Diakonia: Janice the pioneer

This is part eight of a series on the diaconate we’re calling Diakonia looking at the amazing variety of voices within the ministry of deacons by diaconal candidate Dani Gabriel

In this installment, Dani interviews The Ven. Janice Grinnell, Diocese of Rhode Island


Previous Series Installments

Part 1: Living with Jesus

Part 2: Interview with Bishop Curry

Part 3: Stephen, the bicycle deacon

Part 4: The Venerable Canon Nina Pickerrell

Part 5: Jess, the Bridge Builder

Part 6: The Rev Tracie Middleton

Part 7: The Rev. Liz Margarita Hernandez Martinez and The Rev. Leticia Guevara-Cuence 


Providence, Rhode Island is beautiful. I got to visit its canals and winding streets, and I was also able to tour the Center for Reconciliation. Located in the diocese’s former Cathedral, the Center offers tours addressing the area’s history of slavery, hosts trainings, and had an art exhibit looking at aspects of racism in our country today. It is an amazing example of the Episcopal Church’s work for racial reconciliation. The Ven. Janice Grinnell is a founding member and Board member of the Center for Reconciliation as well as Archdeacon in Rhode Island. She is one of the formation directors for the Province I School for Deacons. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Association for Episcopal Deacons, and is a Board member of Trinity Village (a new addiction recovery house for women and children in Portsmouth, RI). Jan’s secular employment over the years has focused on IT consulting. She has worked for several large companies, and owns her own certified Woman Owned Enterprise (WBE), Grinnell Appreciative Consulting. Jan is married to Ann Hamm and they have three married children and three grandchildren, and one daughter planning a March 2020 wedding.



Dani: Why were you interested in the diaconate?

Jan: Actually, I came in the back door to the diaconate. I started my discernment in the early 1980s, and there weren’t really deacons around, so I believed that I was called to the priesthood because that’s the only option that was out there.

Rhode Island was the first diocese in Province One to ordain deacons, and it happened in 1985. So the school for deacons was already in existence in 1986 when I was still discerning ordination. Our school was open to anybody who wanted to go to it. You didn’t have to be approved. You didn’t have to be approved by the Commission of Ministry or even the bishop. A good friend of mine who was teaching in the school said, “You should come to the school.”

When I got to that school, Dani, and I started hearing what a deacon is, and what a deacon does, and what the vision was for the diaconate in the future…it was like, “Thank you God, because this is me.” Social justice, prophetic voice, out in the world, not worrying about boilers and basements of churches. It was like, “Now this is me.” I was really blessed and obviously God was leading me.


Dani: What kept you on the path after you started?

Jan: Passion. Passion, because everything back then was more than a hurdle to get over. There were huge blocks in front of us. And it could only be passion and the grace of God that got me through it, because I was working a 40 hour/week job and had two small children. The model of our school was the seminary model, so we went to school once a month, for nine months, one weekend a month, and then we read books and did all kinds of crazy things throughout that time.

And there was something that was just within me that said, “Don’t give up. Just don’t give up.” And that has to be the Holy Spirit, grace, God, whatever. I’m 43 years in recovery in AA. So I was also attending recovery meetings, trying to keep that part of my life in check, you know, while all this other stuff was going on and it was this burning desire within me that said, “Just keep going. You will get through this.” And I did.

Dani: So what is your favorite part of your work as a deacon?

Jan: Oh…proclaiming the unconditional love of God … in whatever form that takes, whether it’s preaching, whether it’s working with college students on campus, whether it’s talking to people in recovery, just proclaiming the unconditional love of God and watching people’s lives transformed through God’s grace.

Dani: Can you tell me more about your work as a deacon?

Jan: Early on…I was like every other deacon, we had to declare what our ministry would be. I’m sitting around thinking “I want to do it all.” So the first part of my ministry was centered and focused on mental health and recovery. Ultimately…I became a substance abuse counselor for a while as a paid job. But by then I was divorced and I needed more income so I have to go back into the workforce, and this is one of the issues with the diaconate. I know this isn’t answering your question, but this is a part of my passion – that the church is missing an amazing opportunity by having this as non-stipendiary clergy.  We are missing people who are called to the diaconate but cannot afford the time while working a full-time job – with or without a family. We’re missing the power of a diaconate for those who are ordained that have to get 40 hours of their life a week to survive. And think if, Jan Grinnell back there in 1991 could have worked for the church instead of corporate America, it would have just been phenomenal, Dani. How restricted are we by this non stipendiary concept?

There are a lot of arguments for why deacons should be paid, and why they shouldn’t be paid. But for me it’s about the church and the church’s mission, and we are the social justice arm. We are the prophetic voice. We are the ones to be out in the world. And you’re telling us, well, yes you can be out in the world and at your job. But I was in management and I was working at one point for a company that had me assigned to a project in California for 14 months. So I was commuting back and forth across the country weekly and putting in about a hundred hours a week on my job. I little time for my family and had no time for the diaconate.

I would come back weekly so I could be on the altar and I would come back so I could be with my family. But otherwise, I was not doing anything in the world other than being a deacon in my job. I would have conversations with people and people knew that I was, you know, somebody spiritual that they could talk to and that kind of thing. But it’s not the same as setting a deacon free to do the work of God in the world, in the social justice arena. It’s just not the same to say, “Well, you know, you’re a deacon everywhere.” Yeah, well you could be a priest everywhere too, but how’s that going to work?

