I’ve been really excited to post this interview with Barnabas Piper, author of the soon-to-be released book ‘The Pastor’s Kid’. I was fortunate to get an advanced copy of the book and, in complete honesty, it was a great read. One I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend. Join me now in this interview as I ‘speak’ with Barnabas via e-mail about all things Piper! What was it like growing up as son of the well-known evangelical pastor, John Piper? Was Dad the same in person as in the pulpit? Do pastor’s kids really have tricks they use to get past the congregation? Why did you write a book about being a pastor’s kid? All this and more. Enjoy!
The first thing I’d like to ask you, Barnabas, is would you share a bit about where you were born and raised? Feel free to actually throw in how old you are. How many siblings, etc.? From what I understand you’re a city boy and the neighborhood you grew up in wasn’t the easiest. Is that true?
I’m 31. I grew up in Minneapolis, MN just southeast of downtown in a neighborhood called Phillips. I have three older brothers and a younger sister. Where we grew up was an urban residential area, and it was inner city without being a really rough neighborhood. Suburban folks thought it was the hood, urban folks would find it pretty decent. I loved it. It was great experience to grow up in a neighborhood that was diverse and to play with kids from lots of different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. It had its tough moments like when your garage was broken into repeatedly and bikes were stolen or when people would smash our car window in and steal the stereo. But I never felt unsafe or unsettled. It was a great place to grow up, and, having lived in the burbs for the past 13 years, I miss it.
I have to be honest in saying that one of the things that I was immediately curious about, especially when I heard you had a book coming out entitled, The Pastor’s Kid, was what it must have been like growing up the son of John Piper. I hope you’re not offended if I spend some time in that area. First, is John Piper—the father and husband—the John Piper we see from the pulpit?
Yes in terms of character and teaching. He is as consistent as the day is long. No in terms of expression. My dad is a quiet, introverted guy at home, not the fireball you see in the pulpit.
Many times your father talked about not having a TV. Is it really true (not that I’m calling your father a liar) that you grew up without television??? Surely you were able to ‘cheat’ and watch TV at your friends’ house(s)? Have you taken up this mantle in your own home as an adult?
We didn’t have a TV at home, and my folks still don’t. That was much more of a time thing than a moral thing. They never had an issue with me watching movies or sports with friends. They just knew that a TV would eat up time that would be better spent doing other things. I think that’s a big part of the reason I love sports and reading so much now. Those were my primary hobbies growing up, not TV or video games.
As your father grew in popularity, did you notice it happening and, if so, how did that affect you being his son? Did it change family life as you knew it?
I took notice of that in high school and then especially in college (late 90s-early 2000s). That’s when he went from a relatively known author/preacher to a guy who was widely known in evangelical circles and more of a “celebrity”. It didn’t change life at home much. Like I said earlier, my dad is a very consistent guy. My mom is also a strong, stable lady. They kept home life about like had always been, just with a bit more travel for him.
Outside the home it took the aspect of life I was familiar with as a PK of being known to an entirely different level. Now I was known at other churches or at the Christian college I attended. So I had to learn how to navigate that, and I didn’t always do a great job. I think I got better at it as I grew and matured, but there were too many times when I resented being known and was rude or tried to shock people by being not what one would expect John Piper’s son to be.
In your book, Barnabas, you mentioned a sermon your Dad once gave where he used a story about something that had happened to you early in life. Your side of that story/sermon is very interesting. What I’d like to know is, was it often that your Dad used you or your siblings to emphasize a sermon point and did that cause family problems?
No, it wasn’t often. My dad is not a big storyteller in his preaching, so there weren’t too many opportunities to talk about us publicly. My siblings and I weren’t often spotlighted from the pulpit. We made some appearances in his books, and it just so happened that a couple of his better known sermons feature embarrassing moments from my life, though – one when my bike got stolen (mentioned in the book) and another when I totaled my folks’ car.
I took note to the fact, while reading your book, that I was struck with the honesty with which you share childhood memories and your feelings. Did you have much experience with other pastor’s kids while growing up or did you have to learn the ropes, so to speak, alone?
I was around other PKs a lot, mainly the other PKs at our church (it had a large staff). We went to some denominational meetings and pastors conferences too, and my folks were friends with some other pastors too. But even with all that I didn’t really talk through life as a PK with anyone. I just sort of dealt with it (and not all that well). Looking back, it might have been good to have some folks with whom I could have been open with.
