What’s with the PK?
About the Guest
Pastors' kids are just like other kids. But the environment they're in is more intense. Barnabas Piper, son of beloved pastor and author John Piper, talks about the pressure and challenges he's experienced being a pastor's kid.
Pastors’ kids are just like other kids. But the environment they’re in is more intense. Barnabas Piper, talks about the pressure and challenges he’s experienced being a pastor’s kid.
What’s with the PK?
Bob: If you are a PK—a preacher’s kid—sometimes, you wonder, “Which does dad love more—me or the ministry?”
Barnabas: I know of some pastors who have stepped out of the ministry because of the effect it was having on their family. I have the utmost respect for that decision. I think that is a remarkable sense of priority. I know other pastors whose families have fallen apart because they prioritized ministry over their kids. I have a lot less respect for that decision. It is a burden on the family—the amounts of pressure that the pastor bears.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, February 4th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We have a PK joining us today—a preacher’s kid—with insights on what it’s like to grow up in a pastor’s home. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Thanks for joining us. When I was growing up, there was a TV show called What’s My Line? Do you remember What’s My Line?
Dennis: I do.
Bob: They’d bring out somebody, and the—sometimes, the panel had to be blindfolded because the person they brought out was famous.
Dennis: So, we’re going to blindfold radio listeners?
Bob: We’re going to blindfold our radio listeners because we have a pastor’s son joining us—but we’re not going to say who the pastor is or who the son is—at least, not right away; right?
Dennis: We’re just going to use his middle name. Somebody is going to think they are going to Google® it, and they are going to figure it out—but I’m just going to welcome him by the name of William. William, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Barnabas: Easy for you to say. It’s great to be here.
Dennis: It is easy for me to say. William is married to his wife Lesley since 2005. They have two children and live near Nashville. A bunch of people go, “I know who that is.”
Bob: “I think I know,”—yes.
Dennis: “I think I know who that is.” But William has written a book about being a pastor’s kid. You begin the book, William, by talking about a pressure cooker.
Explain why you compare being a PK to a pressure cooker.
Barnabas: That example comes from the fact that PK’s are made of the same ingredients as any other kid is—you know, we are just normal people. When food is cooked in a pressure cooker—it’s all the same ingredients—you throw a pot roast in there, and you throw the carrots in there. You throw the potatoes in there—whatever it is—but the steam pressure makes it cook at a higher temperature. So, it cooks faster. There is this high-pressure/high-temperature environment. Everything is intensified.
That is what it is like to be a pastor’s kid in the church environment. You’re this normal person—made up of normal people stuff—in this intense, high-pressure environment because of the expectations / because of the scrutiny that is placed on you, as pastor’s kid.
Bob: Do you remember when it first dawned on you that there was something different about you than the other kids that you were going to church with?
Barnabas: I remember instances—going all the way back to kindergarten, first, and second grade—when I noticed that I was treated differently. At that age, you don’t have the self-awareness to think this sort of expansive “I live a different life.” But I mean—I remember being expected to answer the Bible trivia questions that other kids couldn’t answer / being expected to not run in church when all of my friends were running in church. I mean—those little things that stand out in your mind when you are a small child, and it just sort of escalated as time went along.
Dennis: And so, how long were you in the cooker? I’m picturing my mom’s pressure cooker, Bob. I don’t know if your mom had one. It had this little metal top you’d put on it that kept the steam in to a certain degree.
Dennis: How long were you in the pot?
Barnabas: Well, I was born three years after my dad became a pastor; and then, he retired on my 30th birthday. So, my entire life—up to the age of 30—was as a pastor’s kid.
Bob: And you would say—even after you went to college / even after you were out of the home, got married, started your own family—
—you’re still in the pressure cooker?
Barnabas: Yes. Especially, every time I go home, but—and here is a hint as to who my dad is—he’s more well-known than just a pastor of a local congregation. So, when I left and went to college, the awareness of me went with me. People still knew who I was, and I still lived under those expectations.
Bob: We should probably go ahead and tell the listeners; don’t you think?
Dennis: No, I think we need to go a little bit deeper here. You—in writing your book—which we’ll share the name of it in a minute—that will keep people from Googling it and finding out who you are ahead of time. You interviewed 40 PK’s—both men and women?
