Thinking About Religion
Volume 1 (2000)

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Y2K as a Clergy Testing Ground

P.Eddy Wilson
Shaw University

Called the "biggest nonnegotiable deadline in history", the new millennium is fast approaching.[1] In the industrialized and technological world anxiety about the millennium rollover problem, that is, the Y2K problem has overshadowed the euphoria of welcoming a new century. When the author was invited to address a local ministerial conference in Spring 1999, he gained rare insights into the way some clergy were thinking of Y2K. This essay investigates how some clergy have chosen to cope with the impending Y2K problem. This serves as a case study in understanding how clergy persons may choose to deal with a community wide crisis. I shall suggest that clergy and their constituents may benefit by upholding some ethical principals as they formulate a plan to cope with a community wide crises like the Y2K problem.

I. The Millennium Bug

What will happen on January 1, 2000? Even the most informed computer scientists must admit that they do not know. Alongside the highway I read a billboard for a foreign car manufacturer that says, "Y2K means Yes to KIA". Has the seriousness of the problem been underestimated?

Those who own or routinely use computers are likely to anticipate that one of two possible Y2K scenarios will occur during the millennium rollover, the non-event scenario and the triage scenario. In the non-event scenario when the millennium rollover occurs only a number of personal computers with outdated software will be at risk. In this view the impact on the social infrastructure will be short lived and relatively harmless. In some remote centers the electricity may blink on-and-off for the first few minutes. Water and sewage will be available with only minor interruptions. Major disasters shall not occur in this view simply because people are alert and ready or not at risk. Those convinced that Y2K will be a non-event may believe in a silver bullet, that is, a systematic solution.[2]

Those better informed understand that there can be no systematic solution, since resolving the problem requires that individual lines of computer code be rewritten by someone trained to recognize date sensitive code. In this view no account may be given of the risk posed by machinery operating with time sensitive embedded chips.

The triage scenario takes the problem to be far more serious. In this view neither money nor effort shall be sufficient to resolve the problem in time. The best that some companies may hope for is readiness rather than compliance. Those companies and individuals unable or unwilling to devote adequate resources to resolving the problem will by default take a wait and see approach to the problem. When discussing the problem before the U. S. Senate, Senator Robert Bennett predicted that the problem would require triage, that is, decision making about what computers or systems should be fixed first.[3] Giving priority attention to some computerized systems over others means that some failed systems will not be repaired. As a result some analysts of the Y2K problem foresee that the problem will have long range effects, and they suggest that we think of triage for a period of one to three days, one month, one year, and a decade.[4]

Those persuaded to embrace the non-event scenario may understand only that the millennium bug poses a threat for some personal computer users. The problem results from an early computer programming procedure that used two place settings for dates. Programmers encoding date sensitive material would reduce the year 1960 to 60 to save valuable computer space. This encoded entry might be buried in thousands of lines of code, and fixing it would require that a programmer find that specific entry and create a suitable replacement. Without rewriting the code the computer would not recognize the difference between 1900 and 2000. In lieu of rewriting the code some programmers have chosen to create a window that would allow computers to continue to operate uninterrupted for a finite number of years beyond 2000. It is not just personal computers but all computer systems that made use of this programming strategy that are at risk.

The risk of malfunction as a result of the millennium rollover also extends to "smart" machines, that is, machines that make use of computerized technology like embedded computer chips. Embedded microchips that may be date sensitive can be found in elevators, cars, bank vaults, and elsewhere. Some elevators with date sensitive, embedded chips could become inoperable after gently settling to the bottom of their shaft. If bank vault doors with date sensitive, embedded chips were confused by the millennium rollover, they might not open on schedule. When the chips are inaccessible as some bank vault chips are, that makes the problem virtually unsolvable.[5] Having access to the embedded chips is only part of the solution. Suppose two distinct suppliers of chips were used in the manufacturing process. A manufacturer unable to determine with precision which devices are date sensitive may be forced to take a wait and see strategy. Embedded chips may affect the performance of not only labor saving devices but also life saving medical technology.

The ripple effect envisioned by some analysts of the problem reaffirms how computerized technology has become intertwined in the social structure. Though testing may show a system to be fully compliant, it may yet be at risk due to interaction with non-compliant computer systems. Vendors may pose the greatest threat to the iron triangle, that is, the banking, utility, and telecommunication system. Of course, the integrity of the iron triangle will determine whether our social infrastructure can survive. Quality of life within the social infrastructure will be determined by supply line vendors and their ability to withstand the millennium problem. These vendors shall most likely require triage in the event that the iron triangle does prove capable of withstanding the rollover. Two additional factors exacerbate their problem. First, year 2000 is also a leap year, and date sensitive computer programs will require special adjustments to deal with the leap year as well as the millennium rollover. Second, a series of solar flares due to occur next year that will negatively impact communications and technology. 