You’re married with children. Yes?
I am married to Lesley, and we have two daughters, Grace (8) and Dianne (5).
What things as a father do you find you now do that are a direct result of your father’s influence? Conversely, are there things your father did that you have vowed not to do? Maybe letting your kids watch TV?
Like any parent, I am sure I do all sorts of things unintentionally in imitation of my parents. But one thing I try very hard to follow my dad’s example in is discipline. He was a steady hand who rarely, if ever, lost his temper. He was really good about talking through what we were being disciplined for, disciplining, and then making sure things were settled and sending us on our way with a hug and forgiveness (as needed). I remember that always helped me feel free as a kid, like there was no lingering anger or anything. I try to be the same way with my kids.
And yes, I do let me kids watch TV. But really they watch more movies than TV. TV for kids is mostly just so stupid. Another thing I do differently than my folks is that I am far less intentional about family devotions. They were very rigorous and strict about doing it with us daily. I try to make scripture, prayer and conversations about faith or God more just a part of the rhythm of life.
I’ve been enjoying your blog for awhile now and would love to know when you started writing? How did you get started? Was it blogging or some other venue such as work?
Blogging was my first real avenue for writing. I started doing that in 2011. It grew out of journaling and just sort of stewing on a whole pile of ideas. I realized that I thought more clearly when I wrote and that my perspective was helpful to some people. The more I wrote the better I got at it (still improving, I hope), and it opened some doors to write for Worldmag.com and some other outlets too. I’m at the place now where writing is a part of my life. I love it and am really glad that it seems to benefit others.
Speaking of work, what exactly do you do for a living, Barnabas? Had you ever thought of going into ministry like your Dad? Oh my! Now I’m guilty of doing something you talked about in your book–assuming that question!!!
I work for Lifeway Christian Resources on the Ministry Grid Team. Ministry Grid is an online church leadership training platform, and I do a lot of our marketing. I thought about ministry; every PK does at least long enough to say “no.” I worked in youth ministry for a while, but vocational church ministry doesn’t seem like the thing for me. I don’t think it fits my gifts or passions.
What made you decide to write ‘The Pastor’s Kid’?
I was at a place in my life where my upbringing as a PK was on my mind, and I had been sorting through it and learning and really coming into my own in faith and life in general. I was asked to write an article for Table Talk magazine about the challenges PKs face, and as I wrote it I realized there was so much more to say than a single article could hold. When I saw the responses from PKs and pastors alike I realized there was a hunger for something from the PKs perspective.
I think you might like the opportunity to tell people what your book IS, and what your book IS NOT. For example, you probably wouldn’t describe your book as a tell-all about the Piper family. Do you have a sense that people might be expecting something like that?
I’m sure some people are looking for that, either because they’re fanboys or haters. I suspect they’ll be disappointed. It isn’t a tell-all or expose’. It’s also not some sad sack tale of a PK who now hates the church and is embittered toward it.
I wrote it with the voice of all the PKs I connected with as well as I could. I wanted to represent the PK experience and give voice to PKs. I wrote it from PKs and for PKs, but significant portions are addressed to pastors or the church at large.
Your book is very honest about the ‘tricks’ pastor’s kids have come to learn in order to cope with the stresses that come with the territory. These were eye-opening revelations to me. I had no idea! What kind of damage do we as a congregation do to the children of our pastors and is this one reason for writing the book?
The biggest hurt church members, collectively, do to PKs is the pervasive awareness of them. People just know so much about PKs that they wouldn’t know about any other kids. With the awareness comes expectations of better behavior, more bible knowledge, etc. All of it adds up to a feeling of living in a glass house or a fish bowl. This is a big part of why I wrote the book, to help pastors and church members see what PKs are feeling and experiencing.
Do you feel that some of your success in life (work, writing, etc.) can be attributed to the popularity of your last name? If yes, do you find there are times where you capitalize on this?
If by ‘success’ you mean notoriety, then yes. It’s undeniable that I have been able to gain readers that other young writers have not because people are interested in reading what ‘John Piper’s son’ writes. My last name does open doors for me. It does make me more recognizable than many of my peers. (That can cut both ways, though, because with being recognized come many assumptions about what kind of person I am or ‘should’ be.) I try to find a balance between name-dropping to gain an advantage (which I dislike) and using the relational capital that comes with my last name to create opportunities. I realize that may sound like semantic nit picking, but there is a significant difference.