Barnabas: Yes, at least. I mean, it was 40 sort of formal interviews, at least; and then, just dozens of conversations I had over the years with pastors’ kids.
Dennis: Was there a single theme that you heard that just resonated with you as a young man in the cooker?
Barnabas: I interviewed them because I wanted to know if my experience was normative or if I was crazy—
—because I had this sense that I wanted to write something, but I didn’t want to misrepresent it. I was basically just looking for: “Did they share an experience with me?”
It was almost as if they had the teacher’s answer key and were feeding answers back to me, in terms of certain phrases / certain experiences that they gave in terms of: “Everybody is watching me,” “I was expected to live to a higher standard.” There were some people who had very, very difficult experiences, where their parents made life very hard on them. There were others whose parents were great, but they still felt it—just in the pressure of the church.
But those things—the expectations and the scrutiny—and then, the third thing is difficulty finding your own spiritual identity because God is just ubiquitous when you’re a pastor’s kid—He’s dad’s job. He’s all around you all the time. He’s talked about at the dinner table. You’re at church every Sunday, but there is not a personal connection.
Finding that spiritual identity and relationship with Christ is the third big thing that PK’s struggle with.
Dennis: Yes, that’s one of the things I wanted to ask you about because I have counseled and talked with and interacted with a number of PK’s and MK’s—missionary kids. One of the interesting things they’ve talked about is being in the shadow—which can affect your identity.
Dennis: How much did you feel like you were in your dad’s shadow and didn’t know who you were, as a follower of Christ? And here is the thing—I now get it. Having had a number of these MK’s and PK’s tell me this, I fully get it now; but go ahead and share it with our listeners how you felt.
Barnabas: I wouldn’t have put it in those terms just because I don’t think I was that aware of it until later on; but in retrospect, I would say, “Being in the shadow of my dad and his very defined, well-expressed belief in and relationship with God caused me a great amount of difficulty—not because he did anything wrong—
—but because it wasn’t my own.”
It wasn’t something that I would’ve expressed in the same way he did, and it wasn’t an experience of me coming to Christ in just an “I’ve met Jesus in a personal way.” It was “I know of Jesus because I just—that’s what pastors’ kids do.” We know everything about Jesus. We can answer all the questions. We can answer the questions about the questions, but there is not a sense of “I know what I believe.” There is only a sense of “I know what I know.”
And so, for me, it wasn’t until later on—when through a series of sort of crisis situations—that I came, face to face, with what my need for grace was / what grace really is and who Jesus is—and realized, “I can come to Him as me instead of just in the terms that my dad believes in Him.”
Dennis: Instead of being the son—
Dennis: —of John Piper.
Bob: Do you think—and we’ll just let that sink in here. We’ll call you Barnabas now that—
Barnabas: Thank you.
If you’d kept calling me William, I probably wouldn’t have answered. I would have gotten confused. [Laughter]
Bob: Do you think that the scrutiny and the pressure, for you, was intensified because your dad’s written two dozen books and he’s well-known all around the world? I mean, he’s not just the pastor of the little church down the street that’s got 200 people coming to it—he’s a big deal.
Barnabas: I think it was intensified after I left home for that reason. I think, prior to leaving home—for a couple things. One is just the growth of his ministry coincided with me kind of coming of age. Through my elementary and junior high years, he was beginning to be known; but he was not any sort of really, really well-known, international figure—he was a pastor and an author.
The other factor is that every pastor’s kid, in the context of their congregation, feels similar things. It can be a church of a 100, or it can be a church of 10,000. In that congregation, there is the same sense of: “People are watching. I’m being held to a standard,” et cetera. For me—once I left home, I began to feel the rest of that—
—because, then, on the college campus that I went to—you know, I went to Wheaton College—people there knew who my dad was. So, there was this sense of people there expected me to be somebody because my last name is Piper.
Then, I got into Christian publishing. People there are expecting me to be somebody. You know, my family—we would go to church. People there expect me to be somebody, even though it’s a church that’s 400 miles away from Minneapolis—those kinds of things.
