The Life of a Parish-Life Coordinator

An interview with Eleanor Sauers
Eleanor Sauers, parish-life coordinator for St. Anthony of Padua church (Bridgeport Diocese/Amy Mortensen).

According to a 2005 study by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), more than five hundred U.S. parishes were entrusted to someone other than a priest. Many of these church workers, usually called parish-life coordinators, are lay people, including women religious, although most are deacons. Given the ongoing shortage of priests, a 2019 CARA report surprisingly indicated that just 341 parishes are now being administered to by deacons or lay people, a more than 30 percent decline. This can be attributed in part to the closing or merging of parishes, but it also seems to reflect a hesitancy on the part of bishops to embrace lay leadership on the parish level. The concern, as expressed by an instruction released by the Vatican in July, is that the central role of the priesthood in the sacramental and pastoral life of the Church cannot, by definition, be assumed by the laity. Otherwise, the statement explained, pastoral leadership can be seen as merely “functional” rather than sacerdotal. The distinctive roles of the laity and the priesthood must be secured; an “essential difference…exists between the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood.” The appointment of parish-life coordinators cannot be made for “reasons of convenience or ‘ambiguous advancement of the laity.’”

These are not necessarily unreasonable concerns. When it comes to the sacramental life of the Church and the centrality of the priesthood to Catholic historical and theological self-understanding, turning over priestly roles to the laity raises a host of questions. But with no dramatic increase in priestly vocations on the horizon, at least in the United States, parish-life coordinators will remain the face of some parishes, a face that most parishioners seem to welcome. According to CARA, these devoted lay people are usually highly educated and are most often women. That is the case for Eleanor Sauers, the parish-life coordinator for St. Anthony of Padua Church in Fairfield, Connecticut. Fairfield is in the Diocese of Bridgeport, whose bishop is the Most Reverend Frank Caggiano. Sauers was the first—and remains the only—lay parish-life coordinator in the diocese. I recently interviewed her by email. Our exchange has been edited for clarity.

PAUL BAUMANN: Eleanor, you became parish-life coordinator after the death of Fr. John Baran, a much-loved pastor. You were the head of religious education at St. Anthony’s at the time, and it was my impression that you and Fr. John were good friends, and that he was a mentor for you. What was that transition like? How do you see your pastoral vision in light of Fr. John’s ministry?

ELEANOR SAUERS: I became the director of religious education at St. Anthony’s in September 2002. I had come to the parish as a volunteer when Fr. John was transferred there as an administrator. Fr. John had been a parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Fairfield for seven years, during which time I worked (as a volunteer) with him on the parish council, the youth group, the liturgy committee, and other ministries. John became a close friend to my family during this time.

I left my position in a local insurance agency in 2000, having entered the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham. John encouraged me to pursue my studies and became a mentor to me throughout my master’s and doctoral journeys. At St. Anthony’s, I worked with Fr. John, Frank Macari, the music director, and Beth Paris, the pastoral minister for youth. We were a team. Throughout John’s tenure, during his long affliction with muscular dystrophy, and especially during his final battle with melanoma, he and I collaborated on most parish efforts.

When John died in March 2018, I was devastated. Fr. Michael Boccaccio, a semi-retired diocesan priest, was appointed administrator of the parish but I ran the day-to-day activities. The future was uncertain, but the team and I were determined to continue to implement Fr. John’s vision for the parish. That vision was firmly rooted in the collegiality and subsidiary foci of the Second Vatican Council. We respected and treated parishioners as adults. We also recognized that as a small parish we couldn’t offer everything, but whatever we offered had to be done well. Fr. John’s preaching and his welcoming manner, especially his determination to create an environment where the Spirit could flourish, caused the parish to blossom and grow exponentially until his death.

In the months following his death, we maintained parish life as we thought he would, but we were aware things could and would change as soon as the next pastor was named. We were dedicated to keeping Fr. John’s mission alive. Bishop Caggiano met with the parish staff, trustees, and pastoral council twice—the first time in June 2018. He asked us what our hopes were for the next pastor. He also told us that he would eventually be appointing a diocesan priest. We met with the bishop again in December. At that time, he informed us that he was appointing me as the parish-life coordinator.

The months in between those meetings were anxious ones, not knowing what the future would bring. But we decided to “act as if” things would work out for the best and that John’s legacy would not only be maintained but built upon.

My pastoral vision, influenced heavily by my time with John, is one of promoting inclusivity in all areas of parish life. By that I mean welcoming all people and inviting them to share in the life of the parish. In particular, I am interested in reaching out to other communities, particularly communities of color, to help our parishioners and theirs gain new perspectives on what we have in common and new respect for the ways in which we differ. At this moment, recognizing and fighting racism is of paramount importance. I am interested in showing that the Catholic Church is a place where you learn how to get closer to God. I want to share our rich spiritual life as Catholics, and provide opportunities to discuss our faith. My emphasis is always on community and how communal worship and socialization can help form, inform, and transform people.

