Barnabas Piper. The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2014. 160 pp. $14.99.
“Once a PK, always a PK. It is an indelible mark.” So says Barnabas Piper in his wonderful new book The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity. Being a pastor’s kid (PK) is something that nobody chooses, many dislike, and many more completely misunderstand. One person who gets it is Barnabas Piper. You may or may not know who he is, but the odds are good you know his dad, John Piper, who served as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota for more than three decades before stepping down last year.
I’ve never met Barnabas, but I felt camaraderie with him throughout The Pastor’s Kid. Both of us are lifelong PKs whose pastor-dads recently stepped down from the pulpit. More importantly, each of us met Jesus in our 20s only after realizing the faith of our fathers had not been our own. I related deeply with many parts of The Pastor’s Kid, but none so intensely as Barnabas’s story of being brought to a personal knowledge of Christ as an adult after years in a minister’s home. Again, that’s my story, too, and I suspect many have similar tales. This book will meet many PKs where they are, which is what makes it a volume to treasure.
At barely longer than 150 pages, The Pastor’s Kid is an honest, plain-speaking look at the struggles that befall children of pastors. A word of warning: If you’re looking for salacious anecdotes from the Piper household, do not buy this book. Barnabas Piper is not looking to air dirty laundry or even make sense of his own childhood. Rather, his book is an unflinchingly authentic call for pastors and churches to realize that pastor’s kids are just that—kids. They’re not little pastors or mini celebrities, but children who need the grace of Jesus to overcome the pitfalls of having public ministers as parents.
PKs are, above anything else, normal. Piper wants us to realize from the outset that PKs are not closer to God or less prone to sin by virtue of their lineage (25). This normalcy means that PKs are in the unenviable position of participating in ministry not necessarily because of calling but because of Dad:
A child doesn’t know the call of his pastor father. All he knows is the effects it has on his life. He doesn’t feel moved to ministry, because he’s not. Yes, it is the call of the child to honor his parents, but that is not the same as a call to vocational ministry. The call of the father is not the call of the child, but the ministry of the father creates an anvil-like weight on the child. He just feels the pressure of it. Even the best pastoral parents can’t protect their kids from this. And it is this pressure, in part, that drives so many PKs to break.
Where do PKs feel pressure? Piper gives us several examples, and my experience resonated with all of them. PKs are often held to extra-biblical behavioral standards to which the “regular” church kids are not held (47). As if that were not daunting enough, church members tend to expect PKs to fall in step behind Dad in each aspect of life. Describing it as a pressure to “stay in the lane,” Piper says that expectations about biblical knowledge, interest in theology, and even lifestyle mount up on PKs and summon them to look just like their parents: “The constant pressure to be something, do something, and believe something creates enormous confusion for PKs” (60). Piper makes it clear that he’s not discussing the desire of pastors for their children to be Christians but the cultural expectation that the children replicate the parents in all meaningful phases of life.
Reading this section I remembered episodes from my own life in which I could sense the pressure. When my musical tastes began to grow discontent with contemporary Christian radio, my parents took my interest in “secular music” in stride and encouraged discernment and not legalistic avoidance. But I can recall being admonished not to share my findings with the kids in youth group, since anything I recommended would come back on the pastor as his recommendation. Though this pressure was rare in my home, church life was different. I had to be “above reproach” alongside my elder father.
Being a pastor’s kid often means having to assume an identity that isn’t real. Pressure or even just desire to not reflect poorly on the pastor can result in frustrating years. It is a sobering thing to think back on all those years of Bible drills, vacation Bible school, Fuge camps, even leading worship and realize I was phoning it in to maintain the peaceable status quo. As Piper says, PKs know the “tricks of the trade” to being the pastor’s child.
True Knowledge of Grace
The key to relieving this often hurtful life of failed expectation and outsourced identity is true knowledge of the grace of Jesus. PKs need to have their innate sense of not measuring up exploded by the reality of God’s atoning love in Christ: “Only when Jesus becomes real to a PK can she begin to figure out what she is, who she is” (74). In an achingly beautiful section Piper writes that only grace can overcome the hopelessness and loneliness faced by so many PKs (93).
Piper’s words cut to my soul since for years I knew that who I was on the inside was a gross pall on my incredibly godly dad. I too felt hopeless, doubtful that change could ever happen to one who had been given so much and done so little with it. But that was only because I was looking for my savior in the wrong places. My hope did not depend on how proud I could make my pastor-dad but on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Once my hope met me in person and no longer by proxy, I was set free from the tyranny of false expectation and outsourced identity.
The Pastor’s Kid is a book that will hit where it hurts. But it’s also brimming with grace and light. If nothing else, every pastor should read the chapter titled “Pastor and Child.” Piper pleads with pastor-dads to be fathers first, not preachers. He writes with the tender voice of a son when he exhorts pastor-dads to find a way (at the expense of their ministry, if necessary) to identify with their kids. The pastor’s identity as a preacher or scholar is always secondary to his identity as a father.
I identified strongly with the last chapter, “PKs: What Are They Good For.” Piper closes his book by meditating on the blessings and opportunities that come with being a PK. For me, those benefits were legion: I was given an incredibly gentle and kind and loving childhood that was filled with Scripture, love of the church, and treasuring of the gospel. All of those were daily realities in my home, not just Sunday routines. Such an environment cannot save the souls of children, of course, but my home was an instrument by which my soul became more tender and more receptive to the reality of Jesus.
I should say that this book will not be of much benefit to readers looking to justify themselves, their parenting, or their bitterness toward the church. This is not a book for those eager to hear how right they were about their kids or their parents. There are no diatribes, long testimonials, or “how to” lists. Those who can come to this book with ears ready to hear will see that The Pastor’s Kid is a grace-filled call for the church to minister more faithfully to the children of pastors.
Who should read The Pastor’s Kid? It’s a must-read for PKs and their parents. It also is an invaluable guide for church members that will gently correct some misconceptions about how to minister to PKs. Piper speaks with the heart of not just a PK but a parent who is seeking to love his own children well. The Pastor’s Kid deeply stirred my memories of growing up and encouraged me to know that my feelings and journeys were not wasted.
Barnabas, from one PK to another: thank you!