As I have connected with dozens of PKs, I have often asked the question “Do you think your parents understood the struggles you had or the pressures you faced?” The only PKs who answer yes, their parents understood, are those whose parents are also PKs. Without fail the rest say no.
Barnabas Piper is the son of the well-known former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, founder of Desiring God Ministries, and current Chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary, John Piper. To say that he is the son of a “big name pastor” would be an understatement. John Piper has achieved, in many quarters, almost rock star status, especially among the “young restless and reformed” crowd. (I go back and forth in my own feelings concerning Piper, for what it’s worth. I sincerely appreciate much about him and his ministry ((i.e., the basic core of his Christian hedonism idea)) but also have disagreements with some aspects of his ministry. But that’s neither here nor there.)
When I heard that Barnabas had written The Pastor’s Kid I decided immediately that I wanted to read it. NOT because I wanted to hear personal stuff about John Piper. I’m long past the point of coating Christian celebrities in a veneer of sainthood or devilry. The fact is that Christian celebrities are like all Christians: capable of great good and great bad. Or, as Luther put it, simul justus et peccatore. No, I assume that John Piper is just like all of us who are seeking to follow the Lord: flawed, a cracked vessel, but a redeemed child of God.
While it is true that the fact that John Piper’s son wrote this piqued my interest, it wasn’t for the purposes of pastoral or ecclesiological voyeurism that I picked it up. It was rather because, as a pastor with a child, the issue is very near and dear to my heart and I felt that I might possibly hear in Barnabas Piper’s words thoughts that my own child might or might not be thinking. Truth be told, most pastor’s around my age worry a great deal about the effects that the ministry might have on our children. My wife and I certainly do. And while we work very hard to be balanced and to guard our child from certain debilitating effects in appropriate ways, the fact that she is a PK cannot be avoided, and, I should say, should not be apologized for. So I turned to the book with great interest.
It is a fascinating book. In it, Barnabas tells of his own journey, of what it is like being the son of a pastor, and of what it is like being the son of a pastor in the midst of the congregation his father pastors. The overall picture that emerges is one of gratitude mixed with a strong desire for pastors and churches to try to understand the unique position preachers’ kids (PK’s) are in.
On a personal level, Barnabas speaks of having to come to own his own faith and of feeling the challenge of working out his own faith in ways that, at times, was not like the ways his well-known father works out his faith. Raised as a believer, it was not until Barnabas underwent an intense spiritual crisis resulting from hidden sin that he came to understand (a) the severity of the destructive power of sin and (b) the exhaustive severity of the saving grace of God.
Barnabas is refreshingly transparent in telling his own story. He got caught up in hidden sin, his life fell apart, and God restored him and his marriage and his faith. Furthermore, Barnabas talks of how he was not always the friend he should have been or the leader he should have been. He tells of a youth minister lovingly confronting him about these things and of friends who have to occasionally remind him that they do not care that he is John Piper’s son.
The great takeaway in all of this for me is to remember that PK’s are on their own journey. Perhaps the most poignant statement Barnabas makes in the entire book is when he says, “Fewer PKs would walk away from the faith if we were freely allowed to walk away from our parents’ version of faith.” That, it seems to me, is a critical distinction: the faith and our parents’ version of the faith. Helpfully, and reassuringly, Barnabas nuances what he means by this:
What we need is room to explore. I don’t mean that all boundaries and parenting efforts should be forsaken; that would be foolish. But we need emotional and relational space to be different. I need to be able to come to God differently than my father does. I need to be able to express faith differently without being corrected or dismissed. I need to be free to have doubts, to speak them without recrimination, and to not know answers. I need to be able to be wrong and then find the right without parental hyperventilating and intrusion in my life. And I need a relationship that is deeper than theological particulars and lifestyle choices. In short, I need a parent’s love that runs so deep that no matter what lifestyle or theological choices I make, the relationship holds strong. This is not the same thing as validating all lifestyle choices or decisions; it just means loving deeply no matter what. Pastors need to know that a child’s exploration and wandering is not, in most cases, an effort to hurt them. It is an honest seeking of identity, truth, and life.
This is a needed qualification, and it is much appreciated. It does not dilute his point: PK’s need the freedom to walk their own journey with the Lord without feeling as if the abandonment of their parents’ categories is the abandonment of the faith itself. Of course, it is possible to abandon the faith itself, and parents are correct to raise their kids in the Lord and in the knowledge of the gospel, along with encouraging them to biblical fidelity. But I get Barnabas’ point. There is a kind of suffocating template we can force on our kids if we’re not careful. His point is well made.
Concerning pastors in particular, Barnabas stresses that PK’s need parents before they need pastors. PK’s don’t need sermons at home, they need normal, healthy, parent-child relationships. They do not want to be second place to the church (“What pastors need to realize is that their first calling is to their families, not the church.”). They need to hear their parents apologize when they are wrong (it seemed to me he stressed this more than a few times), admit their weakness, and be transparent. PK’s do not want to be reduced to sermon illustration fodder. Furthermore, he argues that it is soul-crushing for PK’s to see radical incongruity between what their dads are at home and what they are on the platform. Tellingly, he notes that his greatest times with his own father have been when they were simply doing father-son stuff together. This is a welcome reminder to me.
Barnabas also has a lot to say about the ways that the church can harm PK’s through wrongful assumptions and careless actions. For instance, the assumption that the PK knows all the answers, that he or she is a bible scholar, that he or she is (or must be) a perfect angel, or that he or she is an expert theologian. They do not like being held to a different standard from everybody else, being corrected by church members who think they should not do this or that because they are PK’s, etc. I suppose these kinds of things happen naturally enough, but it was a powerful reminder to hear a PK tell how frustrating, embarrassing and irritating this can be.
Finally, some aspects of the book, as I read them, cannot help but be the result of being John Piper’s son. For instance, Barnabas chafes under being asked, “What does your dad think about…” While this happens, I know, with PK’s in general, it surely must be the case that that kind of thing is going to happen a LOT more with John Piper’s son than with the children of other pastors. The same with folks trying to meet Barnabas’ dad through Barnabas, etc. Some aspects of this, whether Barnabas realizes it or not (and I’m sure he does), is less about being the son of a pastor than being the son of a celebrity.
The book is well written, honest, transparent, heart-felt, and avoids being disrespectful. On this last point, I kept thinking that this is the kind of book Frank Schaeffer needs to write about his dad instead of the (at points) inappropriate hit pieces he has penned. There is a way, in other words, to say these kinds of things without attacking one’s parents. Barnabas has modeled that way well in this book. John Piper actually wrote the foreword for the book, and he says that it was a painful read at times. I suspect that is so. It would be for me. Even so, I suspect Piper saw clearly the underlying current of respect, admiration, and appreciation from his son. I certainly did.
I have struggled with whether or not to offer this one criticism, but I think maybe I should. This is subjective, granted, but, while I truly found the work helpful and insightful, there was, at times, a degree of whine in it as well. It’s a fine line to walk, I suppose: telling of your struggles without sounding like you’re whining about your troubles. In Barnabas’ defense, he is very transparent about his own shortcomings, and he also says that PK’s cannot walk around as perpetual victims. This is true, and my wife and I have made the point to our daughter. He also clearly notes the upside of being a PK. I was grateful for this. But I do struggle a bit with an entire book-length treatment of these kinds of things. Of course, I’m putting Barnabas Piper in an impossible position here: “Tell your story. It is important. I need to hear it. But try to man-up while telling it!” Ha! Again, just a bit of a gut reaction on my part.
Overall, a strong piece or work, an important book, and one for which I am grateful.