Andrew Fennig started in the public sector working to solve problems with good policy and is now in the private sector trying to do the same with good technology. He is currently launching Conferam, a discussion platform designed exclusively for disagreement. When all sides of a controversy can address each other’s concerns on the same page, “collaborative truth discovery” becomes possible. He lives in rural Indiana on a small farm, near the farm he grew up on, with his wife and two kids.
TWI: What makes a good/healthy online debate?
Andrew Fennig: This is exactly the question we are hoping to answer with Conferam. When you look at online conversations almost anywhere on the web right now – especially between people who don’t know each other– it is very difficult to find good/healthy debate. In the comments sections of articles and blog posts you may find the occasional thoughtful comment and civil back-and-forth, but hecklers invariably derail them.
Much of formal debate is about winning the argument, not necessarily coming closer to the truth. We are still working to prove that civil debate can be achieved on an open platform, but we are operating from a couple core principles that we believe are required for healthy discourse:
- The “truth” is discoverable. Or, at least our thinking can get closer and closer to an objective truth, even if our mental faculties are incapable of perceiving the full extent of true reality (Isaiah 55:8-9). If neither side of a discussion can claim to know the truth – or both sides believe the truth is subjective and specific to each person – then there is no space for debate that may lead to deeper understanding.
- The best conversations involve people who are genuinely seeking deeper understanding. Participants engaged in an honest pursuit of truth will, I think, always contribute a more thoughtful and helpful argument to a discussion. It is deep conversations with people like this we remember for years. It’s difficult to identify these people from the outset, so we’re working on tools that make it easier to protect discussions from the insipid few that always resort to personal attacks. These are the “trolls” who prefer triggering an emotional response in an opponent rather than advancing a real argument. I don’t know that they are in the majority, but their presence is powerful because they pepper most comment threads with asinine vitriol.
- Any healthy debate requires humility and respect. These are different, but are connected. Humility to acknowledge that, even though I may have strongly held opinions, my thinking is fallible and another perspective may be closer to the truth than is mine. Or, even a less-true perspective may challenge mine sufficiently to lead me closer to the truth. And respect to believe that despite our differences, that perspective may be held by anyone with whom I interact.
TWI: What specific instance of your work as an entrepreneur are you most proud of?
AF: Launching a new company is about creating a new solution to a problem as perceived by the entrepreneur. Success depends upon executing that vision and then convincing enough of the market that the problem is real and your solution is viable. At this point in the lifecycle of Conferam, I think pride may be premature. It seems to me that there is an external component to having pride in one’s work. It is derived from how other people relate to or are impacted by the product of that work. We have a working prototype of the Conferam concept, but have not released our product to the market. We’re uncertain how many people will respond to what we’re building, or even if the public will agree with my articulation of the problem and my proposed solution (please visit my Kickstarter page for more details on Conferam).
However, throughout this process I’ve felt the hand of the Lord guiding me, so if not yet pride, I do feel gratified at knowing God has lead us to this place in this journey. And if that’s true, I’m content knowing that where we end up is dependent more upon His will than my ability, which is an incredibly comforting thought.
I think the Lord delights in our simple obedience in addition to the product of our labor. If God created the universe, with its billions of galaxies and limitless dimensions, how many users does my website need to have in order to impress Him? Is 1,000 enough? Or 1 billion? No, read Zechariah 4 and you get a glimpse of a God who cares about outcomes, but takes great pleasure in the obedience of His people.
“This is the word of the Lord to Zerubabbel, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (v.6). “Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel?”
The plumb line is used at the very beginning of construction. Zerubbabel hasn’t even used it yet, he’s just picked it up, and the Lord rejoices. So I don’t despise these days of small things, of simple origins. I dedicate each day’s work to the Lord, seek to exercise obedience is the big and small things, and let Him worry about success or failure. So if I feel pride, it is in knowing that I am partnering with God on His project.
TWI: How have you developed your own sense of calling and theological language for your work?
