Spiritual Concerns of the Pastor’s Kids
About the Guest
If the pastor has a good relationship with God, then his children must as well, right? Not necessarily. Barnabas Piper talks about the spiritual challenges he faced growing up in the home of renowned theologian and pastor John Piper.
If the pastor has a good relationship with God, then his children must as well. Not necessarily. Barnabas Piper talks about the spiritual challenges he faced growing up as the son of John Piper.
Spiritual Concerns of the Pastor’s Kids
Bob: Barnabas Piper remembers growing up as a pastor’s kid and realizing that he had never really made his faith his own.
Barnabas: I served in church—I loved serving with youth. At one level, I did have a passion for serving the Lord; but I had never actually really found a connection to Christ that was that kind of thing that you go, “If all else fails, I know exactly who Jesus is and He’s real and I can never doubt that.” I only had this sort of answer-based faith.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, February 5th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll talk to Barnabas Piper today about his move from shaky faith to solid faith. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I remember one of the things that almost kept FamilyLife Today from ever happening—
Bob: —was that you had six kids.
Bob: We had the conversation—because when we started FamilyLife Today, your oldest child was 17 years old;—
Bob: —your youngest was seven.
Bob: They were all in between there, and you were concerned that being on radio and talking about marriage and family—there’d be some potential blow-back for them.
Dennis: And I was married to a woman who felt even stronger about that than I did and was really concerned about losing our anonymity.
Bob: But you decided to go ahead and launch a radio program?
Dennis: I could never have guessed that doing that would have had a cost to it—and I don’t mean that altogether negatively—but a weight to it—to my children that I could never have understood without doing it. That’s part of why I enjoyed your book, Barnabas.
The guest on the program today is Barnabas Piper.
He has written a book called The Pastor’s Kid, and it’s subtitled Finding Your Own Faith—and I think the key word here is—and Your Identity. Barnabas, you talk, at the beginning of your book, about assumptions that people make about PK’s—
Dennis: —about preachers’ kids. Quickly go through those assumptions and kind of help us understand how pastors’ kids think about themselves.
Barnabas: These are common across pastors’ kids from large churches, small churches, et cetera. I mean, it’s—in having a chance to talk to as many as I did, this is one of the things that stood out to me.
The first main assumption is that the pastor’s kid has a good relationship with God. Obviously, our parents are the spiritual leaders of the church. Later in the book, I write about some things that I think are wrong with how people view the pastor and putting him on too high of a pedestal—but that’s a separate issue.
But the blow-back of that is—
— that if the pastor has that kind of relationship with God, then, his kids must as well—not giving us the room to be normal children / normal teenagers—who have a lot of questions, who don’t know the answers to everything, and who are growing in a relationship with God, or in some cases, we don’t have one at all.
Bob: Did you feel like you had to put on a mask and act a certain way because you were a pastor’s kid and misrepresent what was really going on in your heart and life as you were growing up?
Barnabas: For me, it wasn’t an active misrepresentation. It was more just deep down inside I did not know what I believed, but I knew all the right answers. So, it’s almost as if I thought I believed something that wasn’t really alive in me.
I know there are pastors’ kids who faked it, and I know there are some pastors’ kids who just flat-out rebel. For me, it was the identity piece. I did not have a strong identity in Christ because I only knew the answers. I didn’t have this living faith in me through a personal relationship with Christ in the same way.
Dennis: Your dad is John Piper.
I can see how someone would go, “Oh, man, he is such a theologian / such a man of God”; but I guess I have to ask you the question, “Why do you think people expect the kids to be other than just kids?”—I mean, normal kids who have the same sin nature, the same selfishness, the same sibling rivalry / struggles that other kids have. Is it our desire for having somebody—to put somebody on a pedestal and hoping their marriage and their family will all be perfect?
