The Methodist Prisoner’s Dilemma, Part 1

A prisoner's dilemma with an outside option fo...Image via Wikipedia

The Prisoner’s Dilemma (also called Game Theory) is a sociological experiment and a police tactic that contrasts acting in one’s self-interest or acting in a group’s interest.  From Wikipedia, here’s the classic version of it:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (“defects”) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

You see the dilemma and how sticky issues like “trust” affect how a person will “play the game?”  Do I betray the other to help myself, do I betray because I think they will betray me, or do I trust that we can both get out of this?  This is classic and effective.

Why is this in the news?  It’s in Batman: The Dark Knight.  If you haven’t seen Batman by the time of this blog post, go watch it immediately!  I won’t go into the details out of fear of spoilers, but trust me: it’s there.

What struck me is that the United Methodist Church is also in a Prisoner’s Dilemma.  Read on for more…


Let’s get out the meta-level (beyond two people) of the Prisoner’s Dilemma first.  One commenter on the article “Game Theory and the Dark Knight” (spoilers!) offered this perception on the U.S. Congress Prisoner’s Dilemma (edited slightly to remove movie spoilers)

[The Dark Knight] is the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. It is also how we elect Congress. The entire US will benefit from continuously changing the politicians. But, their seniority system means that each state gets more if they reelect their own state’s politician. Do what’s best for your state and the US suffers. Do what’s best for the US and your state might suffer. You can only do whats best for everybody if you trust everybody else…Congress uses its seniority system to manipulate the people in each state. Same payoff matrix [as The Dark Knight].

In the United Methodist Church, we are in the same dilemma as Congress when it comes to clergy transitions and itinerant ministry.

  • Do what is best for the global church, and the local church suffers
    • It is in the local  Methodist Church’s interest to keep their pastors as long as possible, as most pastors don’t see returns until year four and often churches suffer during transitions.
  • Do what is best for the local church, and the global church suffers.
    • It is in the global Methodist Church’s interest to move pastors around often (less than four years) so that local churches stay connectional and don’t drift into congregationalism.

You see how we are in a similar situation in the Church.  Structurally, we want Methodism to remain connectional, so pastors are moved around often.  But for the local church, research shows that pastors need more time to build up local churches before being wisked away.  So the game is how to find the right balance.

Trust is an inherent part of this system as churches feel betrayed by their conference overlords if their pastor is removed “too soon.”  While I’m not privy to see how we appoint people, I’m sure this is an expressed concern on everyone’s parts.

I have more on this, but I’m disciplining myself to shorter blog posts.  Thoughts?

  • Is there an inherent tension between local churches and the conference as far as the benefits of a pastor’s tenure?
  • Is this an accurate meta-level of the Prisoner’s Dilemma?
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Comments

  1. John says

    Interesting question, Jeremy.

    I think the analogy works only if you see “moving” pastors as the only way to achieve the ends involved.

    For instance, I’m not certain that moving pastors is done primarily to maintain connectionalism. Moving them frequently certainly does not help connectionalism, as it breeds hostility from the local churches toward other congregations and the bishop.

    Whether we are connectional or not is a different issue than how often we move pastors. A connectional church could have pastors with long tenures and pastors with short tenures.

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