Monday, October 20, 2014

Thank God for Wise Teachers (and Workaholics)

Dr. Wayne E. Oates was probably the wisest teacher I ever sat under—and since I was a full time student for 22 years, from 1944 to 1966, I had a lot of teachers.
Oates was born into a poor South Carolina family in 1917, and he passed away 15 years ago tomorrow, on Oct. 21, 1999. Abandoned by his father in infancy, young Wayne was brought up by his grandmother and sister while his mother supported them by working in a cotton mill.
At the age of fourteen he was one of a small number of impoverished boys selected to serve as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives. Stimulated by that experience, he became the first of his family to go to college.
Oates went on to earn a doctor’s degree in the psychology of religion and then taught at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) from 1947 to 1974 and at the University of Louisville Medical School after that.
When I was in his pastoral counseling class at SBTS, I made an appointment to talk with Dr. Oates about a troublesome matter in the church I was serving as pastor. After listening carefully to my explanation of the problem, he leaned toward me and said, “Brother Seat, there are some situations we just can’t change. All we can do is learn from them.”
Wise words!
Several years later, in 1971, Dr. Oates wrote a book titled “Confessions of a Workaholic.” He begins, “Workaholism is a word which I have invented. It is not in your dictionary.”
But now “workaholic” is in most dictionaries. In a brief article about his death, the New York Times reported that Oates’s 1971 book resulted in “workaholic” being added “to the American lexicon; the Oxford English Dictionary credits him with inventing it.”
At the age of 66, Dr. Oates wrote an autobiographical book titled “The Struggle to Be Free.” The first chapter is about his boyhood and the struggle to be free of poverty.

Next he writes about the struggle to be free from a feeling of inferiority. “Poverty,” he contends, “leaves you with wounds to your self-esteem” (p. 29).
“To Be Free from the Slavery of Overcommitment” is the title of the seventh chapter, and there Dr. Oates tells how he wrote the book about workaholism because of his own struggle with an overcommitment to work.”
He came to realize that part of the reason for that was due to the poverty he had experienced as a boy. He writes, “I do not think that economics determines our destiny. I do think that economics shapes our thoughts and decisions far more than the pious people of the earth know or are willing to admit” (p. 136).
Throughout his lifetime, Dr. Oates wrote 57 books—far more than he probably would have written if he had not been a workaholic. (In some cases we can thank God for workaholics!)
Those books have been greatly beneficial not only to his many students and to other teachers in the field of counseling, but also to many people in the general public who have been able to learn from the wisdom shared in his books.
Please join me in thanking God for wise teachers—and even for workaholics like Dr. Oates.


  1. Those of you who read the previous article on Freud will likely be interested to know that Dr. Oates's doctoral thesis was "The Significance of the Work of Sigmund Freud for the Christian Faith."

    In light of that, it is interesting that there are very few references to Freud in Dr. Oates's books--at least in the ones I have looked at. (I haven't read all 57 of his books!)

    There is a mistake in the Wikipedia article about Freud. It says Oates's dissertation was reworked and published under the autobiographical title "The Christian Pastor" (1951). But that book make only one reference to Freud, so it is obviously not even a reworked version of a dissertation on Freud--and it isn't autobiographical either.

  2. Thanks for your ode to teachers and the review of Oates's book. I've regretted that I didn't make his acquaintance during the several years I lived in Louisville. I've read only two of his books but several articles over the years. I think I would like this book.

    There are a couple of things I have to say about this. I resonate with the sentiments expressed, particularly the anxiety and wounds of growing up poor. I think we weren't actually poor while I was growing up, except for a few periods, but we lived on the edge most of the time. Recently I talked with my brother, and we were reflecting on how our background left us in a psychological space in which one never turns down a paying gig. We're aware that something in us says, if you're offered a job that pays money, you can't turn it down if it's at all possible to do it.

    On the other hand (and perhaps Oates addresses this), it's been my argument that certain work contexts themselves turn people into workaholics. And academia is one of them. The church might be another. Our tendency in this culture to psychologize prejudices us to see people's social fate as driven by their psychology. The social circumstances tend to be ignored. Clearly Oates sees the effects of poverty on a person as a social factor. But social environmental effects don't cease with adulthood. Some social environments provide workloads and an ethos which coerce and instruct with the message: You can never do enough!

    1. Anton, thanks for posting insightful comments again.

      Even though I haven't heard it for a long time, it used to be said, "A woman's work is never done."

      Be that as it may, I have long known that a teacher's/scholar's work is never done and also that a pastor's work is never done.

      Since I was both a teacher and a pastor, long ago when I had children at home I started keeping a close account of my time usage and purposely limited myself to working no more than an average of 50 hours a week (for 50 weeks a year, leaving two whole weeks for vacation and all holidays).

      Later on when the children were gone from home and I had even more responsibilities, I moved that on up to 60 hours a week.

      With those limits, I always felt like I needed to work more. There was always so much more that needed to be done. So I think you are right: it is not just psychological "hangups" that tend to make some people a "workaholic."

    2. Well said, Anton! Our daughter Karen is learning this in her work at the University of AZ (sadly, as being a workaholic is not her true nature).

  3. Thanks Leroy for the warranted gracious reminder of Oates legacy.
    Les Hill

  4. Here is a brief, but meaningful, comment from local Thinking Friend Dub Steincross, who was my friend (and basketball teammate) at SBTS in the early 1960s:

    "Splendid tribute to a superb teacher. Loved his 'I understand' smile."

  5. And here are comments from local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman, who knew Dr. Oates well:

    "I have suggested to people on my mailing list that there is a difference between nostalgia and longing, the first being a simple recollection of the good ole' days, whereas a longing is an active remembering in which we bring a past experience into the present.

    "Your blog on Dr. Oates was a longing experience. Looking at his picture was deeply moving. He was so gracious.

    "Once I served with him on a panel in a Southern class session. Afterword, he said to me, "Being with you is always a pleasure." A celebrated person such as he seldom is that affirming of a lowly minister of education in a church. That's who he was, totally unabsorbed in his status. I'm wondering if anyone has ever done a collection of words on him.

    "Do you ever miss being addressed as Brother Seat and greeted as pastor? Doctor doesn't quite reach the soul."

  6. Yes, I do miss being addressed as "Brother Seat" and greeted as pastor. But I don't know if that is longing or just nostalgia.

  7. Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona wrote,

    "I too am a fan of Dr. Oates. I didn't know about his background. Only in eternity will we know the number of lives he has touched, as he has yours and mine."

  8. Excellent. I, too, was blessed by his wise teaching and writing.