Barnabas: That’s a really tough question to answer. I think—I do think it stems from—I don’t know why people view pastors this way—but there is a sense that the pastor is morally superior / theologically superior—he has a connection to God that normal people don't have. And it’s almost as if that is a genetic thing that gets passed down to kids. So, I am genetically predisposed to a closer relationship with God than other people—is the way that it plays. Obviously, that is not true. Nobody would express it in those words, but that’s the way it feels:
“Because you share a genetic code with John Piper,”—or with any pastor—“you are, therefore, closer to God.”
Dennis: You actually use a secular illustration about a baseball player, who played for the Twins, who was your idol—
Dennis: —as a way of illustrating this.
Barnabas: So, growing up—so, I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We were just a few blocks from the Metrodome, where they did win two World Series Championships with Kirby Puckett. He was—he was short and stout. I was short and stout, as a kid. I loved baseball. He played the game with just this exuberance. So, me, as a fan—I looked at him and said: “He plays the game the right way. He’s awesome at baseball.” I just projected that onto all of his life—everything was great.
Well, it comes out, after he retires, that he had been accused of assaulting a woman in a bar and just sort of had this sorted history of misbehavior. It was like a sucker punch because I thought he had everything together.
Well, looking back on it, the problem was that I set the wrong expectation for him. I did not think of him as just as prone to make mistakes as any other person—just as prone to make bad decisions. I assumed that, since he was great at one thing, he would be great at everything. That’s the way that people often view the pastor’s family.
Dennis: What’s another assumption that people make about PK’s?
Barnabas: They think that we have a great relationship with our family because—and it stems directly from: “They’re closer to God. Therefore, they must be close to one another.” But any pastor’s family will tell you that they go through the exact same tensions as any other family—sibling rivalries, rebellion against parents, disobedience—because we are all born sinners. You pack us all into a house—I mean, you had six kids—there is going to be a whole lot of conflict in a house with two parents and six kids.
Dennis: Oh, yes, there was.
Barnabas: And so, I mean, I remember—when I was in high school, talking to a youth leader of mine, and talking about the tensions I was having with my mom.
My mom and I butted heads a lot when I was in high school. She’s a very strong lady, and I was a very strong-willed and not very respectful teenage boy. She was not going to take that nonsense from me.
I went in and didn’t get the kind of response that I hoped to get—not that I expected him to side with me, but it felt as if he was almost surprised that our family would be butting heads this way because we were the pastor’s family. And that—it just sort of shut the conversation down because, now, I felt like, “I can’t really talk to him about this because I’m expected to not have normal tensions with parents.” That kind of goes across the board—even today, I think my dad and mom are under great pressure to have perfect relationships with their kids, now that we’re grown—and relationships with parents—they’re not always perfect.
Bob: As you talked with other PK’s, who are now in their 20’s and 30’s, were they saying that their relationship with their parents still has strain to it?
Barnabas: Absolutely. And some of that is on the parents because pastors are so tied into their ministry—this is their life. They devote their lives to this—it’s their calling. If a child goes a different route—and I don’t mean walking away from the Lord—I mean, maybe a different expression of faith in the Lord or a different occupation as opposed to ministry in some cases—that can create tension.
Or in some cases, it’s a theological distinctive. One person goes a more reformed direction while another person goes a more Arminian direction, and they still have those. Then, other times, it’s the personality clash that’s inevitable in families. People fight because people don’t always get along. I mean, I don’t think there is a deeper explanation than that.
Bob: You know, I’m just sitting here, thinking about the fact that a pastor—a part of his vocation is to read/study the Scriptures deeply—to interpret, to make sense, to draw conclusions, to draw principles. You would think, “Well, somebody who does that as many hours as your dad did it would have a handle on how to live out their faith better than the guy who reads his Bible 30 minutes in the morning, three times a week.
So, the expectation—what’s wrong with that expectation that somebody, who is really digging deep into the Scriptures, is going to have a better handle on life?
