Mentoring and Jenga

Posted Feb 27, 2014 | Pastoral Excellence Network


By Lawrence Peers

Jenga Tournament

Recently I had the joy of facilitating a three day intensive training-of-trainers for new clergy mentors.

I will never forget the opening gathering of the training.

One of the worship leaders, Rev. Vanessa Southern, asked participants to remember some of the challenges of their early years of ministry. As each rose to tell their story, each was invited to also play a game of Jenga.

That’s right—a game of Jenga!

This is a game that requires both physical and mental skill. Blocks are stacked in a tight intricate pattern, and the object is to remove one of the blocks without having all the blocks topple down upon one another.

Indeed, what a powerful metaphor this is of those early years of ministry. There is a fragility as well as a poignancy in starting ministry. There are moments of anxiety, relief, and joy. Every move can feel significant or critical. It is a tricky dynamic of learning your role as you are doing it. Indeed, it’s a lot like a game of Jenga!

The big gulp, the big gap, and …

We all know that there is so much variety in the first ministry settings that clergy experience. Some settings are more supportive, more forgiving, or more challenging than others.

A mentor may need to actually remind the newly immersed clergy person that it is not just a feeling they are having, that indeed everything is happening at once:

Yes, at the same time, as you are putting on your pulpit robe, you are taking on a leadership role in a new setting, and all eyes are upon you.

Yes, you may have just moved to a new place, sometimes alone, sometimes with loved ones who are also trying to adjust. And, at the same time, you are trying to welcome new people to the church.

Yes, before you may be ready, you may have to do your first funeral. Welcome to ministry!

That’s what I call the “big gulp.”

And, there can also be a disappointing distance between what or where the new clergyperson imagined their ministry would be and what it actually is. That’s what I call the “big gap.”

But let’s not forget that it is not all challenge; it is also joy. Surely, there is often much blessing that comes into the new clergyperson’s life as they “do” ministry. In the mentoring partnership, we must celebrate that as well!

These are just some of the ways a mentor can help new clergy experience the difference between surviving and flourishing in ministry.

Always about building

At the closing celebration of this mentor training event, Vanessa asked us to recall the mentors who had helped us in our early years of ministry. As we did so, we stood up, said the name of that mentor, and rebuilt the Jenga structure piece by piece, until, at the end, we had reconstructed it as a remembrance to all of those who had mentored us.

“Jenga” is a Swahili word meaning “to build.”

In fact, ministry, no matter what season of ministry we are in, is always about building. More often than we may realize it, we are engaged in what Robert Quinn calls the “fundamental state of leadership … to build the bridge as we walk upon it.”

It may well be that, when we are true to the challenges and promises of ministry, this feeling of risking and discovering at the same time never actually leaves us.

Mentoring new clergy can often remind all of us that ministry often means risk-taking , letting go of some of our certainty, acknowledging what we don’t know, moving forward in faith, and taking critical and new steps forward.

The image displayed in this post is "Jenga Tournament by Tom Rolfe, on Flickr" and is used in accordance with Creative Commons licensing.

Lawrence Peers is the director of learning of the Pastoral Excellence Network at Christian Theological Seminary.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact



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