Do you find that there are people out there in the world who associate themselves with you (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) because you are John Piper’s son? Are they easy to spot and do you find you try to distance yourself from them?
Yes, there are. I try not to worry too much about picking them out because no good comes of it. I don’t want to assume anyone’s motives or label them. My way of “dealing with” this is to try hard to simply be myself. If someone thinks they are getting a mini John Piper they will be sorely disappointed. I am willing to interact with all sorts of people as long as the interaction is not them badgering me because I am not like my dad in some way. I really enjoy interacting with people, and if some (many) of them find me because of my last name, so be it. At that point, though, I am just me and will interact with them as such.
At any point have you felt animosity toward people, or even your father, because they have made you feel like you have to live up to the Piper name?
I have never felt like my dad has pressured me to live up to our last name or maintain his reputation. I have made some pretty horrid mistakes that could have embarrassed my dad if that was his concern. But his concern was always for me. We have our differences. We see some things differently than each other, but I hold no bitterness or angst toward my dad (or mom) for wanting me to “live up to the Piper name.”
I can’t say the same about other people. I have, and sometimes still do, feel resentment toward people for assuming I should be a certain way because of my last name. Pretty much every month, if not more often, I get some joker on Twitter responding to me telling me how ashamed my father would be of some sarcastic (and really funny) tweet I posted. It’s as if they think I should live by a WWJPD motto. I get mad at these people. How dare they? What business do they have supposing what my dad feels like they’re in his head and heart? I’ve made it a point never to respond because it would just not go well. It is better for me to just move ahead as if it never happened and forget it.
How have you been able to become ‘your own man’… learning the balance between being John Piper’s son and Barnabas, the husband/father/author?
Really, that’s a thread that runs through The Pastor’s Kid. Every child is a product of his or her upbringing. Every child carries the influence of both nature and nurture. I am no different. What sets apart a person who “becomes his own man” is the recognition that he holds responsibility as an adult and before God for those traits and habits that need changing. No longer can he blame his parents for things in his life he doesn’t like. For me, that meant dealing with sins that had rooted in my heart since childhood and coming to an understanding of God through different means than my father’s expression of theology. It was through a whole lot of pain because of my own failures that I came to understand the overwhelming wonder and power of God’s grace.
Once I began to understand grace I began to gain confidence to explore who God is and my own relationship with Jesus. I could ask questions without fear and express faith in language that was no longer the verbiage of my upbringing. I also began to gain confidence in my work and my writing because I knew to whom I was really responsible and who I really wanted to please most of all (and it wasn’t my dad.) God’s grace was the driving force to get me to grow into my own man.
Now, this doesn’t mean I have abandoned all things from my youth or turned my back on my parents. Their genetics are in me and they raised me; I’m not escaping that. The foundation laid is still there. It just means that the life being built on the foundation is not built to imitate the one John Piper lives. Because of the freedom of grace I no longer need to feel the pressure to construct a life (or an article, or a book, or my home) that is just like my dad’s. That isn’t what God asks of me, and that is freeing.
I’m sure your Dad has seen the manuscript of your book by now. Was there anything in the book that came as a surprise to your Dad? Something he really never knew about what it was like for you growing up as The Pastor’s Kid?
He actually wrote the foreword for it after reading it. I’m sure there were some surprising parts for him. He is pretty honest in the foreword that part of the book stung. I don’t think he was shocked by anything because we have talked over the past few years about much of what the book says.
Finally, Barnabas, what’s the main take-away you want people to know about your book?
It’ll vary depending on what people bring to the book. I hope that hardened PKs will see the grace of God as something accessible and desirable. I hope broken PKs will see it as something restoring and defining. I hope pastors will see the needs of their kids in a fresh light and connect in a new way with them. Maybe some pastors will need to repent and change and others will be inspired or challenged. And I hope church members and the church at large will be helped toward a better understanding of the pastor’s family and how to love and care for them better.
Thank you so much, Barnabas, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to ‘talk’ with me here. It’s been such a blessing. I’ll be keeping you in prayer for much success with your book and that it will be a blessing to many, many people.
And for the reader’s, please take a moment to check out any or all of the links included in today’s interview. You can pre-order Barnabas’ book through Amazon. The release date is July 1, 2014. This book is an excellent read and one I highly recommend. It will surely be a blessing to all who read it.