Reflections,  Religious Abuse,  Religious Trauma

When Reputation is Currency

When reputation is currency, privacy is only afforded by the elite.

Reputation is used to buy status within the community, but the high price to be paid is autonomy and individuality.

Evidence is needed for a “good” reputation, and thus forced accountability, intrusive questions and betrayed confidence are the norm.

Reputation is often traded like stocks – church leaders covering for each other and defending one another, or tearing apart someone who stands in their way.

So many rules – each one serving a carefully crafted outward appearance.

Hundreds of do’s and don’t that are never really about God.

Instead its always “Put on a jacket! You don’t want anyone thinking you are a loose woman, do you?”

“Make sure to write your name on your tithing envelope so the staff doesn’t think you’ve stopped giving.”

“You can’t carpool to youth group with your guy friend, that will look scandalous.”

“Don’t loiter in the parking lot, people will think you’re making trouble!”

God knows the heart, but reputation earns your ranking among men.

When reputation is currency, life is spent grasping at water and chasing the wind; trying to control what is not in your power, trying to hold onto something that was never yours – because reputation lives in someone else’s mind.

Reputation is at the mercy of whims and moods of strangers and friends. It grows and dies based on whether they like you or not, how they interpret your actions and words, and what they choose to say behind your back.

Your reputation might be just the thing someone needs to depreciate in order to boost their own equity.

When reputation is currency, people are only a means to profit. The congregant is a low wage worker and the church is the CEO.

An entire childhood spent pursuing fleeting favor – never fully at rest.

Finally – a young adult. College meant a slightly longer leash. I didn’t notice at first I could breathe easier.

It was my first ever event with a college campus ministry when I heard the speaker say “Reputation is who people think you are, and character is who you really are. Focus more on your character than your reputation.”

Awe and respect flooded through me. In two sentences this man had summarized the church problem that had plagued my childhood and simultaneously provided a solution for a healthier way forward.

I instantly felt safer in this community that seemed to have its priorities straight. Finally there was a better way, or so it seemed.

But in time I would find out those words sounded fancy but rang empty. This new vehicle too, ran on the fuel of reputation.

As a ministry intern I wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol, even in moderation, even when off the clock – because of what other people might think.

As a ministry intern, I was never really off the clock, because the game of other people’s opinions doesn’t run on set hours.

Each week I drove a complicated maze through town to make sure that when taking students home, I never ended up with a male student as the last one in the car. Not because our male students were dangerous or because I had inappropriate intentions, but because there were rules designed for what others might think.

My best friend was failed and held back in ministry credentials training because of her bubbly personality. She was informed the decision was made based on what guys might think of her, and what other pastors might think of her supervisor.

I once accidentally freaked out my male pastor by stepping out of the room briefly to take a private phone call. Why? Because that left him alone in a room with a female intern and the door unexpectedly swung closed behind me. This was a problem not because of anyone’s intentions but because of what other people might think. It “looked bad” and now it was my fault. I sucked in my breath, afraid to go back inside. It was just another day of always feeling on edge, wondering what other people might think.

One evening, a few of us female interns and a male intern went downtown to grab food and we were sternly warned by a staff pastor to “be careful” with the male intern – because others might think we were up to something.

I almost got fired for one of the most Christlike things I’ve ever done. I let my boyfriend at the time sleep on the floor in front of the heater at our community house, after all my roommates said it was okay with them. There was no working heat where he was staying and it was a dangerously cold winter night. I almost lost my job after 7 years of proving my character, because of reputation. Clearly one mattered more than the other.

It’s unpredictable really, what other people might think. It’s all up to their mood, the kind of day they are having and their own unique backgrounds that we can never fully know. Carefully planning all my answers and actions based on expected reactions is exhausting and never foolproof. Its not if, but when you get burned.

I watched helplessly as a handful of female interns had full-blown panic attacks over whether or not my non-alcoholic amaretto flavored ice cream could sit in their freezer for about an hour in between errands, in a strictly “dry” household. These young ladies weren’t afraid the ice cream was sinful, they were afraid of what their leaders might think. Once again, I was unintentionally at the center of the chaos, involuntarily stirring the pot.

When reputation is currency, we buy all the wrong things. The earth is dying, children are starving, and people in our own neighborhoods don’t know how they will keep their electricity on this winter. Yet, here we were, worrying about the legality of ice cream?! I couldn’t do this much longer.

Year after year was filled with one reputation disaster after another, each one pushing me closer to the edge. I so badly wanted to be successful in this rat race, I wanted to be beloved. I desperately tried to do the “right” thing, but I never could by the constantly shifting standards, opinions, and “convictions” of others.

Finally, I withdrew my balance and closed my account. I stopped showing up to their nine-to-five. I could no longer buy or sell in most Christian circles. Perhaps reputation is the real mark of the beast.

When reputation is currency, our investments are worthless and our relationships are fake. We aren’t real people, we are actors.

When I pulled my reputation out of the ring, I lost my place in the running, but for the first time I owned myself. My personhood was the prize.

At last, I could breathe.

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