My emphasis is always on community and how communal worship and socialization can help form, inform, and transform people.

PB: Did Bishop Caggiano initiate the discussion about your appointment or did parishioners urge him to make you parish-life coordinator? What were your conversations with the bishop like before your appointment? How often do you meet or talk with him now?

ES: In November, eight months after John’s death, the bishop called and asked to meet. When I arrived at his office, he first asked how I was doing, how I was handling things at the parish. He then began to speak of his search for John’s replacement. Eventually, he said he was considering a new form of parish leadership and opened a folder containing several pages detailing the duties and responsibilities of a “parish-life coordinator.” Bishop Caggiano indicated that he knew I had already been doing much of what was entailed in the position. I agreed! He asked me to think about assuming the parish-life coordinator position and get back to him. I immediately answered that I would do it. That response initiated a discussion of items to be handled and how to announce this decision to the parish. It was decided that he would come to the parish on the first Sunday of December to announce his decision to the same group that had met with him in June. The announcement to the entire parish occurred the following Sunday.

Bishop Caggiano has always been cordial and friendly. Our conversations, monthly during the first half-year of my appointment, were pleasant. He always asked about me, the parish, and invariably about what he could do to help. Beyond that six-month period, we have met only during the regularly scheduled pastor and administrator gatherings, which are now held on Zoom.

PB: Did you have to go through a certification program for lay parish-life coordinators? Do you have much contact with other parish-life coordinators across the country? 

ES: I did not go through any specific certification program, but my degree work at Fordham included studies of parishes and their organization, the mission and ministry of the Church, pastoral care, spirituality, religious education, and leadership. Fr. John’s mentorship and the practical experience I gained running the parish when he was ill filled in the blanks. Throughout the country, there are hundreds of parishes led by lay people, although it is more common that the leader is a deacon or a vowed religious woman. Unfortunately, I have not had much contact with other parish-life coordinators. As you might imagine, we are all pretty busy.

PB: Is your financial compensation adequate? Does it include benefits such as health care?

ES: The parish compensates me very fairly, commensurate with my responsibilities. My benefits include participation in a pension plan and health insurance.

PB: What has most surprised you about your work? What has been the hardest part of the job? What gives you the most satisfaction?

ES: I have been surprised that so much of my time is taken up with maintenance of the premises, money matters, and meetings. During the first year I spent a lot of time raising a good deal of money for a diocesan capital campaign. During this second year, our response to the pandemic has taken priority, which now includes taking reservations for attending Mass, sanitizing the church before and after each Mass, and livestreaming the 10 a.m. Mass on the parish website. Raising money is the part of the job that has been hardest. I derive the greatest satisfaction from meeting with individuals and families about their concerns, working with the team to plan liturgical celebrations and plans for the parish, and being with parishioners at Mass. Being visible and accessible is essential to the position.

PB: Weddings, baptisms, and funerals are a big part of any priest’s ministry. Given your limited sacramental “faculties,” how have you coordinated those activities at St. Anthony’s?

ES: Of course, I do not preside at weddings, baptisms, funerals, or Mass. I do give a short reflection after Mass, and I meet with families to plan sacramental services, especially funerals. The priests of the Fairfield University Jesuit Community are our sacramental partners, and they preside at Masses, and at most of the weddings and funerals. A deacon assigned to Fairfield University and to our parish meets with and presides at most baptisms. Collaboration between the parish and the Jesuits has been smooth and fruitful.

PB: In July the Vatican issued an instruction touching on the role of parish-life coordinators. The instruction emphasized that the appointment of parish-life coordinators should be considered a temporary measure. It also expressed concerns about confusing the roles of parish-life coordinators and priests, noting that the sacerdotal nature of the priesthood must remain distinct from the “common priesthood” of the laity. In your experience, to what extent are these legitimate concerns?

ES: The Vatican instruction did not contain any new norms but reiterated previously stated concerns, specifically about evangelization as the means of renewing parish life. Recognizing that geographical parishes are no longer the norm, the document spoke of “reorganizing the manner in which pastoral care of parish communities is assigned,” and called for a greater collaboration with the laity. Yes, the distinction between the sacerdotal priesthood and the common priesthood of the laity was a concern, as was the proper role of the priest as the sacramental leader of the parish. In my experience, however, no parishioner confuses my position with that of the priests who serve our parish. Parishioners view me as the administrator of the parish and as a spiritual leader, but do not view my role as sacramental. People are savvy and can easily distinguish between the two vocations. That said, because we are likely to face a shortage of ordained clergy for the foreseeable future, I think parish-life coordinators will continue to serve the church in many parts of the United States. 

Parishioners view me as the administrator of the parish and as a spiritual leader, but do not view my role as sacramental. People are savvy and can easily distinguish between the two vocations.

