As a registered nurse, Leah McLemore fluently speaks the complex jargon of the medical world. She knows and understands the elaborate-sounding words and intricate diagnoses that are frequently used in hospitals and doctors’ offices.
But when discussing the recent death of her husband, McLemore uses terms that anyone can understand: He died from stress.
Yes, there were other factors involved, she said, but the foremost cause of his death was a bleeding ulcer that was exacerbated by the pressures and constant weight of being in the ministry.
Eric McLemore was the senior pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Milan, Tennessee, for six years. He died on Feb. 17. He was 34.
“Stress was definitely at the center of it,” Leah said. “It takes such a toll on our bodies and most of the time, we don’t even realize what it does and how it’s affecting us.”
Leah is now doing her part to change that.
Prayerfully seeking to create something positive from this unspeakable tragedy, Leah believes she has been called to help raise awareness among pastors about the dangers of emotional exhaustion and stress.
She started on her mission within days of Eric’s death. At his funeral, no less.
“I knew it would be highly unusual, but I led a prayer at Eric’s funeral,” she said. “I prayed over the pastors and their wives and their ministries. I felt like the Lord was telling me to do that. For the other pastors to see and to know that here was someone who was fighting the battles with them — and now he isn’t here anymore — was just so important.”
Leah recently spoke at the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board’s directors meeting in Franklin, where she shared her husband’s story and encouraged those in the room to be intentional about finding ways to decompress and to restore themselves, mentally and physically. By the time she was done, many in the room were in tears.
Leah said she is praying for more opportunities to speak to pastors and staff members in the months ahead. She said she felt the Lord leading her in that direction almost immediately after Eric’s death.
The day after the funeral, McLemore said she told one of Eric’s pastor friends, “I think the Lord is already showing me another purpose. And I told him, ‘I really don’t know if I’m ready for this, but I wasn’t ready for what I did yesterday, either.’ So, here we are.”
“For me, I see this as an opportunity to just come alongside churches to help them and minister to them,” she said.
Spreading the word
As she embarks on this new calling, Leah said her main objective is to encourage pastors to seek help when they need it. She said she plans to emphasize the importance of pastors having outlets where they can decompress and get reenergized.
Leah noted that her husband had recently found just such an outlet. Last summer, he joined a group of about a dozen pastors for an “Off the Grid” trip on the Appalachian Trail.
“Off the Grid” is a TBMB-sponsored ministry that provides pastors, staff members and lay leaders an opportunity to enjoy a time of fellowship and outdoor adventure through a variety of different activities.
The ministry was developed by Kevin Perrigan, camp manager at Carson Springs Baptist Conference Center. Perrigan often serves as a tour guide for the trips.
McLemore’s group hiked parts of the trail for several days, and Leah said it did her husband a world of good.
“He came home feeling very refreshed,” she said. “It really gave him a chance to get away for a few days.”
Leah felt so strongly about the positive impact of the “Off the Grid” trip that she felt inclined to mention it to TBMB executive director Randy C. Davis the day after Eric’s funeral.
“When (Davis) called to check on us, he asked if there was anything he could do for us,” Leah said. “And I said, ‘Well, yes, actually there is. Please continue the Off the Grid ministry, and please continue to encourage pastors to be a part of it.’ I saw what it did for Eric — and I want other pastors to have that same opportunity.”
Leah said she told Davis, “Our pastors need this type of outlet. It’s not okay for our pastors to not be okay. They are asked to walk a line that is almost impossible to walk, and sometimes we forget that pastors need to be ministered to, too.”
Eric McLemore, a former star baseball player, was called into ministry during his junior year at Union University, where he earned a bachelor of arts in theology degree.
After serving as pastor at China Grove Baptist Church in Rutherford, he was called to Northside, where he joined the staff as associate pastor in 2015. Two years later, he was called as senior pastor.
In recent months, the McLemore family had been dealing with a series of major blows.
His mom was fighting a battle with cancer, which had just returned for the third time in two years. His sister-in-law was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and was going through a transplant. And one of the McLemore’s best friends — Emily Glisson, the children’s director at Northside — had also recently been diagnosed with cancer.
