THE PASTOR’S KID by Barnabas Piper (FAN AND FLAME Book Reviews)

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The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity by Barnabas Piper (David C. Cook, July 1, 2014, 160 pages)

[Disclaimer: Typically, I keep book reviews short. That’s not the way this one goes for reasons that will hopefully be apparent. It’s more of a “cup of coffee” review than a “scroll through the iPhone” review.]

In the spring, Dr. John Piper gave a guest lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia titled, The New Calvinism and the New Community. A man at our church is taking some classes at WTS, and he invited me to attend the lecture with him. I didn’t have to think about whether I would make time to attend or not; I mean, I have an entire row of books on a book shelf written by Piper.

In the lecture, Dr. John Piper commented on his “fatherly” influence on many. Here’s what he said,

I am part of the New Calvinism and feel a sense of fatherly responsibility to continually speak into it dimensions of biblical truth that I think it needs to hear.

During the Q&A that followed, student after student expressed their appreciation to Dr. Piper for his ministry. But I didn’t need others to tell me that Dr. Piper has had a fatherly influence. I already knew that it was certainly true for me.

However, John Piper never went to my Little League games. And he never gave me a piggyback ride or tucked me in at night or tromped through the Georgia woods with me looking for Civil War-era ruins.

Those things, John Piper did with his own children. Those things he did with his own son, Barnabas Piper.

The Foreword to the Pastor’s Kid

In his foreword to The Pastor’s Kid by his son Barnabas, John Piper writes,

You will ask, “Was it painful for me to read this book?” The answer is yes. For at least three reasons. First, it exposes sins and weaknesses and imperfections in me. Second, it is not always clear which of its criticisms attach to me and the church I love. Third, this is my son, and he is writing out of his own sorrows.

And this book was difficult for me to read as well, but for different reasons.

First, a part of me, a sinful part of me, wanted the book to give me the inside scoop on my hero—the backstage pass to all the gossip, you know, reporting TMZ style. And that’s not what this book is. Occasionally, a few table scraps fall from the actual Piper kitchen table, but that’s about all. And I'm actually thankful; the book and I are better for it.

Second, I am a pastor now, but I am not as aware as I should be of the unique challenges to being in a pastor’s family. And I said “the unique challenges of being in a pastor’s family” and not just a “pastor’s kid,” because when my wife read the book, she thought it could be titled “The Pastor’s Wife” for all of the overlap. Regardless, in the introduction, Barnabas writes of some pastors that need “a bucket of ice water in [their] sleeping face” (17). Perhaps I have been more asleep than I knew, or at least more drowsy.

But even though it wasn’t easy to read (when is ice water in the face easy?), and even though I might have (sinfully) hoped for a different book, let me share three ways Barnabas’ book helped me.

First, Barnabas, Thank You for Helping Me Be a Better Parent

Barnabas stuffs The Pastor’s Kid with great parenting advice for PKs. It commends things like “showing, not just telling, Jesus” and explaining the “why” behind the rules, that is, the values that give rise to the “dos and don’ts.”

But those were general ‘helps’ to me and my parenting. Here’s a specific one. The book raised my awareness of the potential collateral damage when family members make cameo appearances in sermon illustrations. I was already cautious of this, but Barnabas gave a few examples from his own life—a few difficult examples—that crystalized my awareness.

In fact, just last week, as I prepared my sermon, I thought of bringing my family into it. And I did, but first I ran it through a triple-reverse-osmosis filter so as to make it a generic illustration (“I heard one time of a…” or “Perhaps you could envision a time when…” sort of thing). Yes, this time the illustration lost some of its personal feel, but the result was fine; and more than that, my daughter kept her witness protection status intact.

The unique challenges PKs face tend to stack upon each other, creating a cumulative effect. And so the book focuses on them, but parenting PKs is not sui generius (that is, not fully in a ‘class of its own’). Every parent can benefit from the sturdy counsel. Thank you, Barnabas.

Second, Barnabas, Thank You for Freeing Me From Being An Expert on Everything

I couldn’t be a pastor if I had to be everything  - toeveryone  - all of the time. Pastoring under these expectations is a crucible, and as Barnabas writes, “downright stupid”:

In the Western church the role of a pastor has taken on responsibilities and definitions it ought not. The pastor is seen as the spiritual burden bearer of the entire congregation. He is the prophetic voice of authority… He is the answer man for questions on topics ranging from sex to stewardship to sanctification… He must be an expert accountant, theologian, psychologist, marketer, strategist, and orator. In short, he must exhibit every spiritual gift from God…

The cultural expectations on pastors are mostly unbiblical, entirely impractical, and generally downright stupid. We each expect the pastor to meet our particular need with expedience and wisdom. It is an untenable situation, a burden no man can bear. (98)

I do not think these expectations have haunted me in the settings that I have pastored. And to some degree, I hope hyperbole is involved in the description. But I can say this: even when the external pressures were not there (at least to such an extensive degree), the internal pressure that I apply to myself is often there.

