It’s been 10 years since some buddies and I hopped in my parents’ minivan and roadtripped from our little college town of Harrisonburg, Virginia, to Chicago. One day, while visiting Wheaton College, our host mentioned that one of John Piper’s sons was currently a student there. My lands, that’s awesome! I hope we get to meet him! 

Why did we think this way? I guess because meeting Piper’s son would feel, in some small, weird way, like meeting our theological hero himself.

I’m embarrassed just thinking about it today. Not once did it cross our minds whether Piper’s son would want to meet us.

In his new book, The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity (David C. Cook), Barnabas Piper writes about the experience of growing up in the limelight as a pastor’s kid (PK). Although his dad is more famous than most, the insights he shares are rooted in hundreds of conversations with other PKs over the years. Piper’s aim in this important book is to speak for PKs, to speak to pastors, and to speak to churches.

I corresponded with Piper about being a sinner on display, false intimacy, the role of grace, and more.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about what it’s like to be a pastor’s kid (PK)?

In the local church, the biggest misconception is the false set of expectations placed on PKs. We are expected to be morally superior (even as small children) and more biblically knowledgeable. It’s as if people see pastoral leadership and theological education as genetic—since dad has it so should the kids.

Coupled with this is the misconception, albeit a subtler one, that PKs will screw up. Some people just seem to be on the lookout for the missteps. So it creates a wicked tension between an expectation of perfection and one of failure.

As the son of a well-known pastor you’ve felt at times like “a sinner on display.” What would you say to another pastor’s kid who struggles with this same feeling?

First, I’d want them to know they are so normal and not the only one. It’s not a struggle they have to face on their own. Other PKs feel it and are working through it, too.

Second, I’d encourage them to seek Jesus. If we, as PKs, can cut through all the misconceptions of Jesus and the hollow assumptions of theology we absorbed growing up and get to know him, it is so freeing. We don’t stop being sinners, but we see the source of hope, forgiveness, grace, and expectations. We find a standard to live up to that is happy instead of burdensome, and all the stupid, false, legalistic expectations we have dealt with become, bit by bit, mere annoyances instead of obstacles to faith and joy.

What is the role of grace from pastor’s kids to their dads, from pastor-dads to their kids, and from the congregation to both?

The short answer is “central and essential.” As a PK it’s so easy to get locked in on the hurts we experience and especially the faults of our parents. Some pastor parents are awful; most are seeking to do their best to honor Jesus while growing in sanctification and leading a church. That comes with lots of mistakes and sins, being human and all. How can I, in light of all my own sins and God’s overwhelming outpouring of grace on me, hold my parents’ failures against them and get bitter? Maybe I have to forgive seventy times seven, or maybe I need to grow up and get over some stuff. Grace makes both possible.

For pastors, grace means giving your kids room to grow and fail, because we will. It means not holding your ministry over their heads as an expectation or threat: “If you keep going down this path I could lose my job.” It means recognizing that while Jesus is the way to salvation there is more than one way to get to Jesus, and your child’s path doesn’t have to look like yours. Most of all, grace means undying, always expressed, never assumed love so your child sees the unfathomable love of God through you.

From the congregation, grace means taking a jackhammer to whatever pedestal you’ve put the pastor’s family on. Your pastor (and by extension his family) are not holier than you are; they are not less sinful. Yes, he sets an example for you, but much of that example should be in repentance and sanctification. That means growth from bad to better. If the pastor’s family is put on a pedestal it just means a long and painful fall, especially when you think that the pastor, not his kids, was called to lead.

Your book is based on what you learned from hundreds of conversations with pastors’ kids over the years. What surprised you most as you interacted with other pastors’ kids?

Two things surprised me. The first was the consistency of the stories and experiences regardless of context. Even the phrasing of answers and the quotes they shared of what people in their churches had said to them were almost verbatim. While I expected similarities, it was almost like a bunch of people had copied the same answer on a test or something. It gave me real clarity about what needed to be addressed as well as assurance that my own experiences weren’t the outlier.

The second thing that surprised me was how many PKs are now in vocational ministry. The stereotype is of PKs who turn their back on the church, but I connected with dozens who, despite their struggles, love and serve the church.

When you’re in a visible position you didn’t ask for, there can be a sort of “false intimacy” strangers bring to knowing you. What’s an example of a time you’ve experienced this?

For me this stems most from my dad being so well known. Two of his most popular sermons feature stories about me, one of having my bike stolen and the other of me crashing my parents’ car. On dozens of occasions strangers have approached me and started conversations about those two events. Frankly, it remains weird and always a bit jarring.

Growing up in church—and this is common among PKs—there were people I’d never met who would greet me by name or ask conversational questions about life (sports, heading off to college, and so on) even though they were strangers. People feel a kinship with the pastor’s family because they know so much about them and are so aware of them. They often fail to recognize it’s a one-way kinship.

What’s the one thing you’d most like pastors to take away from your book?

Different pastors will find different things. I hope some are encouraged because they are doing things to help their kids. I hope some feel like they got a needed kick in the butt. I hope some take a long look at their family life and its balance with ministry and examine how they’re doing things. The biggest thing of all is that pastors are to be dads first and pastors second. Your kids come before your church. God didn’t call you to take your son to a mountain and sacrifice him on the altar of ministry, and if you do there’s no ram in the thicket to bail you out.