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with outdated software will be at risk.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


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


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


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


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


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


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.

P. Eddy Wilson


Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Shaw University, Raleigh,