Figure Out What's Next

Becoming a Pastor: My Spiritual Calling

career change purposeful living susan crandell Apr 09, 2009

by Susan Crandell

photo by Paval

Susanna Margaret Goulder gave up a glamorous career as set decorator for movies and TV to find more meaningful work

Susanna’s Lesson: Respect the challenges and difficulties you face in life. Pay attention to them, and they can guide you to the right path.

“I was always a little actress,” Susanna Margaret Goulder tells me. “My parents used to call me Sarah Bernhardt.” She thought she was headed toward a career on the stage until she got to college and faced a crisis of confidence. “My best friend was an actress, too, and competing against her was troubling. Besides, I didn’t feel secure that my talents were that great.” So she left school to hitchhike around the country and figure out a life plan. “I still don’t know why my parents said yes to this,” she says, laughing. Susanna only got as far as Florida when a friend of a friend hired her to make sandbags to weigh down the lights on movie shoots. From this humble beginning—“Eventually I made about two-thirds of all the sandbags used on location in the Southeast”—she developed a successful movie and TV career, progressing from sandbag seamstress to motor-home driver to set decorator, ultimately moving to New York. It was a job she was good at, and she expected it would be a lifelong career.

But at the age of forty-one, after a long, wearing decade of discontent, she found her life blossoming in ways she had never imagined. “I’m a Jewish girl from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Who would guess I’d be a minister to Christians in Yonkers, New York?”

A Love/Hate Relationship With Work

There were many things Susanna loved about working behind the camera. “It was glamorous, exciting. The sets were my canvas—how I’d represent a character through his things.” But while she thrived on the work, she hated the politics. She worked on Disappearing Acts with Wesley Snipes, Stir of Echoes with Kevin Bacon, and The Big Kahuna with Kevin Spacey, and was the original set decorator on Sex and the City. But the work was so grueling that she’d have to hibernate for a month or more after every job—eating well and resting up before diving back in. And she never reached the pinnacle she craved: “I wanted to be on the A list, I wanted to win an Oscar.” As she moved into her thirties, Susanna says, “Nothing in my life was taking off.” She’d just ended a six-year relationship with another set decorator. “Breaking up with him was like pulling apart Velcro.”

After they split, she began a decade of spiritual questioning, studying Reiki and trying to figure out how to make a more satisfying life for herself. When a new relationship foundered after three years, she fell into deep despair, a hopeless time she calls “the dark night of the soul.”

“As the years went by, I was working purely for the money and taking more and more time off to recover. I tried everything. I was using Buddhist meditation techniques and jogging every day.” She began to study with well-known healer Rosalyn Bruyere. “One night Rosalyn channeled a four-thousand-year-old Tibetan man. I asked Master Chang what I should do with my life—stay with set decorating or pursue energy healing—and he said, ‘For seven months prepare, and in seven months you’ll know the answer.”

The Importance of Place

As Susanna took the advice to heart, an eviction notice was slid under her door. Her shepherd-terrier mix, Sienna, was no longer welcome in the building.

In great distress, she phoned her spiritual adviser and made an emergency appointment. “She did something called soul work, a very simple process of meditation, which indicated I should move to nature.” Susanna didn’t know what to do with this information. “Do I really believe this?” she wondered. “Is it crazy?” But her life was at a standstill and she was willing to take a leap; she contacted Realtors outside the city and threw herself into the search for a new home. Four months later she was still looking for a place that would accept Sienna, now panicky because she had to be out of her apartment in a matter of weeks. “I’d walk across 15th Street and say to myself, Why am I trusting this voice that’s saying, ‘You will live in lots of light on the water’?” Desperate, she called the original real estate agent she’d worked with, who showed her three lovely apartments in a historic Hudson River town, all in her price range. The next day, at a nondenominational church in Manhattan, she asked God which one she should take. The first person she saw walking out of the service was one of the landlords. “I’d never seen her before at church, so I took this as a sign. Now I live in this beautiful place overlooking the Hudson River.”

One problem in her life was solved. And she had just begun work on a TV courtroom drama. “Then out of the blue the production designer told me she’d decided to bring in her own decorator.” Susanna drove home in shock. The next morning, waking up in her sun-filled apartment, she knew it was time to leave the film business. “I decided I would do energy healing professionally.” A couple of days later, she realized she’d made her decision seven months, to the day, after Master Chang’s prediction. “I knew it was preordained. When I learned to trust the voice within me, I found a wonderful community of friends, a beautiful place to live, and a new career.”

Finding A Spiritual Path

But there were still some kinks to iron out. “In New York State, you can’t legally touch someone as an energy healer. I decided to become a minister, so I could.” She embarked on a two-year ordination program at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in Manhattan purely to allow her to practice energy healing—and stumbled into a career she adores. “When I entered seminary, I found the place I should be.” But she still never envisioned herself before a congregation. “The last class was on how to open a church. I closed my notebook. I knew I’d never be doing that.” But a week before her ordination, she was offered a job as a pastoral counselor at Greyston Foundation, a former convent that is now a health services organization, where she had been volunteering. “I was terrified, but I knew I should take the job.” To her surprise, the ministry was a perfect fit. “I do Sunday service every week. I love it. It may sound airy-fairy, but I really feel I’m getting teaching direct from the spirit.” She still appreciates her Jewish heritage but has opened her faith to embrace many paths. “Can you imagine me creating a church with an African American fundamentalist Christian and a former Roman Catholic who now practices Buddhism? Somehow the three of us have come together with respect for one another’s beliefs.”

Once one pathway opened up, the underbrush in other parts of her life began to fall away. “For years, I’d been working with my spiritual adviser on an intention to have a man in my life. I always thought I’d marry, have kids.” She tried dating services—nothing. But within a year of moving to her river-view apartment, she met a man at an energy healing workshop and fell in love. Now Susanna is moving to Cleveland to build a new life with him.

Susanna feels that her life has really come together in her forties. She is grateful, but she doesn’t look back at the hard years with regret. “All the pain and struggles in my life propelled me into something wonderful,” she says. “Once I let go of all the things that were preventing me from being who I truly am, the rewards have been fantastic.” And she knows how hard she worked to gain the wisdom and maturity to have the life she wanted. “I dove into different therapies, programs, workshops. It took a long time, but my life has blossomed because of the hard work I did. All that came before prepared me for my life today.”


Susan Crandell, the former editor of More magazine, is the author of the book Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife.

Republished with permission of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2007 Susan Crandell. All rights reserved.


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