Barnabas: Well, I think—let me turn the comparison a little bit—and let’s compare different pastors. If you assume that every pastor is devoting their life to Scripture and studying it in the same way, you’d think they would all have a better handle on it. But pastors don’t all agree on how to do things because Scripture is not easy to interpret. It can be interpreted different ways.
Figuring out what it looks like to honor Jesus with your life can have different flavors to it. Some people are very, very strict; and some people take things with the more open hand. Both of them feel like, “I’m living the life that honors Jesus”; and both of them are pastors. The theme that has to happen is grace—grace to forgive / grace to have the freedom to come at Jesus from a different place.
Pastors’ kids are not starting at the same place their parents are. So, we need grace to come at it in that way, and we need that grace from the church—the grace of giving us some space to make mistakes and to encounter God in a different way and to not always encounter Him the right way. I’m not saying that pastors’ kids get it right. I am saying we need the room to figure out how to encounter Christ.
Bob: Well, and you read your Old Testament. Godly kings and priests had ungodly offspring. So, the family dynamics, throughout the Old Testament, are not family dynamics where you tap into some spiritual vein and everybody just runs in the same direction; right?
Barnabas: Right. I mean, you look at say David and Solomon. Before Solomon went astray, he was a very godly person—he built the Temple—and he was dynamically different than his father.
Barnabas: And that’s normal. The apple does not always fall close to the tree.
Dennis: No, it doesn’t.
And what I want to talk about is—when your apple hit the ground,—
Dennis: —what happened?—because you had a crisis where that crisis ultimately helped you determine your spiritual address / your spiritual identity.
Barnabas: Yes; absolutely. Growing up, I came into college with a base understanding of the Bible, and theology, and faith that I didn’t realize was sort of abnormally robust because that was the nature of the home I grew up in and the church I grew up in. So, I go into my first Bible class at Wheaton. I realize there are people here who don’t know the characters of the Old Testament. They can’t list the 66 books of the Bible—I mean—those kinds of things that I had known since I was five. That gave me a sense of perceived identity because: “I’m a believer. I know these things. I know all the right answers.”
At one level, I did have a passion for serving the Lord. I served in church—I loved serving with youth.
I loved Jesus; but I had never actually really found a connection to Christ that was that kind of thing that you go, “If all else fails, I know exactly who Jesus is and He’s real and I can never doubt that.” I only had this sort of answer-based faith.
So, I got out of college, got married, had a couple daughters, and was working in publishing. Throughout all of this—even dating back to my childhood—there was this pocket of my life that I had never given over to the Lord—just these sort of doubts, and sins, and things that I just held onto. It’s kind of like the old story of the little white lie that grows bigger, and bigger, and bigger—it was like that. It was this streak of dishonesty, and it ended up costing me my job. My wife had no idea. She thought I was wonderful until I have to go home and say, “Hey, I don’t have a job anymore,” and then explain why, and explain that it was all my fault, and there were things she didn’t know—I hadn’t told her.
At that point, I was working for a man who was an elder at our church. There was a church involvement here, which, providentially, was really, really good for me. At the time, I was really, really not happy with that because, at that point, I was faced with the decision of: “I can do the hard work—the incredibly painful work of apology, of repentance, and of restoration.” I mean, it’s like post-surgery rehab. You have to rebuild everything and hope, against hope, that your spouse can trust you again. Or “I can just quit.”
I was finally kind of on the outside of faith, looking in, saying: “Is this worth it or not? Do those answers mean anything?” What ended up happening—and this is not any credit to me / this is the way that Christ shows up—is the answers all just kind of faded away. For the first time, I saw what it means to need grace.
I had always been able to explain what it meant to be a sinner—being born in sin, to have sinned, to have—“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,”—I mean, I could quote the whole Roman’s Road to you.
For the first time, I looked at myself; and I said, “I have no hope outside of grace.” That was when I began to understand exactly what all those answers meant—who Jesus really is / what is the significance of somebody who never made the mistakes I did dying on the cross for me—all of the gospel, that I believed, became meaningful. Yes, all of that restoration work was worth it. It has not been a terribly easy road; but that was when, all of a sudden, faith became real.