AF: Even now, a fully developed sense of calling is an ongoing process. When I was younger, I remember being jealous of people with a clear sense of their life’s work. The musical phenom or the talented software coder who both know early in life what they will do for the rest of it. It was never so tidy for me, and my career path reflects that. I started on Capitol Hill as a low-level legislative aide, and although I loved it and learned a great deal, I discovered quickly that I couldn’t be there long term. Legislative work is valuable and of great importance, but I became distracted by the possibilities “upstream” from politics. I knew I wanted to work in the private sector to solve problems before they required legislative solutions. First I took a detour and returned to my home state of Indiana to work in economic development at a state agency. After three years of working to promote entrepreneurship in rural communities I decided to jump to the other side of the table and put my preaching to practice. I earned an MBA at the University of Oxford and moved back home to work briefly on a new venture my brother founded before moving out on my own to start Conferam.
The point is, up to now nothing I’ve done would qualify me as an “entrepreneur.” My background is eclectic, with each step taking me 2-3 years further along the journey, but each one seemed unrelated to the others. So when you ask about my sense of calling and the theological language of my work, I must make a distinction between being absolutely certain that God has a plan for my whole life – the work I do for a living being just a small part of that – and being able to profess with any sort of certainty that I know what that calling looks like for the future. God has proven himself faithful repeatedly, and with Conferam is finally bringing cohesion to otherwise disparate and unrelated professional experiences. I have certainty that my work (financially fruitful or otherwise) fits into his orderly plan, but I have no clue what is next.
TWI: Are there any tensions or complexities that trip you up when you think about your work being part of God’s work?
AF: Many entrepreneurs are serial entrepreneurs. They sort through ideas until one strikes their fancy and the joy rests in creating something new. When the business has run its course, resulting in success or failure, they move on to the next startup. I am most certainly not one of those. I’m what you might call a reluctant entrepreneur. I find myself in this position because of the weight of the vision on my heart, not due to any natural temperament or hard wiring. I believe with my whole heart that the Lord has asked me to build this thing, and so that is what I am doing. Therefore, the tension I wrestle with these days is the conflict between competence and obedience.
As westerners we crave both credibility and validation. We seek credentials, advanced degrees, promotions, business milestones, etc., and then we list them all on LinkedIn so the world will know what we’ve done and what we’re capable of. These are all fine things, but everyday I’m walking through uncharted territory and am decidedly short on the right kinds of experiences. However, with the advent of billion dollar startup tech companies and as entrepreneurs achieve pop celebrity status there is no shortage of information online about how to start a new venture. The more I read about how things ought to be done, the more I feel like I’m doing things wrong. That’s where the tension between competence and obedience comes in.
Joshua was an assistant to Moses before he was asked to lead the Jewish people into the Promised Land. He had led a couple battles through their wanderings, but there is no indication that he was any sort of great, experienced military leader. I think that worked in his favor when it was time to obey God’s outlandish plan to defeat Jericho. I may be the only person like this, but when I’m faced with a difficult task or important decision, God-given or otherwise, I first look to apply all my knowledge and experience to solve the situation. Only when I’m at the end of my rope do I instinctively look to the Lord for guidance. I wonder how God’s instructions to Joshua might have been reinterpreted had he been a great military leader. I wonder how my own startup would look differently if it was my fifth instead of my first. I’m afraid I would lean on my own experience rather than the Lord’s daily guidance. I think Joshua’s ignorance was his greatest asset because he didn’t know any better than to take God at His word.
Or look at Gideon. He was threshing grain in a winepress to deceive the raiding Midianites when he was greeted by an angel of the Lord as a “mighty warrior” (Judges 6:11-12). Gideon described himself as the least of his family from the weakest clan. He was chosen for great things precisely because he was powerless to achieve the goal on his own. When he recruited thousands of men to fight the enemy, God carefully whittled his numbers down to 300, so no one would be confused to whom the victory belonged. The less achievement we bring to the table, the more dependent we are upon God and the greater His glory in working through us. So I look at my lack of direct entrepreneurial experience as an asset. I no longer read all the startup advice blogs and feel like I have to fit Conferam into their mold. If the Lord has called me to launch this company despite my lack, and if I’ve truly dedicated it entirely to Him, then my responsibility is obedience (and some hard work) and the means, methods, and outcomes are the Lord’s. Noah was tasked with building the ark, but God was in charge of the flood. Without the flood, Noah would have looked a little silly, but he could have rested knowing he was obedient. With the flood, Noah’s project was the salvation of humanity. The flood had nothing to do with the size of Noah’s network, his aggressiveness at promoting his project, or his social media prowess. As someone who is only receiving daily bread and is uncertain where this vocational journey ends, I take great comfort in that.