Eric, meanwhile, was dealing with ongoing liver issues caused by a virus he contracted while doing mission work in Brazil in 2013. It didn’t help matters when both Leah and Eric caught COVID-19 in 2022.
“All of that took a toll on him, on us, to say the least,” Leah noted. “And honestly, we had just been in survival mode since October. His liver really started acting up in January. But he was doing all the right things — working out, trying to eat healthy — and despite all that was going on, we were managing (his health) and everything seemed to be working.”
In mid-February, Eric got sick again.
Leah said he didn’t want to go to the hospital — “he apparently thought I could do miracles at home, I guess, since I’m a nurse,” she said — but eventually he had to go in.
“Even with everything that was going on, I think Eric just kept saying to himself, ‘I can muster through this. I can get myself better,’” Leah said, “and that was his mindset until the very end.”
Eric died in the hospital on Feb. 17.
“When the doctor came to me and told me Eric had a large ulcer — and that they couldn’t get to it — I knew that was directly tied to stress,” Leah said. “Like I said, we had been managing the other things. But not that.”
Just a few days later, McLemore found herself leading a prayer at her husband’s funeral.
“As we went through that weekend, I saw fear on the faces of some pastors — whether they meant to show it or not — and they seemed to be saying, ‘Oh, wow, I’m going through those same things’ or ‘I know what he struggled with’,” she said. “And I also began to see some pastors’ wives that were kind of looking at their husbands and saying, ‘I’m going to need you to slow down. You can’t keep going like this.’ ”
McLemore said she believes that pastors who are dealing with stress and fatigue are often reluctant to admit their struggles.
Recent research confirms her assessment: Barna Research, for instance, has done a number of studies on this topic in the past two years, and have found that an overwhelming amount of pastors struggle with the stress of the job.
The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board provides outlets for pastors in those situations. In addition to the “Off the Grid” project, the TBMB also offers “Shepherd Care” — a ministry focused on the spiritual, emotional, physical and financial health of pastors, ministry leaders and their dependent families.
Sing Oldham, pastor engagement specialist for the TBMB, is the director of Shepherd Care. He refers to it as “a lifeline” for pastors and their families.
The ministry was launched by the TBMB in early 2021 to assist pastors as they emerged from the dark season of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, it has continued to be a resource that meets an ongoing need, Oldham said. He noted that, through this program, the TBMB has provided full or partial payment for nearly 200 counseling sessions.
In a recent column for the Baptist and Reflector, Oldham said high stress levels among church leaders is widespread. He wrote: “With the mental health crisis that has engulfed our nation, who among us has not felt the kind of despair (King) David expressed?”
Oldham noted that Shepherd Care is available to any Tennessee Baptist pastor or ministerial staff member and their dependent family members through the Shepherd Care hotline: 1-833-55PEACE.
Leah said if there is one central theme to the message she wishes to share with pastors, it is this: You are not alone.
Despite the fact that many pastors tend to hide — or at least mask — their struggles, the truth is that a high percentage of pastors are dealing with stress every day. Leah said she not only saw it with her husband, but with other church leaders, too.
“When you feel responsible for someone’s eternity, that is an incredible amount of pressure,” Leah said.
“And, on top of that, I think the fact that pastors are basically always on call is one of the toughest things” she added. “As a nurse, I have a high-pressure job, but when I clock out, I’m done for the day. Eric never felt that way. With cell phones being what they are, there’s almost never a time when someone can’t be reached. So, people expect their pastor to always be available.”
Leah said social media adds yet another level of anxiety to a pastor’s role.
“If someone gets upset about something, they just get on social media and blast the pastor and they tag the church in the post. It’s almost like people forget that pastors are human, too.”
By sharing her story, McLemore said she hopes she can help pastors and staff members overcome some of these hurdles and help them understand that there are countless others who are dealing with many of the same struggles.
Doing so, she said, would be a way to honor Eric. And ultimately, her message might just be the difference between life and death for someone else.
May is mental health awareness month. Click here to read another article on this issue.