Dennis: You know, it’s really interesting to hear you talk about this because here—your father is a man who has been used by God—and your mom too—to minister to a lot of people, locally, in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area but, also, nationwide. You don’t think of the ministry being a cross that the kids have to carry—
Barnabas: It’s true.
Dennis: —but it is! It’s almost as though your father’s success / his depth of ministry is a unique burden for you, as a young man—that not many in the country can even begin to fathom.
Barnabas: Yes, and I think that’s true for every pastor, scalable to size. One of the things I say, very early on, in the book is that pastors are called into ministry. Most pastors go into ministry with their wives feeling the same call—they are in tandem. They’ve talked through this, and they are going into it together. Their children—not called into ministry—they are just along for the ride.
Barnabas: And so, the byproduct of the ministry is what you just described—it’s some of those pressures. Only each individual pastor can know how they have to deal with that in their own family. I know of some pastors who have stepped out of the ministry because of the effect it was having on their family. I have the utmost respect for that decision. I think that is a remarkable sense of priority. I know other pastors whose families have fallen apart because they prioritized ministry over their kids. I have a lot less respect for that decision. But it is a burden on the family—the amounts of pressure that the pastor bears.
Bob: Do you remember a time, as a teenager or preteen, when you thought to yourself, “I wish my dad wasn’t a pastor”?
Barnabas: I grew up in Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis. It’s a pretty diverse / pretty rough neighborhood. Just like any kid, I would take my bike out of the garage; and I would go ride around the neighborhood, just having fun. I must have been—I couldn’t have been any older than ten years old or right around then. I was riding around, and I ran into a group of neighborhood boys who I didn’t know. They were from a different part of the neighborhood. They stole my bike—knocked me off the bike, laughing, jumped on it, rode away. I was about three blocks from home.
I run home crying and I talked to my dad about this. He used that as lesson to me on suffering for the sake of the gospel—meaning: “We live in this neighborhood because it is where we are called to live. So, hard things happen as part of that calling.” My feeling, of course, as a ten year old, is: “I do not care! I want my bike back.” The pastor is looking at this from a different perspective, going: “There’s a lesson to be taught here. There is a calling here.”
He wasn’t wrong, but it didn’t feel right to me.
Dennis: Truthfully, I read that—and I guess I got a little emotional because I was very intentional with my kids about teaching things that occurred in everyday life. There is certainly a good use for that, and we have to teach our children as we walk by the way—Deuteronomy 6 talks about that. But the lesson here is: “Sometimes, our kids—as you just well described—need a hug and need to hear, ‘I’m sorry. Now, let’s go see if we can find those guys,’”—just like you said.
But for a pastor, that’s almost antithetical. I don’t mean that they shouldn’t be human, in terms of being empathetic, because there are pastors, who are listening to our broadcast, right now, who are—but we’re all about teaching / we’re all about lessons. We’re all about passing on truth and, certainly, to our own children.
Bob: And we’ve all heard the stories of PK’s, who grow up in homes where, for whatever reason, those kids get to their independence and they go: “You know what? This was for the birds. I’m going to have a different kind of life going forward.” You have to wonder how many of those dads go: “Really? I gave my life to the gospel so that my kids could burn out on it and walk away?”
Barnabas: There is no single reason why that happens, but I think the pressure cooker aspect of things is part of it because a higher percentage of pastors’ kids, according to Barna Research—a higher percentage of pastors’ kids don’t leave than any other kid. It’s about the same rate; but I would say, “It is more noticeable when it’s a pastor’s kid because it’s the pastor’s kid.” People expect the pastor’s kid to get it right—not to leave. So, when whatever percent leave, then, it’s noticeable.
But it is that pressure—and it is the sense that because of that pressure—it forces strong reactions. There’s either—on the one hand, this sort of: “I’m going to play this game.”
You become—and that was my reaction—I didn’t really walk away from the church, but you learn how to fake it really well. You may not even realize you are faking it. But then, you’ve got the pastors’ kids on the other side—who look at it and go: “I’m not playing that game. I’m done with it. I’m washing my hands of this.” As soon as they can, they are out the door—it might be at 15, it might be at 16, it might be 20—and they are just done with it.