Since that time, I have finally been able to say: “This is my faith. This is the faith that I have in Christ. This is the interaction I have with God / this is why I need His Word,”— aside from—“I know I’m supposed to do this,” or “I know the right answers.”
Bob: Is that when you got the tattoo on your arm?
Barnabas: This was after the fact. I have a tattoo on my arm that says: “I believe. Help my unbelief.” That was several years later, kind of looking back on it and realizing, “That is the nature of faith—is, if you have encountered Jesus, there is always ‘I believe,’—and that does not go anywhere—but there is always a battle against unbelief—
Barnabas: —whether it’s in doubt or whether it’s in disobedience or questions. Those are sort of the bookends of faith in one sense—is “I believe,”—and that doesn’t go anywhere—and “Help my unbelief,” which is the constant need.
Dennis: A statement that God used in my life to create the same kind of spiritual awakening—a determination of spiritual identity, as you described it—occurred when I was 20 years old at the University of Arkansas. There was a statement made by a preacher from Brooklyn, who was preaching in the Ozarks.
Here is what he said—
—see if you can resonate with this. I’ll say it twice—the first time pretty quickly. He said: “I spent a long time trying to come to grips with my doubts when, suddenly, I realized I’d better come to grips with what I believe. I have since moved from the agony of questions that I cannot answer to the reality of answers that I cannot escape. And it’s a great relief.”
I’ll give this to you again. This was Tom Skinner who said this: “I spent a long time trying to come to grips with my doubts when, suddenly, I realized I’ve got to come to grips with what I believe. I have since moved from the agony of questions that I still can’t answer to the reality of answers that are inescapable. And it’s a great relief.”
That’s the description of peace—
Dennis: —because as you confronted Jesus Christ, you realized He loves you as you are. You didn’t have to be John Piper’s son.
You’re Barnabas. You’ve been given an incredible gift, and you have encountered Christ, and He has changed your life from the inside out.
Barnabas: And the thing that I most needed, at that point, was to realize that my identity in Christ had nothing to do with my last name because I was at a point where I had ruined whatever significance my last name brought me, at that point. I felt like I had ruined—and that was when Christ came in. So, there was no “Jesus and….”—it was “Jesus.” There was nothing else because everything else was on the rocks, at that point.
So, the phrase you just said that wraps it up—it’s not focusing on the doubts. It’s when Jesus is there—there is no denying it / there is no doubting it. Everything else will tug, and pull, and be a struggle—sure—but that doesn’t change, and it doesn’t go away.
Bob: I am just curious—there had to be some perks of being a PK. [Laughter]
Bob: So, what—and not just a John Piper son PK, but I would think every PK has some things—that they look back on and go, “Well, I did get this, or this, or this.”
Bob: What are those things?
Barnabas: For me, as challenging as things were, I loved the church. I loved the big- picture church, but I loved being in church. The majority of my community and relationships came through church. I love the familial aspect of it.
Longer term—and this is true for a lot of PK’s—is all of that biblical knowledge you get—the raw material of biblical truth have enormous value, even if you have no idea what to do with them, because God can show you what to do with them later on; but when you find out later that you learned a whole bunch of stuff that you didn’t even realize you were learning.
I have been through just about anything with the church that a person can be through—both at working at one and growing up in one—and I love the church now. A lot of that comes because as a pastor’s kid—you get to see all of the ups and downs of the church. You get to see the benefit that it brings. You get to see the blessing that it brings on people. But you also get to see the hardships, and you get to see people learn how to sort through them.
I got to watch my parents walk through some very hard things at church, which could have made me dislike the church; but instead, it made me go: “It’s worth it. You stick it out for this.” Then, there is just this sense of pastors’ kids are in unique position to serve in the church because they basically had an apprenticeship. They got to watch what it takes to serve—the difficulties and the blessings—they get to see all the different kinds of people in the church.
