Life in a Fishbowl
Life in a Fishbowl
Rebecca G. Davis
Rebecca G. Davis
AFA Journal associate editor

March 2020“It is life in a fishbowl, exposed, on display,” said Barnabas Piper about his life as a pastor’s kid, son of noted pastor/author John Piper. “It all adds up to a feeling of being watched … all the time, in everything.”

With this surveillance come expectations – often unrealistic – of the whole pastoral family.

As a young pastor’s wife who had been raised in a broken home, newlywed Jan Harper (age 20) struggled to meet those expectations. It was hard enough learning to be a wife, much less a pastor’s wife.

Her struggles and experiences birthed the idea of a respite for pastors and their wives. Some 20 years later in 2000, the Pastor and Wife Fishbowl Retreat was born under the leadership of Jan and her husband Bert (photo, right).

The Harpers have been married and in ministry together for 45 years, the first four decades as pastor and wife. For five years, Bert has been AFA director of marriage and family ministries.

“The pastor and wife have unique issues that are particular to their vocation,” Bert told AFA Journal. “Jan and I want to help them with their marriage and family. God has given us the ministry of encouragement and equipping.”

The retreat is chock-full of just that, along with three days of rest and renewal. It is held once or twice a year, either at Linden Valley Conference Center in Linden, Tennessee, or Pine Cove Camp, in Tyler, Texas.

A note from the writer:
Last fall, my husband John and I attended the Fishbowl Retreat in Tennessee where we met Jason and Jessie Howell. Both John and Jason pastor churches in Northeast Mississippi, where Jessie and I serve alongside our husbands. Our personal accounts of the retreat relate its great impact.

John and Rebecca
In my early 20s, I decided to be the first one to try out a new zipline my friend had built across his pond. I put on a pair of turf shoes I had in my truck, so the rope wouldn’t burn the bottom of my feet. I planned to ride all the way across, but about halfway, not thinking about the shoes I had laced on so tightly, I decided to splash into the pond.

Most people weren’t even paying attention. Some were telling me to get the rope so they could have a turn. No one realized I was struggling to swim because the wet shoes were weighing me down. Finally, after going under the water three times, someone noticed I was drowning and sent a paddleboat to rescue me.

Having been in the ministry for 20 years now, I’ve told that story a number of times because of the life applications it contains. I even find myself reliving that story as a pastor.

The pastorate is full of joy as well as responsibilities that can often weigh one man down. Sometimes it’s hard to stay afloat. My wife and I were in a season of ministry where we needed that paddleboat, and the Fishbowl Retreat came to our rescue.

For three days, we were encouraged by others who have charted the same waters of ministry. It was also an opportunity to make connections with other pastors who, at times, are trying to stay afloat themselves. For a few days, we were able to stop treading water, get on a float, and simply rest and worship.

I clearly recall the summer the Lord laid it on my heart to be a pastor’s wife. I was serving as a summer missionary in Oklahoma when the Lord used a pastor’s wife to impress upon my heart that I would find myself in her shoes one day.

Almost 10 years later, I married a youth pastor who now serves as a senior pastor. I love serving alongside him. It’s an honor and a privilege but also a responsibility.

While serving at a church that truly cares for us, John and I found ourselves in a season of loneliness. When the opportunity to attend AFA’s Fishbowl Retreat came, we couldn’t pass it up. We didn’t know what to expect, but we knew we would be surrounded by other pastors and their wives.

It was truly a retreat – a time for renewal and refreshing.

The people were real, and their company was safe. We laughed, cried, prayed, relaxed, ate meals, and worshipped together as the body of Christ. But what I found most rewarding was the opportunity to be fed spiritually as a couple. We got to attend worship together, sit together, and soak up the Word of God together as it was being taught corporately.

And the friendship we made with the Howells has been a continuing source of encouragement and an unexpected blessing.

Jason and Jessie
Jessie and I have been married for 17.5 years and have been in the ministry together for 17 of those years. We were high school sweethearts, and I surrendered to the ministry four months after we married.

We quickly realized that ministry can be trying at times, but it is also such a joy when you’re ministering in complete surrender to the Lord.

The Fishbowl Retreat gave us a time to rest and reflect, be encouraged by Bro. Bert and Mrs. Jan, and meet new people we could relate to.

It was great to hear that we are all faced with the same issues in ministry, and we can depend on each other for prayer, support, encouragement, and fresh ideas. The time renewed my fire for ministry.

The highlight of our time at the retreat was the bond built with like-minded pastors and spending a few days with the people who understand ministry the most.

We both are thankful for the friendships we built with new couples, and we hope to keep those friendships kindled for years to come.

Jessie: I was very immature in my faith and had only been saved a couple of years when my husband was called into the ministry. I felt inadequate and ill-equipped, and I often felt like Jason should have married someone “better for the job.”

I spent the first 14 years as a pastor’s wife with insecurities and shame. Jason continued to love me like Jesus and lead me to true freedom in Christ. Three years ago, I surrendered to the ministry alongside Jason. Not to stand behind the pulpit, but to stand by his side and willingly serve in any capacity the Lord saw fit.

Our church family sent us to the Fishbowl Retreat as a pastor appreciation gift. When Jason and I arrived at the retreat, we were thrilled to be in such a serene, secluded location for a few days. Everything was comfortable and calming.

It was so rewarding to get away from the busyness of life and technology and to worship and grow in the Lord with my husband.

As a couple, we always love the opportunity to spend some alone time away from our four children and normal routines to reconnect and focus on our friendship.

Yet at the same time, we are grateful for the sense of community we experienced. It is so refreshing to be understood and to spend time with people who have a similar heart for the Lord and ministry.  

AFA Pastor and Wife Fishbowl Retreat
March 31 – April 2, 2020, in Tyler, Texas
Guest speakers: J.J. Jasper and Abraham Hamilton
Cost is $400 per couple (lodging, meals, and materials).
Register at or 800.326.4543 x300.