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Dr. Wayne E. Oates
Wayne E. Oates was born June 24, 1917, in the poverty stricken rural county of Greenville, South Carolina. Left by his father at birth, and with a mother who spent her long hard days at the cotton mill, he was raised by his grandmother and sister. As a young boy it seemed that destiny was repeating itself as he too faced work in the cotton mill. However, providence intervened when he was selected at age 14 on the basis of his intellect and poverty, to become a page in the United States Senate.
Wayne understood education to be his way out of poverty and away from feelings of inferiority. At a young age he began his “struggle to be free,” as expressed in his autobiography, The Struggle to Be Free. In this book he wrote:
Any effort to be free of poverty calls for a stubborn, gutsy struggle. It is uphill all the way……Education became my God-given path to freedom. God does not intend that human intelligence be snuffed out by hunger, grinding poverty, and a squalid lack of care and discipline. I know this: that once we have won the struggle to be free of poverty, God intends that we have a burning sense of social justice that is dedicated to the enabling of others in that same struggle.
The passion born from his personal childhood pain began to weave a powerful combination of knowledge and compassion. As one wounded by deprivation, the abandonment of his father, the resentment of his brothers, and later by chronic back pain, Wayne Oates developed a tremendous capacity to empathize with others.
Continuing the struggle, Oates graduated from Mars Hill Junior College, and Wake Forest University. He served as a pastor of churches in North Carolina and Kentucky, and after combining the best of the behavioral sciences with Biblical and theological perspective, Wayne received his Ph.D. in the field of Psychology of Religion from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1947, he began his full time career on the faculty of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
In those days, the field of Psychology of Religion was new and seminary faculty wanted to put it under Religious Education. However, Wayne Oates fought hard to get this new academic study placed in the department of theology as part of the Master of Divinity program.
Noted for pioneering an academic body of literature in the fields of pastoral care and pastoral counseling, Dr. Oates’ books have been translated into more than three languages. The first of the 57 books Wayne Oates authored would not bear the name of his dissertation, The Significance of the Work of Sigmund Freud for the Christian Faith. It would be called, The Christian Pastor, a title chosen intentionally after being advised, “a person’s first book tends to tell people who the author thinks he or she is.” Dr. Oates clearly wanted to be identified as a Christian pastor.
Born out of the freedom to create, and with his capacity to empathize, Wayne Oates coined the term workaholic, while counseling a man who was trying to accept his own alcoholism. The term workaholic spread like wildfire and found its way to the dictionary and then on national TV soon after Wayne published his book, Confessions of a Workaholic.
Even as a young man, Wayne Oates was considered old and wise. He had a great sense of “pastoral identity.” While fully human, Dr. Oates extended his compassion and empathy to hear the pain and fear of others. Out of his own experiences, he knew how to be fully “present” to others in the midst of their depression, anxiety, or anger. For Wayne, the incarnation of Jesus Christ was the central theological theme of God’s Presence. To be a Christian pastor to another was to embody God’s presence.
Wayne Oates gave us the term trialogue, in his book, The Presence of God in Pastoral Counseling. The trialogue describes the experience when the pastor or counselor, in conversation with another, allows enough silence to be aware of God’s presence and hear God’s insights.
Several years ago in an editorial for the Kentucky Baptist paper, Mark Wingfield, the then editor, wrote:
If a minister in your Baptist church excels at pastoral care, you probably have Wayne Oates to thank. If you’ve been touched by the ministry of a Christian chaplain in the hospital, in the military or in a business setting, you probably have Wayne Oates to thank. Oates may never have stepped foot in the church, hospital or military base where you received ministry, but his writings and teachings over the past 50 years probably have been influential in the life of the minister or chaplain you encountered.
Wayne Oates worked to find freedom as he described his healing process and then turned to share that freedom with others.
The Integration between Pastoral Care and Health Care
As early as 1947, Wayne E. Oates was teaching theology students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition, he was writing, speaking nationally, supervising students in Clinical Pastoral Education, and providing pastoral care in hospital settings. His ministry grew out of his clear understanding of himself as a pastor.
Also in 1947, Dr. Oates was invited by Dr. Spafford Ackerly, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, to serve in a unique role as a theological consultant for the medical community. In that day it was unusual for medicine to value theology or pastoral care as having an important voice or perspective for the physicians caring for patients. Dr. Ackerly’s invitation opened the door for Wayne Oates to teach and embody collaborative, compassionate care to professionals outside the field of Psychology of Religion and outside his teaching at Southern Seminary.
In 1974 Dr. Oates left Southern Seminary and formally joined the University of Louisville Medical School faculty. There he had an even greater opportunity to combine his knowledge of Christian theology with his psychiatric insights. At the Medical School the new chair of the Psychiatric Department, Dr. John Schwab, reminded Wayne that they had psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and nurses already, but Oates was the only pastor and theologian. Schwab insisted, “Be who you are and don’t dare place your light under a bushel!” Wayne worked at defining religion as a behavioral science in order to make medical students more aware of the spiritual needs they would encounter in their patients. He taught and mentored numerous caregivers in the understanding that treatment requires collaboration, compassion, and integration among all of the healing disciplines. In 1984 the American Psychiatric Association conferred on him the Oskar Pfister Award for his contributions to the relationship between psychiatry and religion.
Wayne Oates died on October 21, 1999. As a luminary,* his influence continues in countless ways through his writing, through the lives of individuals, and through the Wayne E. Oates Institute.
Out of a long term relationship with Wayne Oates and as a professional in the field of pastoral counseling, Roy Woodruff, former Executive Director of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors said of Oates, “He put together the practice of pastoral ministry, with the wisdom and resources of psychiatry and psychology, in a masterful way. He became bilingual, in theology and psychiatry, and could move back and forth with amazing agility.” In forging this integration of theology and psychiatry, Wayne Oates was well ahead of the times. In his tribute to Dr. Oates, Woodruff wrote, “He was a faithful father who pioneered a ministry and who taught and nurtured those of us who have chosen his path. Now it is up to us to keep it going and to pass it on.”
Regarding the Institute that bears Oates’ name, Woodruff wrote:
Those of us who had the special opportunity to study under, learn from, and work alongside one of the world’s truly great teachers know what it means to have the Wayne E. Oates Institute. It is an ongoing center of learning that honors the past, activates the present, and shapes the future in the tradition of the enormous contributions Wayne Oates has made to theological education, clinical pastoral work, and the eloquent integration of psychology and theology in the focus on the living human document. In the spirit of this great pioneer, and by honoring the conviction that the relationship between the mind, body, and spirit work together for health and healing, the Wayne E. Oates Institute advances the spirituality, health, and healing dialogue among the medical, religious, social work, and therapeutic professionals.
*Luminary: A person who shines so brightly in their field that their legacy lives on for generations.