I know, when people come out of seminary and head into ministry, they are often shocked by just how difficult the people of the church are. [Laughter] Well, that’s what happens when you put a bunch of sinners in one room; but a pastor’s kids will have seen their parents walk through all of that—so it’s going to be less shocking. I’m sure that the shock of firsthand experience is there; but they’re in a position, where they go: “Oh, I know this lady—there was a lady just like her at my church,” “I know that couple—I’ve seen them.”
There is just this ongoing sense of—pastors’ kids are uniquely set up to be a blessing to the church, whether it’s vocational ministry or just being involved in it because they understand the challenges of other pastors too.
They—I feel like I’m in a position to support people in ministry, maybe, in a different way than a lot of lay people are because I just intuitively know what they are facing on an average Sunday, or on an average Wednesday, or whatever the case may be.
Dennis: Well, I shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to ask Bob to tell about your book—and that’s not what I shouldn’t do, by the way. We need to tell people—
Bob: We should do that.
Dennis: —about the book, but I’ve got one more thing I want you to do before we are done here that—I don’t know—it just seems right.
Bob: Yes. We do have copies of Barnabas’ book. It’s called The Pastor’s Kid, and they are available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Whether you are a pastor’s kid, know somebody who is, or just would like to understand a little bit about what it’s like to grow up in a pastor’s home—maybe there is a friend of yours that you’ll understand better as a result of reading a book like this.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.”
You’ll find information about the book, The Pastor’s Kid, available. You can order it from us, online; or if you would prefer, you can call us to order. So, again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. The toll-free number is 1-800-FL-TODAY. That’s 1-800-358-6329—1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.”
And quickly, I want to let folks know, Dennis, about next week—National Marriage Week. We are celebrating, here at FamilyLife, in a big way. We’re going to do a lot of that celebrating via social media. So, if you are not yet a friend of ours on Facebook® or if you’re not following us on Twitter®, let me encourage you to connect with us via social media. We’ll have some fun things happening next week and some good opportunities for you to make some special Valentine’s Day plans and build into your marriage relationship.
So, again, let me encourage you to connect with us via social media.
You can do that by going to FamilyLifeToday.com and scrolling all the way down to the bottom of the page. You’ll see the icons there for Facebook and Twitter. Just click on those. Or, if you’re an experienced user, you can go to Facebook and search for us, FamilyLife Today, or follow us on Twitter, @FamilyLifeToday.
Dennis: Well, it’s been a treat to have Barnabas Piper with us. I have concluded many a broadcast by turning to the guest and saying, “I want to seat your mom and your dad across the table from you,”—it’s a little bit of Bob’s question. There have been some perks to having your mom and dad raise you. I’m going to give you a chance to give them both a tribute here, speaking to them in first person. So, you address them—“Mom/Dad, I want to thank you for….” Can you do that?
Barnabas: I can.
Mom and Dad, I want to thank you for getting married in 1968 and staying married. As a young married man, that is an example that I always aspire to. I want to thank you for always being present. You were there, physically—you made time for me. You made my life easy, growing up. You got me from Point A to Point B, and you maintained a home that was stable in the midst of a pretty crazy ministry schedule.
I want to thank you for continuing to get better as parents as you get older. People can mail it in—parenting is not easy. I am learning this, and I am sure I will continue to learn as time goes on. Now, in your late 60’s, you are still pouring yourself into figuring out how to be better parents all the time. You haven’t quit. You haven’t given up, and that is an example for me.
And I want to thank you for the biblical basis that you gave for everything. I know we’ve had our differences on lots of things, but I cannot down-play the value of a biblical foundation in teaching, and in standards, and in understanding the Scripture, and in shaping a mindset that way because it has been formative for me.
And last, I want to thank you for teaching me to love reading and writing. You modeled it. You brought it into our home, and you engaged in it with me. It has been one of the greatest sources of enjoyment; and now, something that I can hopefully bless other people with—and that is all credit to you.
Bob: FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.
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