Dennis: And there is a lot more to this story, but I’m going to jump process. I’m going to take you all the way to Chapter 9 in your book—“Seven Rules for When You Meet a PK.” I just want you to go through those because we’ve got a lot of people who go to church, who are listening to our broadcast—they aren’t a pastor / they don’t have PK’s—but they are relating to PK’s and to pastors. These seven rules—I think will be helpful.
Barnabas: Alright; rule number one: “Do not ask us, ‘What is it like to be the son or daughter of…?’”—in my case, John Piper. Now, I think that might be more particular to the son or daughter of somebody who’s well-known.
But I think pastors’ kids, in any context, get that: “What’s it like to be the pastor’s kid? What’s it like to be this or that?” We have no idea how to answer that question. We only have one set of parents. So, that’s a question we honestly cannot answer.
Rule number two: “Do not quote our dads to us.” [Laughter] I’m just going to let that one stand because I’m sure any child of any parent in any profession does not want to have their parent’s words put in their face as a corrective, or as a joke, or as anything else—just let it be.
Number three: “Do not ask us anything personal you would not ask of anyone else.” That, I think, is one of the most applicable things to any member of a church because it’s one of the ones that people do with the best intention and having no idea that is actually piling on the pastor’s kid.
What I mean by that is—there is this awareness of the pastor’s kid’s life. People used to come up to me and ask me about how school was going, and how my Friday night football game went, and my prom date, and what college I had selected, and those kinds of things—
—things that they would not have known about any of my peers. It gives this sense of: “People are in my business,” and it is not done out of a malicious heart. People are genuine and caring, but they don’t realize that being a little too genuine and caring—it piles up.
Bob: You are sitting there, thinking, “What else do they—
Bob: —“know about my life?! I don’t have any privacy at all.”
Barnabas: And it’s the cumulative effect of it—in the sense that, if only one person did that, you’d forget it. But if ten people on a Sunday do that, then, you just look around and go: “Everybody’s watching me. They all know stuff.”
Dennis: And you make a point in your book—I forget exactly how you say it—but you said, “There are a lot of people who know of me and know a little bit about me, but they really don’t know me.”
Barnabas: Exactly. Yes, there’s that distinct differentiation between those friends who I have a trust relationship with. They don’t think of me as the son of anybody. They think of me as Barnabas, and they are my friend. I can confide in them and vice versa.
So, if they came up and asked me about something personal, that is because we are sharing in that element of life. If somebody, who I don’t know very well does, then, it’s just they know something of me because of whatever platform I share with my dad.
Number four: “Do not ask us anything about our dads’ positions on anything.” [Laughter] One of the things that pastors’ kids—and I think this is probably true for just religious leaders in general—the children of religious leaders—we are expected to walk in lock-step with our parents on everything—that could be political positions, theological positions, lifestyle positions—whatever the case may be.
And just like you, the listener, are not in lock-step with your parents on everything—and I’m sure you’ve butted heads with them about something—we do the same thing. We ought to have the freedom to do the same thing—to form our own opinions, obviously, under the banner of what is biblical, what it is true, what’s honoring to Christ. But whether it’s political, theological, lifestyle, or anything else—we need to have the freedom to develop our own identity and opinions.
The more we get asked about what our dad thinks about something, the less freedom we have to differ from that.
So, number five: “Do not assume you can gain audience with the pastor through us.” He has an assistant for that.
Bob: People tried to do that with you?!
Barnabas: Absolutely: “Hey, would you give this to your dad? Hey, would you let your dad know…? Do you think your dad would be willing to…?” People still do that to me.
Bob: “Would you ask your dad if he would come speak at this?”
Barnabas: People still do that to me, and probably now more than ever, because I work in a church resourcing position with Lifeway Christian Resources. I have access to a lot of church leaders; and so, people will come to me and go: “Hey, do you think your dad would be willing to do this?” “Do you think I could get on the phone with him?”—things like that.
I mean, it happened growing up too. People would hand me something and say, “Hey, could you bring this to your dad?” I just wanted to go, “The church office is open Monday through Friday for drop off.”
Bob: “Here’s the number,” —yes.
Barnabas: That’s right. So, number six: “Do not assume that we agree with all the utterances of our fathers.”
