing and me looking for an opportunity to introduce my faith and Jesus into the conversation. Finally, my opportunity came. She was sitting alone reading a book! I made a beeline for the table and as I sat down my eyes scanned the title of the book The Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The standing joke is "that’s it, you are now off my list".
Toni is a Pastor in a large and vibrant Baptist congregation in Darwin with a long history of faith ventures and mission heart. She became a trusted friend and like spirited co-labourer. She is a fiercely devoted mother, a generous woman and a passionate leader. I actually think she may love the Church more than me, if that is even possible? She was also the first woman outside of my faith community to entrust me with a platform and her women. She is definitely one of my very favourite people.
So you can imagine my delight when she agreed to share what she had learnt from her last few years. I was over from Bali for a few weeks and we jumped at the opportunity to meet in a small cafe for our conversation. Although it was hot and sticky, being in each others company was incredibly soul soothing. These are her words for us.
Her face expresses her passion "while it is God's work, it is so exciting to see what God has enabled us to do as a team through this beautiful gathering of women. I'm really proud that we have women coming together from across the Territory, across denominations and across ages. That we are coming to learn, grow and be empowered in leadership and Christian life and then go out and have an impact on God's Kingdom throughout the Territory."
She explains that she is incredibly thankful for the opportunity to lead the women in this way as it has clarified that God has called her to influence women through her leadership role. I love how she connects this confirmation to what she values "one of my personal values is influence. I often felt in the past that I wasn't as influential one-on-one as I would have liked. Seeing the vision of Together realised has helped me understand that I can influence more women through my role as a leader. People will often give me feedback about how I have influenced them and I didn't even know I had. My heart is to influence for God's kingdom, I want my influence to empower other women, to become women of influence as well."
Grateful for Clarity. Toni explained that she she would too often say yes at the expense of what was truly important to her. Things like her family, her friends and her health "I am better at saying “no” because I am a lot clearer about my priorities in life. Learning to say no has also helped me be clear about the things I should be doing and shouldn't be doing, it is so easy to get sidetracked when you are in church leadership and a mum. I have found that if you don't work out what your key values and priorities are in your life and leadership, others will! Then you end up feeling a bit like a mouse on a treadmill."
It is really important to Toni that she does things well, with a spirit of excellence and yet too often she felt that she fell short "being a wife and a mum, a leader and a friend I often don't feel like I do balancing act very well. So I have learned to appreciate saying "no' because it helps me to do the things I am doing well. I find that when I am focused on a project, a problem or even the person I am with I am able to give more focus, energy and thought. I am more present."
Grateful for God. Family is incredibly important to Toni. She has four children, the youngest is fifteen and the eldest is twenty one "I am quite proud watching our children grow into young adults. Seeing them cope with all the challenges that life brings them, the choices they have made and how they have responded. One of our sons has struggled with anxiety and depression and that has been a challenge for him and hard for all of us as we have walked with him though some really dark times. To see him growing as a young man through the pain of depression and to see his strength is humbling."
She is grateful that God remains the same, He never changes. He is always there and He is the stable thing, the Rock in the middle of all the change "one thing that you can count on is that life is always going to be changing and curve balls will come and take you by surprise but God's the same. He never changes and is always there for us. And I think that's been one of the things I'm most grateful for."
What have been your three greatest challenges?
Toni leans back in her chair as the young woman serving us comes to bring our coffee. Toni compliments her earrings. The girl smiles, Toni sees people.
The Challenge in Clarity. The conversation shifts “I am really pleased that I am clearer about my priorities. I have discovered that less is more. But the challenge is to work out what that looks like for me practically, day to day."
She quickly places her challenge into context “For most women life is full and others will quickly fill your life for you if you are not focused on what is important to you. For me the demands of ministry, family and friendship can quickly fill my days. I love that I am clearer about my priorities, but working out how I can translate that clarity into a list that makes more room in my life, that is a challenge. What I found is that by leaning into the tension that this challenge created it actually grew my capacity as a wife, a mother and as a leader, my three top priorities. I am now always looking for creative ways to bring my fullest capacity to those things that I recognise are my God ordained sweet spots.”
The Challenge in Conversations. Another challenge for Toni has been leading a number of teams locally and nationally. She is a consummate people person but navigating the myriad of personalities was very intense and at times very challenging. She goes quite for a moment, drawing in a deep breath “having to have those crucial conversations around important issues. Conversations that are critical for the benefit of vision and for the whole team is certainly growth promoting.”
She leans in, I get the sense she is about to share something personal and profound “These conversations, although challenging actually grow my integrity because they create vulnerable moments as I step out and say things that are putting myself and what I believe on the line. Integrity because I am being true to who I truly am. I am being true to what God has called me to do and be".
The Challenge in Consistency. Toni shifts in her seat and makes a confession. It is comforting to hear that the challenge to maintain a healthy and honouring devotional life is a shared experience. “my time with God really defines me and even more so in my leadership roles because I believe that you can't give what you don't have." As I have wrestled with the challenge to remain consistent in my relationship with God my reliance on Him has grown. I want the life that fills me to be greater than the life I give out. For me this is what makes leadership sustainable”
This has been a hard lesson for Toni to learn and to live. I asked her if she could offer one piece of advice for women on a similar journey what would it be. Her response was quick and emphatic “set a time aside in your diary once a month. Time where you slow down and do whatever helps you to connect with God."
What advice would you give your younger self?
We don't want this conversation to end. What gems does Toni have to offer? She smiles "never doubt that God has His perfect plan for your life, know that nothing in your life is ever wasted. You may think that doing what you're doing is a waste of time and wonder, how is this going to contribute to what God has for my life. In everything God is preparing us for the good works that He has created for us." Toni hopes this advice will strengthen younger people in their walk with God. She wants women to know that God works to see you live life to the full and He will use the things that we are going through to prepare us for that life "when I look back on my life I can see how He has not wasted one thing and that what I'm doing now is something that He has for me and every life experience has given me capacity to do what He has called me to do."
Toni adds another encouragement for her younger self "be yourself. You don't have to try and be anybody else. Be who God has created you to be and grow in that. Understand who you are in Christ, who He's made you to be and be that woman. Be happy to be yourself. Don't try and be somebody else and God will develop you. When you speak, whatever you do is a reflection of the true you. Sometimes we try to be like somebody else and we have people that we look up to and we try and be like them. And while it is a great thing to have people that are examples, God has created us individually unique and we need to be ourselves and to be that woman."