On Being John Piper's Son: An Interview with Barnabas Piper
First thing’s first, Barnabas. Why did you feel the need to write a book about being a pastor’s kid?
My inclination didn’t start out as a need to write a book. It started with a request from Table Talk magazine to write an article about the pressures of being a PK.
As I wrote the article it took the lid off a whole well of experiences and feelings and realizations. Then when I started hearing from PKs and pastors around the country in response to it I realized what I felt and wrote was not in isolation.
Most PKs relate to it, and nobody had written or said anything to help them sort through the hard things.
What was the best part about being a pastor’s kid? The worst?
The best thing about being a PK, as a kid, was being part of the church family. As much frustration as it could, and did, cause, it was the center of my social life and where I made my closest friends. I enjoyed being part of youth group, the chances to go on missions trips, and in general the centrality of church community in my life.
The worst part was the pressure and the expectations. Behave perfectly. Know your Bible. Have strong faith. Be in lock step with our parents. Be practically perfect in every way.
Your dad is John Piper, a pretty well-known pastor and author. When did you first realize that your dad was not a “normal” pastor?
I started to see that in junior high and high school. That was when he began to really gain fame nationally. But even through those years my experience with his ministry was almost exclusively in our local church. It wasn’t until college that I really began to intersect with his fame outside of Bethlehem Baptist Church.
You write about being a pastor’s kid, but was being John Piper’s kid so out of the ordinary that it changed the situation?
The difficulties PKs face are pretty much universal whether they are in a church of 100 or 10,000, whether their parents are famous nationally or just in the church. The national fame does add a level pressure and a layer of complexity.
I am 31 years old with a family of my own, and I still get held to a standard when people meet me and expect me to be something reflective of my dad. I still get responses to my writing wondering what my daddy would say if he read it. I can’t really escape it, so I just have to come to terms with and not resent my dad because of it.
The other thing to remember is that many of the challenges PKs can face are internal—in relationship to God and the church. That has nothing to do with the fame of our parents and everything to do with a genuine connection to Jesus or lack thereof.
You have a tat that I saw at lunch last week—it quotes a boy's father in the gospels, “I believe. Help me in my unbelief.” Why do you have that and does it relate to the book in any way? Did growing up in a pastor’s home make it harder for you to believe?
I got that tattoo shortly before my 30th birthday, so it was an adult decision to remind me of one of the most significant truths I have experienced. Faith is a constant tug-o-war between belief and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, following and quitting. I have been through some times of unbelief that ended up marking me and shaping me. They brought me really low and that was where I truly came to see Jesus in a genuine way and understand the profundity of His grace.
For me, being a PK did make belief harder. Being so familiar with all things biblical made it so hard to figure out what I knew versus what I believed. It wasn’t until all the stuff I knew was tested and I was found wanting that belief became a real thing for me.
You can't talk about PK without the P. And, we hear a lot that pastors were too into Jesus or the church to be a good parent. How was your experience?
I would not describe it that way. My dad deeply loves us (me, my four siblings, and my mom). I have never felt he was absent. Even now as an older man who could be mailing in the rest of his days he continually seeks to get better as a dad and grandfather.
What made it difficult for me was the intensity with which my dad connected to God and how he pursued Him. My dad is the most single-minded, driven, disciplined man I have ever known. That kind of intensity and focus can have the effect of distancing someone from those who are more, well, normal.
It’s not because he is distant in a lackadaisical or unaware way but because he is on a different plane of focus, fire, and faith. I don’t know how to get there and he isn’t really able to come to where I live either.
A few years ago, your dad indicated he needed some time to repair his relationship with his family… what was that like from the OTHER side?
I was very thankful when my dad took that sabbatical/leave a few years ago. It indicated to me, as a grown son, that my parents were still invested in parenting and that they saw some things in our family and themselves that needed work.
It is easy to get to a place where “whatever will be will be” and “that’s just the way things are.” But he and my mom didn’t do that. They made it a point to intentionally work on things with me and my siblings.
I hope that when I’m in my 60s I have the same awareness and care.
How has being a pastor’s kid, and writing the book on it, changed the way you want to parent your daughters?
You can’t write a book about the relationship between kids and parents and not examine your own life. For me this means looking at each thing I ask of pastors and apply it to my own life. Am I present? Am I engaged? Am I exemplifying both grace and repentance? Am I willing to let me kids ask questions about God and faith without stifling them? Am I forcing faith on them or setting an example of it?
I am constantly questioning myself, my methods, my attitude to gauge whether I am on the right trajectory as a dad. Parenting is hard, and I don’t know if I’m doing it right, but I am trying and praying and forging ahead.
What are a few ways pastors can apply The Pastor’s Kid to their daily lives after they’re done reading?
Throughout the book I point the finger at specific areas pastors often struggle. Some will connect with some pastors and some with others, and I try to give a sense of how they can change rather than just pointing out failures. The big areas are these:
Be dad for your kids, not a pastor. They don’t need sermons and counseling. They need conversation and trusting relationship.
Give your kids the grace to find Jesus in a way they can relate to him not just in the way you relate to him. This applies to theological particulars as well as lifestyle and church practices.
Engage your kids about the hardships of being a PK. You may not think they struggle. In which case you are wrong. They absolutely do. They may not even know how to express it or exactly what it is, but they feel the pressure and pain to some degree.
Maybe this book will provide the key to unlock the door to that conversation and lead to restored relationships between you, them, and God.
Feel free to jump in the comments and ask any questions you might have for Barnabas.