Thirteen years ago, Deacon Craig LaGi-er received a phone call he wasn't expecting.
His diocesan chancellor was on the line. The monsignor wanted to know if LaGier and his wife would consider moving to the rural city of Carlin, Nev.--population 2,161, and some 300 miles east of their family home in Carson City.
Several parishes in the sparse northeastern swath of the state don't have a priest who can serve as pastor, the chancellor said. "Would you be interested in moving out there to be an administrator?"
LaGier said his first response was to laugh. Mentioning how much money he made as a manager at a construction company, he remembers saying, "You can't afford me, chancellor."
Yet six months later, LaGier and his wife made the trip down the long, sparse northeastern stretch of Highway 80 for a visit. Next thing he knew, he says, "we quit our jobs, sold our house and went to work for the church."
More than a decade later, LaGier is set to retire in June of this year. Since that phone call, he has served as the pastoral administrator for up to five parishes at once, and is currently the canonical leader of three parishes in the small towns of Carlin, Eureka and Wells.
Driving some 330 miles each Sunday to lead a Communion service at each parish, where priests aren't available to say Mass, LaGier is; also the only staff person for all three churches. He's responsible for leading their ministries, setting up their catechesis programs, tending to spiritual and pastoral needs of some 300 families, and even cutting the checks.
"Volunteers help," he said. "But, as it is, the buck stops with me."
According to a 2008 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), LaGier's parishes are just three of some 500 across the country that are headed by pastoral administrators, also known as parish life coordinators.
First explicitly allowed for in the 1983 edition of the Code of Canon Law, parish life coordinators can be laypeo-ple, religious sisters or brothers, or deacons. Bishops appoint them to look after the needs of a parish when a priest isn't available to serve as pastor.
Mercy Sr. Sharon Euart, a noted canon lawyer who contributed a chapter on the canonical issues surrounding the ministry to a 2010 book titled Lay Ecclesial Ministry: Pathways Toward the Future, said the update to the church's canons was meant to provide options beyond closing or combining parishes when bishops face a "dearth of priests."
One coauthor of the CARA survey said that while parish life coordinators have historically been women religious, deacons have been "increasingly likely" to be assigned to the role.
"What you see is religious sisters diminishing in number as of a decade ago as a percentage of all [coordinators]," said Mark Gray a research associate with CARA. "Part of that is just because there's a decline in the number of religious sisters available to serve."
Another aspect of the appointment of deacons to the role, Euart said, is the fact that many deacons "come with a unique skill set" they can use to guide parish life.
Saying that some deacons may be older, or may come from the business world, she said that they are "generally good administrators and, in a certain sense, the coordination of the life of a parish on a day-to-day basis is an appropriate thing for them."
"It's a role that some deacons find very valuable for the diocese" and think of it "as a way to utilize some of their own life experience," Euart said.
In-depth telephone interviews with two deacons who serve in the role found them both reflective on how they've been able to apply that life experience, and what the ministry has meant to them and their parishioners.
Meeting basic needs
For LaGier, it's an issue of fundamentals. Without his work, he said, his parishes wouldn't even have regular access to a Communion service, let alone Mass. …