by Stan Guthrie
Missionaries can have a lot to worry about. Should they add the “Year 2000 Bug” to the list?
War. Terrorism. Schooling for the kids. Language learning. Disease. Persecution. Indifference. Temptation. Financial support. Other missionaries.
Missionaries can have a lot to worry about. Should they add the “Year 2000 Bug” to the list?
U.S.News & World Report calls it the “Year 2000 time bomb.” “It,” of course, is the widely anticipated problem in which computer clocks, which count years using double digits, may interpret the year 2000—or “00”—as 1900.
Fearful of something bigger than their hard drives crashing, more than half of technology executives polled recently said they plan to avoid flying on January 1, 2000. Some 38 percent of information technology professionals surveyed say they will withdraw money from their banks and investments before B-day—Bug day. And one entrepreneur in South Dakota is building a survival colony for those who fear doom at the dawn of the millennium.
While none of the missions professionals contacted for this article admitted to signing up for a wilderness commune, one executive did say that he would hesitate before traveling or making major financial transactions on January 1, 2000. In short, most foresee the Year 2000 Bug as a serious, though not catastrophic, problem.
Computer guru Pete Holzmann, president and CEO of the International Christian Technologists’ Association, says the Year 2000 problem, widely referred to as Y2K, must not be ignored—or overhyped.
“This is a very serious problem,” Holzmann said. “It will destroy some organizations . . . but overall it will not be a disaster any worse than other serious situations the world has to deal with.
“To the extent that the mission community shares information electronically with organizations around the world, there will be a significant impact.”
After studying the Y2K issue extensively from last spring well into the fall, in October InterVarsity Christian Fellowship decided to move the usually triennial Urbana Student Mission Convention from December 27-31, 1999, to December 27-31, 2000. One consultant formally recommended that the conference, which can draw more than 17,000 students from around the country and world, not be held in 1999 because of Y2K concerns.
“We considered the effects on recruitment for the convention if widespread, low-grade fear gripped the culture,” IVCF explained. “We realized that recruitment could be a major challenge for an Urbana held at the end of 1999.”
IVCF said, however, that while concerns related to Y2K were an “impetus” to the rescheduling,”they were not the deciding factor.” What was? The belief that God is “calling Urbana to be a mission gateway to the next millennium.”
“We are making no predictions about the physical effects of the Y2K event on our nation or world,” IVCF added. “Risk management, while a consideration, was not ultimately the basis of our decision to reschedule Urbana to 2000.”
Holzmann says current estimates predict that the bug will take a 1.5 percent bite from global economic growth. This presumably factors in the millions of dollars flowing into the pockets of computer consultants of all kinds paid to fix the problem for government and industry.
Paul McKaughan, who heads the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies, says the B-day problem is quite large. “Any potential problem that draws to itself the gargantuan investments that this one is doing has extraordinary potential for disruption,” he noted. “I don’t know enough about the technology to gauge the potential impact, but the old adage of ‘Follow the money’ tells me that the problem is indeed serious.”
“One sees scenarios ranging from the collapse of our civilization to a multitude of irritating delays and snafus,” commented WEC Inter-national’s Patrick Johnstone, author of Operation World. “I believe it is going to be somewhere in the middle. There will be unprepared businesses that will crash as a result, but we will muddle through.”
How prepared? Financial software, desktop computers, databases, and spreadsheets could all be affected. One of thefounders of the annual International Conference on Computing and Mission, Bob Hodge, says that on January 1, 2000, he plans to avoid any systems on which his life could depend.
“(Agencies and churches) are probably about as prepared for Y2K as they are for a fire or flood, which is very little,” said Hodge, who is vice president for planning, strategic initiatives, and technology at Taylor University. “The worst-case scenario is that they could not move money or supplies; or send, process, or receive products; or receive emergency services. It could be of the same magnitude as a flood, major fire, blackout, blizzard, hurricane, and so on—without the instant tragic deaths, but hardship just the same.”
How the Bug will affect churches and agencies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is an open question. Holzmann and others note that while many non-Western groups do not have access to the latest (Y2K compliant) technology, neither are they as dependent on the computer as their counterparts in North America and Europe are.
