Workaholic widows around the world have Wayne Edward Oates to thank for recognizing that chronic overwork was as much an addiction as alcoholism. The word comes from the title of one of his 57 books, “Confessions of a Workaholic” (1971), which was an expansion of his 1968 article, “On Being A Workaholic.” “Workaholic” has been included in the Oxford English Dictionary since the early 1990s, and has become a part of everyday language.
Oates was born into a poor single-parent family in Greenville, South Carolina on June 24, 1917. Abandoned by his father at birth, he was raised by his grandmother and older sister while his mother worked at a local cotton mill. These early struggles with poverty led him to his knowledge, his compassion, and his lifelong belief that “God does not intend that human intelligence be snuffed out by hunger, grinding poverty, and a squalid lack of care and discipline.”
At the age of 14, Oates was selected on the basis of his intellect and poverty as a United States House of Representatives Page. His experience in the halls of government inspired him to become the first of his family to seek higher education. Even at this young age, he had discovered that education was his way out of poverty and his “God-given path to freedom.” He would eventually graduate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a PhD in Psychology of Religion.
After graduating in 1947, Oates became a professor of psychology of religion and pastoral care at Southern Seminary. He also provided pastoral care in hospital settings, where he developed the trialogue form of pastoral counseling, a conversation between counselor, counselee, and the Holy Spirit.
At the request of Dr. Spafford Ackerly, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Oates also served as the theological consultant to the medical community, at a time when medicine did not have much use for pastoral care.
Oates also served as a pastor of churches in North Carolina and Kentucky, and as a guiding light for Christian pastoral care around the world. His gift of compassion and empathy enabled him to hear the pain and fear of others who were caught in anger, anxiety, or depression. His calling shaped every aspect of his life and his work.
In 1974, he stepped up the job of building bridges between religion and psychiatry by joining the University of Louisville Medical School as a faculty member. There, he showed medical students how to be more aware of their patients’ spiritual needs. His cross-disciplinary approach combined existing psychological models with biblical teaching and pastoral sensitivity. This would later become the bedrock of the modern pastoral care movement.
Throughout his life, Oates was a passionate speaker, writer, and teacher. His son Charles describes his father as an “absolute, bustling dynamo of energy.” However, Oates recognized the trap of the workaholic in others he counseled and in himself, and managed to avoid it in himself. According to Oates, the work addict “drops out of the human community” in his drive for peak performance. Oates himself never dropped out of the human community. He enriched it continually.
Today, Oates is recognized as one of the fathers of the psychiatry of religion. In 1984, he received the Oskar Pfister Award from the American Psychiatric Association for his contributions to the relationship between psychiatry and religion.
Oates died on October 21, 1999. He was survived by his wife, Pauline, his son, Charles, and by a grandson. He leaves behind a rich legacy which includes the continuing work of the Wayne E. Oates Institute to advance the spirituality, health, and healing dialogue among medical, religious, therapeutic, and social work professionals.