Remembering Baptist Philanthropist and Entrepreneur Robert D. Kern

Northern Seminary mourns the loss of Robert D. Kern, founder of Generac Power Systems and the Kern Family Foundation of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Mr. Kern died on November 8, 2022, at the age of 96. He was preceded in death by his wife Patricia, the first woman to serve as chair of the Northern Seminary Board of Trustees.

Mr. Kern grew up as the son of an American Baptist pastor and had a heart for theological education. He shared generously with generations of pastors, establishing the “Kern Scholarship” for pastors committed to lifelong pastoral ministry at Northern Seminary. Since its inception, over 120 students have been awarded the scholarship. Mr. Kern believed in the value of seminary training and worked to recruit students to respond to God’s call and to devote themselves to gospel ministry early in life.

Dr. Ian Chapman, President of Northern from 1988-2001 said, “Bob was brilliant. I’ve never met anyone like him. He had a great passion for changing the world for the better in the way he created his foundation. Bob wanted to make sure things like pastoral care and ministry were a part of it. Whenever you had a conversation with him, you were struck by the fact that he was so bright even when he had difficulties with his vision in his later years. I have the highest regard and appreciation for Bob. We’ve lost a great supporter.”

Former Vice President of Advancement and current Northern member of the Board of Trustees Dr. Ted Rodgers said, “Northern Seminary was a beneficiary of Bob and Pat Kern’s wise counsel and generous financial support. Especially during Pat’s tenure as Chair of the Board, they invested significantly of their time, expertise, and financial resources in shaping the vision for the Lombard campus and beyond. Bob was an early adopter of the strategy to sell the Lombard campus to provide resources to strengthen the Seminary’s ministry. His vision is now a reality.”

Current trustee Dr. Melody Ritter served with Mrs. Kern on the board. Reflecting on Mr. Kern’s impact, she said, “Bob Kern’s shrewd business acumen, plus his fervent commitment to serve the needs of Christ’s Church, produced an equation that was far more than merely additive when summing results of Bob’s impact on trail-blazing Christian philanthropy. There were, in fact, powerful multipliers at play, including his wife Pat, who, as Board Chair, left an indelible mark on Northern Seminary’s journey to engage the world for Christ and through prayer, the great ‘unseen’ multiplier! We on the Northern Board prayed actively for the Kerns because we witnessed God’s manifold blessings to our students and programs because of the bountiful success of those two dear people.”

Mr. Kern’s impact spread to church leaders in all regions of the U.S. and beyond. Indiana pastor Josh Carney shared, “I was a Presidential Scholar back in the early 2000s. The Kern gift opened a pathway for learning, development, and preparation for local church ministry by lifting the financial weight.”

Northern President Bill Shiell remarked, “The only thing that exceeded Mr. Kern’s love for pastors was his love for Mrs. Kern. They were the ‘Priscilla and Aquilla’ of theological education for generations of American Baptist and evangelical pastors and institutions.”

Mr. Kern’s vision for young, educated leaders shaped the direction of seminaries and profoundly influenced how pastors preach to and empower laity in their ministry callings. In his later years, Mr. Kern lamented the decline of church attendance and worked tirelessly to revitalize congregational leadership through his philanthropy. Mr. Kern believed that the calling of laity in the workplace would play a central role in the renewal of a gospel witness. He believed the effectiveness of Sunday should be measured by its impact on the lives of the congregation at work on Monday. “For Mr. Kern, a sermon wasn’t prepared until the pastor had listened to and reflected on the ministry of church members in their workplaces,” Shiell added.

In addition to the Kern Scholarship, Bob and Pat Kern significantly contributed to the operations of Northern Seminary, partnered with Northern and former President Ian Chapman to found the Moscow Theological Seminary, and established the Accelerated Pastoral Degree Program for colleges and seminaries, of whom Northern was a recipient in partnership with Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL. He will be deeply missed.

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