However, some non-Western agencies do possess recent technology. “Most of our programs and hardware have been purchased recently,” noted Joseph D’Souza, executive director of Operation Mobilisation India. “So, we are not heavily affected.”
Each agency appears to be addressing—or ignoring—the Bug in its own way. There are no known efforts in the missions community toward a coordinated response. Preparation appears to resemble a bell curve. According to Holzmann: “About one-third (are) basically on track with their plan, about one-third seriously behind but working on it, (and) about one-third pretty much clueless and in serious trouble because of it.”
Agency responses. Roger Johnson of Helps International Ministries sees larger agencies as better equipped to cope with the coming of the new century.
“I expect that most mission offices will have done something about their office software by that time,” he stated. “I would guess that the larger missions, who have computer people on the staff, will take care of the problem ahead of time, and be able to catch and fix the minor problems that appear later. Smaller missions, which have various kinds of home-built software, and few computer-literate helpers, may be scrambling.”
Hans Finzel, executive director of CBInternational’s 81-member U.S. staff and its $17.5 million overseas budget, says the agency has a full-time programmer working on the problem. Finzel says CBI hopes to be Y2K-compliant by January 1, 1999. When asked what others should be doing, Finzel replied, “Program, program, program.”
Brian Eckheart, director of administration for Frontiers, which has an overseas budget of $4.5 million and a U.S. staff of 33, says his agency has evaluated every computer in the home office and plans to replace those not compliant by the deadline. Additionally, Frontiers will be getting new donor software, partly because of Y2K.
However, there could be a glitch. “Our missionaries on the field are responsible to get their own computers, so that could be a problem for those who have older machines and software,” Eckheart admitted.
David Johnson, who works in the data processing department of Action International Ministries (14 home office staff, $1.5 million annual overseas budget), says the ministry is communicating with the firms it does business with to make sure they are prepared, and it is debugging its own computers.
Allowing for the possibility of minor adjustments, Johnson says “there will be no impact—none—on our internal computer operations.”
Hodge, however, provides a caveat. “There are no Y2K ‘standards,’ so obtaining Y2K compliance assurance from vendors is quite meaningless,” Hodge said. “Which vendor is actually going to tell us today that it will not be prepared for Y2K? The largest barrier is the inability to actually articulate all the possible problems, because there are so many.”
Eckheart said whether agencies have cutting-edge technology or not could be the critical factor. Those with oldermachines—386s, 486s, and older Pentiums—”could be hit quite hard,” he said “. . . . They could find themselves in trouble with those machines.
“It will also affect software. I think missions are using a lot of donor software, and they could have real trouble with that area.”
Smaller agencies may have problems because of a lack of time, money, or expertise—or all three—to work on the problem. McKaughan isn’t quite so sure that his small office, which has four staffers, is ready.
“Most of our equipment and our programs are less than five years old and may be in the window of those pieces of hardware and software that are Y2K compliant,” McKaughan said. “At this point, we don’t have the specialized talent in house to even really test things out. As the date gets closer, we will probably bring in someone from the outside to test our system to make sure which components will work and which will give us problems.”
Tapping the expertise of technically savvy volunteers now is one way to keep the Bug at bay. “Almost every ministry has some constituent who is working through the problems in his or her job,” Bob Hodge noted. “Christians do not need to reinvent Y2K solutions for their ministries; they just need to apply what the world is generating from industry and government.”
Plan of action. Holzmann recommends that agencies take the following steps: (1) Acknowledge the problem; (2) survey the organization and its outside connections to determine the problem’s potential size and to identify vital systems; (3) strongly encourage business partners to do the same; (4) develop a plan to evaluate which systems and connections have a problem; (5) perform the evaluation; (6) develop a plan for resolving critical issues and coping with noncritical ones; (7) implement the plan; and (8) test the results—well before December 31, 1999.
“If ministry leaders are not engaged in dealing with the issue by January, 1999,” Holzmann warned, “they’re way behind and will need to dedicate some serious resources to catching up!”
So missionaries and their agencies should be worried, at least a little, about catching the Bug—or the Bug catching them. Eckheart says agencies need to make sure its bite is as painless as possible.
“If you are using technology, you need to keep up on current issues and problems in the technological world,” he said. “These problems will not pass us by.”
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 1. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.