On the one hand, technology and communication equipment are endangered by faulty programming as well as interference by solar flares. On the other hand, public paranoia poses a distinct threat. Both before and during the millennium rollover panic driven behavior has the potential to undermine our preparedness to meet the technological crisis. Borrowing a Japanese business practice many U. S. suppliers have adopted a just-in-time strategy for inventory maintenance. While reducing the risk of over stocking, this practice demands that a vendor's supply line must function without fail. It also demands that a vendor have a good sense of what inventory is routinely required. Not infrequently inventories are compiled on the basis of computer generated statistics or demographics. If demands on this delicate supply line were doubled the effect could be disastrous. Just such a threat may be posed when the panic stricken place unreasonable demands on the consumer staple supply chain. Only so much gas, milk, bread, and food stuffs can be made available to consumers at a given time. Panic driven buying could easily exhaust a just-in-time inventory. Rapid depletion of inventories may also make it impossible to restock in sufficient time to meet the demands of those most in need.

II. Pastoral Counseling for Y2K

In Spring 1999, I was invited to speak at four monthly meetings of the Piedmont District Christian Ministry Association.[6] At these meetings I was able to participate in their open forums where they chose to discuss the Y2K problem as it related to their ministerial duties. In addition, some of my undergraduate students at Shaw University who are ministers have quizzed me about the Y2K problem. Together these discussions have provided me with some insight into the thinking of one group of community leaders about the Y2K problem. I suspect that these fundamentalist ministers with whom I have been in contact adopt a conservative view about the problem, though some do tend to see the problem from an apocalyptic perspective. 

Clergy do feel the pulse of their own religious communities. Their ministerial duties give them privileged access to individuals on their membership roles. Thus, a clergy person becomes both a spokesperson to the community and for the community. When a local pastor asked me how many gallons of gas he should store for the Y2K problem, I suppose he was asking not only on behalf of himself but also his community. Members of the Piedmont District Christian Ministry Association (PDMCA) discussed in an open forum what counsel they should offer regarding the problem. They were interested in telling their members what steps to take to prepared for the rollover, and what they should expect when the rollover occurs. The host of this group was particularly concerned when one of his membership consulted him about the advice a televangelist offers on the Y2K problem.  This televangelist counsels listeners to outfit themselves with guns and ammunition to defend their Y2K store of staple goods.[7] While the host took issue with this militant advice, he believes that his members should work toward some state of readiness. The same minister felt strongly obliged to offer advice and moral support for his membership throughout this crisis.

Perhaps the crisis has added an air of authority to the ministerial voice simply because this is an area where the minister may shine. Since there is no Y2K guru, the playing field is leveled.[8] Under these conditions the clergy may be consulted more frequently for their advice. Of course, ministerial advice about Y2K may take on apocalyptic overtones. The year 2000 signals the end of a millennium with technological ramifications, but it also holds symbolic significance for many members of the Christian community who are students of Biblical prophesy. Those convinced that Biblical prophesy bears witness to millennial dispensations may believe that the year 2000 marks the begin a new religious era when the Christian Messiah shall return. Only one member of the PDMCA openly said he thought this may trigger the return of Christ described in Biblical prophesy.

III. Ministerial Counsel and a Y2K Dilemma

Already I have attempted to make a distinction between the technological crisis that will occur and the perceived crisis. The perceived crisis has the potential for triggering defensive behavior both before and during the first few days of the millennium. This defensive behavior may be proportional to the degree of fear experienced by those who see the millennium rollover as a threat to their way of life. By offering counsel on the Y2K problem the clergy have the ability to intensify or diminish that effect. For practical purposes this may create a prisoner's dilemma in relation to the supply line for staple goods, pharmaceuticals, and the vital services. Regarding prisoner's dilemmas Dwight Lee and Richard McKenzie say, "The prisoner's dilemma arises when two or more people find themselves in a situation where the best decision from the perspective of each leads to the worst outcome from the perspective of all."[9]

In a prisoner's dilemma what is sought of each prisoner is corroborative testimony that would lead to the conviction of the other prisoner. You are rewarded for being an informant and punished for testimony brought against you.[10] The prisoner's dilemma we envision happens within the confines of a consumer-based community, that is, the immediate neighborhood where an individual routinely trades, but it is a dilemma that has the potential of infinite repetition. So, one individual's pattern of buying has the potential of creating an exponential impact upon the community. The clergy may become unwitting players in such a prisoner's dilemma, since their counsel may directly impact consumer buying patterns before and during the millennium rollover. What is at stake is the availability of staple goods, vital resources including commodities and pharmaceuticals, and rare health services. We may call this the Y2K consumer's dilemma.

