Melody Warnick is the author of two books on thriving where you live: This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are, an exploration of the ground-breaking concept of place attachment, and If You Could Live Anywhere: The Surprising Power of Place in a Work-from-Anywhere World, a guide to how location-independent people choose where to live and how communities can attract and retain them. A graduate of BYU, she lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, where she’s in the Relief Society presidency and her husband serves as stake president. You can subscribe to her newsletter about place at her website, melodywarnick.com.
Every few weeks I get a request in my inbox from someone who needs help deciding where to live.
This isn’t as weird as it sounds. I recently wrote a book about how location-independent people find their ideal place, so I know the endless, murky list of factors people must weigh. These people email me their dealbreakers, from political leanings to cost of living to how easy it’ll be to line up a new rec-league rugby team, or whatever. I just fielded a message from someone who says yoga studios and Trader Joe’s are her twin lights of geographic happiness.
And then, for fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there’s the question of the Church.
All through our hypermobile years of ping-ponging around the United States, my husband and I kept telling each other, “The Church is the same everywhere,” and in some ways that was true. We showed up at a chapel in a new town and there were the battered green hymn books, the wailing babies, and the word-perfect sacrament prayers, a familiarity that was endlessly comforting.
But then other things would be different, starting with the members who comprise the ward and their various ages, races, genders, politics, family sizes, and socioeconomic backgrounds. We’ve known a high priest who came to church with a concealed-carry pistol strapped to his leg and a Relief Society sister who championed abortion rights.
People will endlessly surprise you with their capacity to not be like you: in attitudes, in experience, in faith and devotion.
Parts of the broader Church culture would vary too. In southwest Virginia, where I live now, we drive three and a half hours to the nearest temple (shave off 30 minutes once the Richmond, Virginia, temple is dedicated). Our teens attend early morning seminary with teachers who juggle this enormous calling with full-time jobs.
In some units in our stake, which covers a few hundred miles’ worth of Virginia and West Virginia, a new family with kids might double the size of the Primary. In one branch, if you moved in as an active priesthood holder, your chance of being called to a leadership position stands at about 95 percent. The current branch president has been serving for more than twenty years.
So I’ll admit to getting ever-so-slightly bitter when I visit Utah and pass what feels like 20 temples in the first 30 minutes of leaving the airport, or when friends from our ward in Virginia move back to Utah to take jobs at BYU or get closer to extended family.
Where Can We Help?
But here’s the thing. I wouldn’t trade our time here for anything. One of the things I discovered writing both This Is Where You Belong and If You Could Live Anywhere is that there’s a Trader-Joe’s-and-yoga-studio kind of happiness we find in places that are easy and meet all our needs—and then there’s the meaning we create in communities where we have to dig in and contribute more because our places need us.
In a fantastic April 2013 general conference talk, Elder Stanley G. Ellis of the Seventy said,
“For 16 years I served in the presidency of the Houston Texas North Stake. Many moved to our area during those years. We would often receive a phone call announcing someone moving in and asking which was the best ward. Only once in 16 years did I receive a call asking, ‘Which ward needs a good family? Where can we help?’”
Being the family that chooses the hard but meaningful place is as deep an act of spiritual consecration as I can imagine.
Listen, I know membership in the Church is easy nowhere, that Utahns serve and sacrifice, too. One friend, after moving from our Virginia ward when her husband got a job at BYU, was called as the Young Women president in a ward whose girls, many of them less-active, LGBTQ+, and/or struggling with mental health needs, desperately need her. She is consecrated.
Here in Virginia, the opportunities to serve might come even more fast and furious. My husband, Quinn, serves as the stake president, a calling he regularly says he wouldn’t have received if we lived in Utah. And we’ve witnessed just how giddy our leaders are to see a new family move in—the joy in branch council over one new arrival in Welch, West Virginia, is immeasurable.
Acting With Perfect Faith
As Elder Ellis pointed out, we no longer live in the days when Brigham Young announced over the pulpit where you and your family would be moving to build the kingdom. And yet, isn’t it still possible that the Lord could tell you where you could be of most use to Him if you asked?
The readers who fill my inbox asking for moving help don’t know that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a serious advantage in their relocation decisions because of their access to the Spirit. We’ve had people move into our stake in response to spiritual promptings that they barely understand yet act on with perfect faith.
Luckily, despite our distance from the temple, the Church is as true in small-town Virginia as it is in Utah or anywhere else. Visit us on a Sunday and you’ll get the sacrament, a Sunday School class, and hopefully an ample portion of the Spirit. Stay and you’ll be welcomed—and undoubtedly be given a meaningful way to serve.
So, when the time comes to explore a career change or a new educational opportunity, or even when you’re feeling restless but aren’t sure why, you might ask yourself, “Which ward needs a good family? Where can we help?” Then go there.