That kind of relates to “Don’t ask us about our dad’s position on anything;” but our parents say things that we do not agree with. Their stance on things may differ from ours.
In my dad’s case, it’s often the fervor with which he says something—I would have said it very differently than he does. That doesn’t mean that I think he is wrong, necessarily, but it does mean that I’m not going to be nearly as excited about what he said as you are. And this is—and all of this functions under the banner of normal parent/child relationship.
Dennis: Of course! We all get it. Everybody is grinning, who is listening to our broadcast, right now.
Barnabas: So, really, all of these are trying to lay the groundwork of “Let us have a normal relationship with our parents,” because that’s where things can be healthiest.
Number seven: “Get to know us.” We talked about that just a moment ago, in terms of getting to know of us. We—pastors’ kids need, as much as anything, real close friends. And like anybody, we can’t be close friends with everybody; but we need people who simply care about us, as a friend.
As a mentor, I’ve had a handful of people who were the mentor-types for me—paid zero attention to my last name—and they were very explicit about that. They said: “I know who your dad is, clearly; but the reason I want to have this relationship with you is because I see something in you that I want to help you develop. I want to help you grow spiritually. I want to help you grow in your abilities,”—those kinds of things.
Then, I have the friends. Some of them I’ve known since I was 12. Some of them I developed in college—some in more recent years, who—the best ones who didn’t know who my dad was beforehand. When I met my wife, she did not know who John Piper was; and I thought it was fantastic! [Laughter] It allows for an honest-to-goodness friendship that is built on identity, and shared life, and trust, and building each other up—not on any sense of: “I’m friends with somebody who has a famous last name,” or “…who has a position,” or—in a normal pastor’s kid’s case, that sense of: “Can I really be myself?
“Can I express my doubts and my fears and my struggles without feeling like someone is going to heap judgment on me because the pastor’s kid is not allowed to have those things?”
Dennis: And there are a lot of listeners who, right now, are thinking, “Who can I give this broadcast to?—my pastor?” Yes. “….a missionary?” Yes. But you can also listen to it, as a couple—as a mom and dad—and think about this as well. Maybe, you are a Sunday school teacher—maybe, you are pressing the kids to be something and not allowing their own identity to shine through.
These principles that you are talking about—they go across the struggle that every teenager has, which is determining who he is / who she is: “What’s my identity? What’s my spiritual address? Who am I in Jesus Christ, and what does He have for me in my generation?”
Bob: Yes, if you really want to love your pastor well, I think you get a copy of a book like this and you read it so that you can relate to him and relate to his family better.
In fact, for that matter, for anybody who is serious about their walk with Christ—I think a book like this helps you understand what it is like to grow up in a home where Christ is at the center / where church is a priority and how that can feel for a pastor’s kid or for any child who grows up in a ministry-minded family.
We’ve got copies of Barnabas Piper’s book, The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity. It’s in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com to request a copy of the book; or you can order it from us by calling 1-800-FL-TODAY. If you go online, FamilyLifeToday.com is the website. There is a link in the upper left-hand corner that says, “GO DEEPER.” That will take you to a place on the page where you can easily order The Pastor’s Kid online. Or if you’d prefer to call, you can order over the phone—1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life and then, the word, “TODAY.”
Now, let me just say how grateful we are to the folks who make FamilyLife Today possible—those of you who pray for us and who help support this ministry, financially. Want to let you know about a couple of things that are going on this month. Next week is National Marriage Week.
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Also, I want to let you know that, during the month of February, we are asking FamilyLife Today listeners—those of you who are long-time listeners—to consider joining with us as monthly supporters—what we call Legacy Partners. It’s a great way to stay connected with this ministry, month-in and month-out, find out about what God is doing as a result of your support and to stay connected with resources to help strengthen you in your marriage and your family relationships.
If you’d like to find out more about becoming a Legacy Partner, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper right-hand corner that says, “I CARE.” All the information you need is available right there.
Now, hope you can be back with us again tomorrow. Barnabas Piper is going to be here again. We’re going to continue our conversation about what it’s like to grow up as a PK—a preacher’s kid. Hope you can be here for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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