You know, I was in the IT business. I’m still in the IT business. And when you’re working, you’re working and you aren’t creating programs. You aren’t reaching out to people, you aren’t organizing people, you aren’t joining community organizers. You just can’t do it all. So the church is losing so much by having people like myself that have these passions, to do God’s work in the world, and have to do something that generates an income. So part of the answer too is, well, why don’t you be a social worker? Why? Because I’m not called to be a social worker.

In 2008…an interim priest, The Rev. David Dobbins, came to my parish and I started working with him on interim ministry. I went to be trained in appreciative inquiry to do interim ministry work. So one of the capstone phases of my diaconate, there are two, the one is being a priest/deacon interim team that would go from parish to parish to work with parishes who are in between rectors and spend two or no more than three years at a parish, putting them back on their feet, helping them find out who they are in the world. And it was such a beautiful blend of a deacon being able to do work inside the church to take the church outside. Because what I was doing was helping parishes identify their work in the community. But before they could do that, they needed to know what their gifts were.

They needed to know what their passions were, they needed to know [where] God was calling them. And that was an amazing thing to be able to do. I actually stayed with the same priest for 15 years. We had this ministry, and it was unique. I’ve never heard of it anywhere else in the country. And it was a beautiful model. David’s retired now and I’m retiring as an active deacon on June 30th.

I ended up instructing appreciative inquiry classes with parishes and and this was definitely one of my capstone projects. The other was what I’m leaving now, I’m just finishing seven years at Saint Augustine’s and for the last five years I was their chaplain to the University of Rhode Island campus. That’s where I could have been called 28 years ago to college chaplaincy. And it could have been a paid position; and I believe I could have made a difference in the world as a college chaplain.

Because the last five years of college chaplaincy have been my most passionate work that I’ve done in my whole diaconate.  It brought all of my life experience into play with these amazing students and we were able to create what I believe is a sustainable ministry that the next chaplain is now picking up.

I went to a campus where the Episcopal chaplaincy was basically non-existent. I just walked out the door, sat down at Dunkin Donuts and said, “I’m here. Anybody want to talk to [me]?” You know? And I am ending my tenure on Sunday. Three weeks ago I was part of the university’s commencement ceremony and able to give the dedication, which is similar to an invocation, at the beginning of commencement for 6,000 graduates, and all their parents and just stand up there and look out over the sea of people. It was the most beautiful thing to see. It was just such a gift to be able to do that as my farewell to the university.

The other thing for me about deacons is we are the order, the one order really, that needs to be given the freedom of discernment for their ministry.   People back in the first wave used to ask us to pick something that you’re going to do as your diaconate. Are you going to do prison ministry? Are you going to do nursing homes? Are you going to do hospital work? What are you going to do? It’s like, really? I want to do God’s work. I mean, I don’t want to have to define that and put God’s call to me in a box.

But that’s what they were asking us to do. Today most deacons now have the freedom to be able to say, “I’m going to listen to God and find out what He is asking me to do, and where He wants me to go?” In Province One school for deacons that I help to facilitate, that’s one of the things we do in formation. We try to help people come to understand that the discernment that you’re in right now, Dani, is going to go on for the rest of their life as a deacon. Don’t ever be settled with, oh, this is what God called me to! Well maybe for today; but be open to what He’s calling you to do tomorrow because it will change. It WILL change. Even if it’s under the same umbrella, it will change. And because what we need to do is we to raise people up, organize them, get them motivated, inspire them, find their gifts, create the ministry with them and then move on.

Because back in the old model, what they were doing, they were forcing Jan Grinnell to be one person to help maybe 10 people. Yay. Great, good. Yay. Transformed lives, awesome. Right? If Jan Grinnell can get 10 people organized to go out and work with 10 people each, then that’s 100 people that had their lives transformed. And if Jan Grinnell can leave those 10 people in place and move to the next parish or wherever she’s going next and do that again, then we’re going to have 10 people and 10 people…I mean that’s how we spread the Gospel. But when you say, “Pick where your ministry is or pick what your ministry is”, we’re missing the boat, right? We’re missing the boat. So, Jesus said, “Go to the ends of the earth.” He didn’t say, “Go find one thing to do and sit there.” We must always be on the move.

Dani: So my last question is, how can deacons expand our ideas of what church is?

Jan: We should preach with the prophetic voice. We have to use our prophetic voice in the pulpit. It is not enough to stand up every Sunday and just do a nice [reflection] on the Gospel…[What if] in every sermon we challenged the congregation to identify…one action that they could take during that one week to spread the gospel. Now, I mean this is all based on the Gospel itself, but to call people to action in our sermons, to use our prophetic voice in each and every sermon. There’s a way you can do it.

Some gospels might be a little bit harder than others, but…it’s what I try to do all the time…to challenge people…

If you worship Jesus, then you’re venerating him. You’re raising him up. Your eyes are like looking at Him as opposed to following Him. And if you follow Jesus, he will take you right out the door and into the streets. And that’s what we need to be challenging people [to do] every week or every time we have an opportunity to preach, challenging people to follow Jesus, whatever it is that he’s calling them to go out into the world to do and make a difference. And it’s going to be different for every person. But that’s how the church can transform the world- when the people in the church leave the church, go out of the church and into the world. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing as deacons. Inspiring that to happen.



Dani Gabriel is a poet, writer, and teacher. Dani is a Candidate for the Diaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of California, aspiring to ordination and service in the church and community. Dani is the current Poet Laureate of El Cerrito, CA. Learn more about their work at www.allthepossible.com.


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