Of course, in the Y2K consumer's dilemma it is not information but the availability or scarcity of goods and services in the open marketplace that places community members at risk. To act defensively is to take an extraordinary draft upon the inventory of the community. Since that inventory is built upon a just-in-time strategy and a calculation of the demographics of the community that inventory is much like a commodities market option. It is a wasting asset with an expiration date. If the inventory cannot be replenished when it is depleted it poses a further threat. Even if the merchant and supplier are Y2K compliant, the inventory's timely replenishment is dependent upon vendors who may be at risk.

If I were to act upon the advice of a well meaning clergy person enrolled in one of my philosophy classes, commodity shortages would be sure to follow. After stating that some of his members had plans to store 50 gallons of gasoline per person, he asked how much gasoline I would recommend that he and others stockpile. I endeavored to point out to this clergy person the potential effect upon the community if its members were take seriously the advice that they should stockpile 50 gallons of gasoline before the millennium rollover.

The combination of a marketing community that uses a just-in-time inventory and a clientele that plans to hoard staple goods and commodities has the potential of creating artificial shortages. That would prove harmless were goods stored fairly, that is, on a proportional scale that would not result in future opportunism. Of course, there is no preventing that from occurring. Those unable to hoard adequate supplies may have to wait out the period of scarcity in hopes that the supply line will remain intact. Otherwise they may lack some supplies or pay a premium to acquire adequate supplies if such supplies are marketed.

In the medical arena a serious threat would be posed were supplies of insulin and other life sustaining pharmaceuticals suddenly unavailable.  In the supply chain that makes insulin available there is the manufacturer, the vendors who supply the product, and the retail community that makes the product available to the consumer. Presently 70 percent of all insulin is shipped from Novo in Denmark.[11] One break in this link could place unnecessary stress upon other members of the supply chain that allows diabetics access to insulin. Insulin also has a finite shelf life. It is not something that can be warehoused as a defense against unprecedented demands nor against the possibility that vendors are unable to deliver the product. To be consumed effectively the product must be conveyed from the manufacturer to the consumer in a timely manner on a regular schedule. If the same supply line that supplies staple goods and commodities supplies insulin, hoarding could adversely affect this supply. Disruption of the supply would demand that extraordinary choices be made. For instance, truck drivers could experience unnecessary delays in delivery of their product were they unable to obtain fuel sufficient to complete their run in a timely manner. Since the supply line is composed not only of machines but also men and women, when they are at risk due to a lack of life sustaining medical products the supply line is likewise at risk. The diabetic truck driver endangers all others who depend on his or her delivery of insulin, if the truck driver cannot get his or her insulin.

To alleviate a Y2K consumer's dilemma clergy members must decide how they shall conduct themselves before and during the millennium rollover. While we are dealing with the "biggest nonnegotiable deadline in history", we are still able to predict when and that there will be some technological crisis. Only the magnitude of the crisis remains undetermined. Clergy must also be aware of their privileged position as spokespersons to and on behalf of their own religious community. Their ability to inform and motivate their own constituency cannot be overlooked. I suspect that the minister who asked me how much gas he should stockpile has the ability to set off a hoarding frenzy were he to exert his influence toward that end. Thus, the clergy are capable of having a direct impact upon the Y2K consumer's dilemma.