PB: I assume that the response to your appointment has been overwhelmingly positive. But every church leader is also subject to complaints. What sort of complaints have you had to deal with?

ES: The response of the parish to my appointment was positive, but there were some people outside the parish who phoned, wrote, or made derogatory comments on social media, especially in the weeks following the announcement of my appointment. Of course, I am not aware of all the complaints parishioners might have. Complaints about pandemic preparations or the cancellation of events are understandable. Overall, I feel very blessed by the parishioners and am so grateful for their support.

St. Anthony’s Parish under Fr. John came to be known as an inclusive community. The parish continues that sense of welcome even during these difficult times. I believe we have continued to create an environment where the Spirit can flourish. We try to meet people where they are on the journey of faith, without judgment. Our parishioners are warm and loving people and their warmth and their joy in being together to celebrate the liturgy is palpable and contagious.

PB: Who do you go to for spiritual guidance yourself?

ES: The liturgy inspires me. My spiritual director has been most helpful, as have the Jesuits from the Fairfield University community. For the past two years I’ve been taking a course at Fairfield, “Aging with Grace,” taught by Fr. John Murray. The class has provided support, challenge, and comfort. I also belong to a long-established prayer group and a women’s Bible study group. And of course, my leadership team is a valued source of support.

From the beginning, the Holy Spirit has been an integral part of my time at St. Anthony’s. I sense the Spirit’s presence every day. I also sense Fr. John’s presence guiding me and the parish. I give thanks every day for the opportunity to serve God’s people at St. Anthony’s.

PB: What are Masses at St. Anthony’s like during the pandemic? What has changed and who shows up? Do parishioners continue to support the parish financially?

ES: Obviously, Masses are quite different now. Because of social-distancing requirements, the church can only seat forty-eight people. In the “good old days” the church held five hundred worshipers. Mass goers are now required to make a reservation in advance, answer questions about their recent travels and how they are feeling, check in when they arrive, and use hand sanitizer before entering the church.

We have only two Masses on the weekend now. Both are on Sunday, one at 10 a.m. and the other at noon. Previously, we also had Masses on Saturday evening at 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Sunday. Those who come now are older for the most part, together with a few families, a couple of younger couples, and a few singles. The 10 a.m. Mass is usually full; the noon Mass usually is not.

It is my impression that most people are not ready to be in the enclosed space of a church, regardless of how safe we try to make it. Disasters usually send us into the arms of our family and friends, and to the churches. One of the many disheartening consequences of the pandemic is that we cannot do that now. Another casualty of the pandemic is singing. There is now no congregational singing (we are a singing parish!), no exchange of peace, and no mingling before or after Mass. People must satisfy their thirst for community with waves and brief greetings.

Our parish is so fortunate in many ways, one of which is the financial support from parishioners. Of course, the Sunday collections are down because Mass attendance is so limited. But those parishioners who have continued to contribute have subscribed to GiveCentral, our online system, or send their donations through the mail. Some use the mail slot in the rectory’s front door. Parishioners have been generous. We have been able to maintain our staff, for which I am most grateful. The work does not stop even during a pandemic.

PB: You mentioned that inclusion and fighting racism are two of your pastoral goals. Fairfield is a relatively well-to-do, mostly white suburb. How have you tried to pursue those goals?

ES: In the summer of 2015, after the tragic shootings at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, there was a memorial service conducted at the Bethel AME Church on Grove Street in neighboring Bridgeport. Members of many different congregations—Christian, Jewish, Muslim—from around the area were invited. Twelve parishioners from St. Anthony’s went. It was a powerful experience for everyone involved. What I remember particularly were the words of Rabbi Prosnit from B’nai Israel in Bridgeport. “Disturb me, O Lord...wrest me from my complacency,” the rabbi challenged us. Those words made us all sit up and take notice. Another minister prayed for the shooter and his family. Some in the congregation murmured “Amen,” and “That’s right.” Our little group was amazed and humbled at these expressions of forgiveness.

That evening left a mark on all of us. One of our parishioners has kept in contact with a few Bethel congregants and attends services occasionally with them. Our goal is to engage with other congregations and to build relationships. We also have groups in the parish who are reading about racism and how we can recognize it in ourselves. We must take an honest look at ourselves before we can engage with others. But the goal is to establish lines of communication and dialogue that honor the experiences of others and work together to better all parties.

We are also a member of the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport. We have two delegates working directly with the council. The group’s agenda includes food inequality, racial justice, building bridges among different communities of faith, youth programs, and more. These delegates report back to us, and their information is shared in the parish bulletin.

The parish has a Social Justice Committee that meets regularly and provides information to the parish about various grassroots organizations. The committee is currently focused on climate change. Financially and with volunteer workers, we also support Bridgeport’s Thomas Merton Center, Operation Hope, Mercy Learning Center, and Caroline House, all of which serve people in need.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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