Virginia church built in the 1800s gets 1st full-time pastor

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ARRINGTON, Va. (AP) – “Blessed are the flexible for they won’t be bent out of shape.”

That’s the motto of the Rev. Donna Steckline, the newest pastor to grace Trinity Episcopal Church – built in 1830 – and the first full-time pastor the Arrington church has seen, an official with the church said. It’s a prospect the new pastor was excited about.

In her own experience, Steckline said years ago “the churches had to be connected to another church to be able to afford to have a pastor of their own and there was always a tension of some sort … so I think it’s wonderful that they can afford to do that, number one, and I think that helps just focus the energy in one place as opposed to trying to be in more than one place at a time.”

For nearly 200 years, Trinity, found at the edge of the Oak Ridge Farm and Estate at 475 Oak Ridge Road, has been part of the Nelson Parish, which at times included up to four separate churches located throughout the county served by a single “circuit riding” priest, a news release from the church states.

Trinity’s senior warden, Al Weed, who has been with the church since the early 1970s, said it was the church’s belief that Steckline is the first full-time priest Trinity has had.

He said in recent years, Trinity was served by a half-time priest before eventually moving on and since has had to rely on “supply priests,” or different priests sent by the diocese to perform weekly services at a fixed fee.

While applicable to many of life’s situations, Steckline’s motto especially is poignant now. Her transition coincides with other changes being made across the dozens of churches in rural Nelson County as ministries adjust worship practices to accommodate health and safety guidelines resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and Trinity Episcopal Church is no exception.

The pandemic has forced many pastors, Steckline included, to come up with alternative ways of preaching to an audience beyond what previously were packed pews on Sunday mornings. Due to social distancing, the Arrington church can hold roughly 30 people, Weed said.

In order to continue to reach churchgoers, Trinity is streaming services online and also is working on implementing an FM radio station so people can remain in their vehicles, Weed said.

“This is forcing everyone to do things that they haven’t had to do before and we have the ability to reach far more people than we ever did before,” Steckline said, adding there are family and friends from New York state who tune into her services.

About three and a half years since the half-time priest left, Weed said donations to the church have remained “robust.” That reserve coupled with a sizable endowment that has remained largely untouched has allowed Trinity to support a full-time priest living within the community.

“We’ve been doing as much as we can,” Weed said. “Unless COVID lasts for three or four years we’re comfortable we can make this happen.”

Although the pandemic has limited in-person interaction, Steckline said she was pleased with attendance and the reception she has received so far.

Steckline, who received a degree in religion and missiology from Trinity School for Ministry, moved to Nelson County in May from upstate New York, where she previously pastored for another rural church of a fairly similar size, she said. Raised on a large dairy farm, Steckline said she feels “very at home” in rural settings and connecting with the people who call that setting home.

Steckline said she felt her previous experience of being pastor at another rural church would be a boon as she settles into her new congregation.

In addition to the small-town setting, Steckline said one of the reasons she chose to pastor at Trinity was because of how mission-oriented the church is, a passion she also shares.

Steckline and her husband have been out in the mission field for a number of years, having completed outreach in Argentina, Haiti, Bolivia and South Sudan, which she noted she had a special connection to.

“That’s my fiber,” Steckline said. “I’m very people-oriented and God calls us to be outside of the doors of the church. Yes, He wants us to feed the sheep but He wants to find the lost sheep as well.”

The release notes Steckline also has a passion for children and youth ministries.

Kara Eaton Dean, of Lynchburg, is a vestry member and has been attending services at Trinity since 2013. Dean, who has three children, said Steckline’s passion for youth ministry is one of many qualities she has that makes her a “wonderful fit for our church community.”

“I think a lot of our older (churchgoers) are really excited that we have a vibrant youth population in our church and we want to see that population grow. I think that Donna has experience in … doing children’s ministry and that’s a really wonderful thing she brings to the table,” Dean said.

Steckline is at the church on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sundays starting at 9 a.m.

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