IV. Clergy and the Professional Motivation Trap

In the ministerial discussion group I visited I was asked to offer my insight as a college educator about the Y2K problem. Adopting a Socratic approach to the topic I asked these clergy members to consider how they see themselves in relation to the problem. Upon reflection clergy members may see themselves as being driven by one of two motivational forces -- the role of a pastor or the role of a prophet. Without further rational reflection upon these motivational forces clergy members may simply offer advice in keeping with one motivational force or the other. I shall call these two driving forces the pastoral heart and the prophetic spirit. Thus one might say that when clergy members react to a community wide social crisis without further reflection their reaction is most often determined by idiosyncratic forces.[12]

Those clergy members who are motivated by a pastoral heart when encountering a social crisis tend to focus upon the welfare of their constituency as well as the welfare of the larger community. The application of that notion may vary from one clergy to another. On the one hand, if they believe that they are to minister to the needs of their own parishioners first, then they will endeavor to support a defensive strategy to reduce the pain and suffering of their constituency before attending to the needs of the larger community. On the other hand, if they believe a social crisis is an occasion for pastoral outreach, they will develop a strategy to mobilize their community to tend to the needs of others as well as their own needs. This outreach agenda may become part of a greater plan to enlarge the membership of the religious community. Thus, enlarging the fellowship of faith becomes an ultimate end.

The second motivational force under consideration is the apocalyptic spirit. A clergy person in the grips of this motivational force will interpret all events in light of a greater prophetic scheme. All persons and events are seen as moving toward a cosmic showdown in which the two warring forces, that is, heavenly and demonic forces will organize and rally their troops and begin a struggle to the death. Of course, the clergy sees himself or herself and the religious community in a favorable light. They are the elect, and they must take steps to validate their privileged position and to defend it against outside influences. Clergy who are under the influence of this motivational force may see themselves as having privileged information vital to the welfare of their community when facing a community wide crisis such as Y2K. Their very attitude toward such crises fosters a sense of dependency within their community as members of that community search out their advice and insight.

When a clergy person acting under the influence of a prophetic spirit encounters a community wide crisis, that clergy person may foster a sense of dependency among his or her membership. Members of the community are taught to depend upon the clergy to inform them about the crisis. The clergy member dictates how a person or event fits into their prophetic interpretation of the crisis. Of course, this raises questions about the credibility and veracity of the clergy person.[13]

Thus, there may be two overarching motivational forces that govern how the clergy react to a community wide crisis like Y2K -- the pastoral heart and the prophetic spirit. These motivational forces have a direct bearing upon the question What do you do if you anticipate that a community wide crisis shall soon unfold? Answering this question calls for clergy members to determine the nature of the crisis. Once the crisis is clearly defined they must go on to determine what short and long term practical steps are to be taken to cope effectively with the crisis.

V. Clergy Under the Spell of Ethical Principals

While I suspect that there may be resources within religion to enable clergy members to transcend their own idiosyncratic motivations, without further reflection their professional ties to religion may preclude their ability to step out of that role.[14] So, they may benefit by contemplating those normative ethical principals that would liberate them and their constituency from becoming unwitting participants in a virtual prisoner's dilemma. Here I may focus upon only one or two exemplary principles. Consider how the principle of autonomy and the principal of justice as fairness could affect clergy who face a community wide crisis.  Whether clergy shall subsequently find these principles embedded within their religious tradition is a moot point.

Clergy may benefit themselves and their community if they foster the principle of autonomy, that is, if they encourage their constituency to reason for themselves to the best course of action. To do so is both to empower and to liberate the members of the religious community rather than intellectually enslaving them. This would require that clergy surrender some of their ability to leverage their position within the community to control others. However, it would enable members of their religious community to become whole, that is, to become individuals who take responsibility for their wellbeing while maintaining a viable relationship to a community of faith.

Fostering a spirit of autonomy in a religious community may strike some authoritarian clergy members as a dangerous practice. However, the potential religious payoff is great. As members of community become more egalitarian they experience less oppression, more freedom to respond creatively to community needs. Not one but all may become participants in the planning phase of crisis preparation. Also as individuals build self-esteem they become less dependent on authoritarian affirmations of the clergy. In other words, they come to internalize esteem building elements within their religious tradition. This does not necessarily eliminate their religious sense of dependency but it redirects it by reaffirming a subjective relationship to a divine person rather than an objective relationship to a clergy member.

If clergy persons encourage a frenzy of hoarding, they shall do so through appealing to the imaginative and aesthetic dimensions of human nature. How easily prophetic texts may be turned to create an imaginative narrative that pits "us" against "them". Why not rather use this influence to challenge the same constituency imaginatively to envision a fair society and pragmatically to take steps to insure that such a society is developed. John Rawls notion of a just society that emerges from behind a veil of ignorance would structure society so that those who enjoy maximal benefits may do so only if those otherwise underprivileged and the neglected were bettered in the process.[15] Rather than hoarding scarce goods clergy could mobilize their membership to see that the suffering and destitute had their basic needs met throughout the crisis. Even if some profiteering were to accrue this would not happen at the expense of those in need. Envisioning a hand-to-hand supply line to insure that each diabetic gets his or her insulin has its problems. If the supplier is in Denmark some method other than bodily transport would be required to get the product to its destination, but the creation of such supply lines could be engineered in a fair manner. By devoting creative energy to the pursuit of a fair society clergy could channel energy away from the creation of the potentially dangerous stockpiling of limited staple goods and commodities. To do so one must place the ideal of a fair society above the imaginative ideal of get-what-you-can-before-it's-all-gone.