So, too often, I do feel this pressure. And under it, I wilt, because we pastors were never meant to be everything to everyone all of the time.

Yes, Paul wrote that he was “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:19-27), but I think he means this in terms of his passion to reach people for Jesus (over and against lazy indifference); and he means this in terms of lowering himself to relate to people for the sake of Christ (“to the weak, I became weak”).

I do not think Paul intended for us (pastors and all believers) to strive for omni-competence, and embody every spiritual gift at once. That’s the job of the whole body working together in total reliance on the omni-competent God (cf., Ephesians 4:16, “when each part is working properly [in reliance on Christ, it] makes the body grow…”).

So thank you, Barnabas, for freeing me.

And Third, Barnabas, Thank You for Sharing Your Wounded-ness

Was I aware that PKs are often wounded—wounded by their fathers’ and wounded by their churches’?

I would have said ‘yes’ to this, but The Pastor’s Kid showed me the gravity of it all. I’ll give you a few places where the wounded-ness seeps through Barnabas’ words.

When describing the (very wrong) way that some people try to discern a pastor’s opinion through the pastor’s family, Barnabas writes

What are PKs to do? How do we respond [to those that should really be asking our father, not us]? The reality is, and I speak for numerous PKs, I do not care what my father thinks about many things. (58, emphasis added)

This sounds like a young man who is still healing.

But I get it. His father is a Christian celebrity, a pastor who is often asked to autograph Bibles. Yes, I’ve heard Pastor John talk about this, and it’s strange. I’m sure Barnabas is thinking, “Hey, there is a podcast specifically called “Ask Pastor John,” so send in your questions there, not to his son.”

Another place that the wounded-ness appears (at least to me), is when he talks about how pastors are often far too “serious”:

Pastors can be a serious bunch, inclined to be thinkers and systematic organizers of ideas. That’s good for sermons but often useless for relating to children. Actually, let me amend that. That kind of seriousness is good for relating to a scant few people in any age. (109)

For anyone familiar with John Piper’s ministry, especially his preaching, it’s hard to read this without seeing its pointedness towards his father, even if there is wider application to pastors generally.

A hallmark of John Piper’s preaching is seriousness (cf., comments on “gravity and gladness” in books like The Supremacy of God in Preaching). And I, for one, have actually appreciated the seriousness. But maybe I wrongly assumed there was a ‘switch’ that flips, and John Piper is, shall we say, ‘more normal’ when he is not preaching. I don’t know. But Barnabas does.

Just one other place to mention: consider the appendix that offers “Seven Rules for When You Meet a PK.” Number 6 on this list reads

6. Do not assume that we agree with all the utterances of our fathers. (146, emphasis added)

There are other words than “utterances” that could have been used.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by the potential for wounded-ness. Even without the PK dynamic in place, there is behind this dynamic for all children the supercharged father/child dynamic—for Barnabas and John, and for all of us. And this relationship will always either nurture or wound, or probably more likely, always some of both. I can relate when Barnabas said: “To this day, I still yearn to have a shared hobby with my father, something as simple as golf or hiking” (111). Barnabas, I know what you mean; me too.

Anyway, that’s probably enough on this.

But I don’t dwell on the potential for wounded-ness without purpose. For me, as with other aspects in the book, the wounded-ness raised my awareness; it adjusted the DEFCON level, and that’s good: preparedness should correspond to potential danger.

In the end, The Pastor’s Kid reminded me that as parents, we play for keeps. The wounds, and joys, and pains, and pleasures of parenting are written on our children with a Sharpie.

So, yes, The Pastor’s Kid explores the challenges of being a pastor and a PK, and thus it is a book for pastors and their children. But the book is for more than this demographic. The book offers countermeasures to all parents, children, and congregations—in other words, to all Christians.

Thank you, Barnabas, for sharing your story.

A Few Favorite Quotes

Our stories [the stories of PK’s] are different. Our parents are different. Our churches are different. But the pressures are largely the same. Our struggles are the same. And so we set off to know those struggles, to seek ways to avoid them, and to find what God would have us learn from them. (Barnabas Piper, The Pastor’s Kid, 29)

Many PKs simply don’t care that much about the finer points of theology, and in that way we are very much like most Christians. But we are not allowed to be normal Christians. The expectation is for us to be exceptional Christians. (Barnabas Piper, The Pastor’s Kid, 54)