Again, I suspect that religion has within it the potential to achieve these ends were it to inspect its own ethical teachings. At least, I suspect that Western Christianity has within it the potential for the pursuit of these principals rather than base, parochial ends. Whether clergy anticipate this or if not is a moot point. Nevertheless, by further reflecting on two normative ethical principals clergy may be able to see the inadequacies in their own motives as they cope with a community wide crisis like Y2K.


[1] Shaunti Christine Feldhahan, Y2K: The Millennium Bug (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 1998), p. 37. Hereafter cited as Feldhahn.

[2] Michael S. Hyatt, The Millennium Bug (Washington, D. C.: Regency Publishing Inc., 1998), p. 12.

[3] Feldhahn, p. 76.

[4] Edward Yordon and Jennifer Yordon, Time Bomb 2000 (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998), 10.

[5] Ibid., p. 286.

[6] This is a loosely organized ministerial association located in the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina. Further information about the association (PDCMA) is available from the Secretary-Treasurer David Terriaco at Kernersville Church of Christ, P. O. Box 65, Kernersville, NC 27285.

[7] PDCMA meeting, April 20, 1999.

[8] There may be experts in the field who have assessed the possible effects like the economist Ed Yardini or Senator Robert Bennett, but even the experts are quick to admit that they do not know what will happen.

[9] Dwight Lee, Richard McKenzie, "Corporate Failure as a Means to Corporate Responsibility", Journal of Business Ethics 13:971.

[10] Suppose Fred and Joe was caught in a prisoner's dilemma. Were both prisoners to remain silent they would risk a two year sentence. The sentence for Fred would be reduced to one year if he indicted Joe; but Joe, the betrayed prisoner, would then get a ten year sentence. At risk of being betrayed Joe could better himself or herself by a confessional counterattack, but that would only reduce Joe's sentence to a seven year sentence. When Fred and Joe both snitch their action has the effect of neutralizing the potential reward that they would have received had the other prisoner not acted. The best scenario would be for both Fred and Joe to withhold evidence in spite of the fact that giving up evidence could better them. If both individuals act offensively they suffer a punishment greater than they would have otherwise suffered if they had both acted defensively.

[11] Feldhahn, p. 42.

[12] It is widely known that the personality of the clergy has a great influence upon his or her immediate community. In megachurches steps may be taken to dampen the influence of the clergy's personality to allow the pursuit of a broader range of objectives. See Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), pp. 122ff. That such deliberate steps are required for religious communities to broaden their emphasis confirms the impact of the personality of the clergy upon their community. We have suggested that clergy may be driven by one of two motivational forces when they encounter a social crisis. Unless a clergy person is persuaded to follow the path of reason he or she will most likely succumb to one of these two motivational forces depending upon the person's individual character.

[13] We may inquire further about the source of prophetic knowledge of the clergy member. Did he or she gain this privileged information through study of a text or through a private revelation? Is the clergy person speaking on behalf of himself or herself or is there some more ultimate spokesperson and interpreter upon whom the clergy person is dependent for answers? In addition, one may question whether the clergy person has been willing to disclose the source of his or her prophetic insight or if that remains shrouded in mystery.

[14] I suspect that both normative ethical principles find support within the Christian religion. To act autonomously one must develop a strong sense of self-worth rather than depending on others for guidance. Self-love and self-esteem foster self-worth, and self-love and self-esteem are necessary conditions for the fulfillment of the greatest commandment in the Christian religion. (See Matthew 10:37-39) The notion of justice as fairness aims to structure society so that those most in need are benefited. If there are advantages to the privileged those accrue only if the least privileged are benefited. Of course, the religious ideal of the Kingdom of Heaven described in the Sermon on the Mount that would reward those who are meek or those who mourn may be understood as a fair society. (See Matthew 5-7)

[15] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 136-142.

Thinking About Religion, Volume 1
Copyright 2000

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