Pastor Lee May starts home-grown church after quitting DeKalb politics

He’s now known simply as Pastor Lee, presiding over his start-up church from the stage of a high school auditorium.

In his last career, as CEO of DeKalb County's beleaguered government, Lee May once touted park improvements and pothole patching as avenues for improving the quality of life. Now, he hopes to help others change their lives, as he did his own, by forging a closer relationship with God.

“The world doesn’t need another preacher,” May tells his congregation of about 40 people. “What the world needs now is a transformed people who will lay down their lives for one another.”

Pastor Lee May and his wife Robin take a moment to pray in the dressing room before the start of the Sunday service of Transforming Faith Church at Southwest DeKalb High School on Oct. 29, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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May and his wife, Robin, launched Transforming Faith Church several weeks ago and plan to use scripture as a starting point for helping people in need, from providing assistance to those looking for jobs to handing out school supplies.

Relaying oft-told parables like the Good Samaritan and frequently recited principles like the Golden Rule, May pounds home the message that, by looking out for their neighbors, Christians can improve their community.

May, the 42-year-old son of an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor, said he realized his place was in the ministry while he was in charge of the county's government, overseeing a $1.3 billion annual budget and more than 6,000 employees. He declined to run for office last year, making way for DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond.

“If I look stress-free, if I look relieved, it’s because I’m doing what God has called me to do,” he said. “I wasn’t running away from anything. I was running to something.”

Members of the congregation of Transforming Faith Church pray during the Sunday service At Southwest DeKalb High School on Oct. 29, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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May, who graduated from Emory University's Candler School of Theology in 2003, views the church as a way to have a more ground-level influence on DeKalb than when he was in government.

During his time as CEO, outside investigators characterized the government as "rotten to the core" with corruption, but May said he's proud of his work to lower property tax rates, reduce litter and give raises to government employees.

He wants his church to be engaged with the community by organizing street clean-up events, school backpack giveaways, neighborhood gatherings, after-school programs and student mentoring services.

Robin May, who works full-time as a therapist, said it’s a relief to be free from the strain of politics. But, she added, the church brings its own responsibilities.

“It’s just a different kind of pressure. Lee and I feel like we are a critical piece to bringing people closer to Jesus,” she said. “If you’ve felt Jesus, what does that mean in your everyday life, and how does that impact those around you?”

Pastor Lee May speaks to his congregation during the Sunday morning service at Transforming Faith Church at Southwest DeKalb High School on Oct. 29, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Before launching their own nondenominational church, the Mays were among the masses that attended Berean Christian Church about five miles away, south of Stone Mountain. The congregation at Transforming Faith Church, which meets Sundays at 10 a.m. at Southwest DeKalb High School, includes friends, family, newcomers and a few people who migrated with them from Berean.

One of their regular parishioners, state Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, said she’s impressed by May’s commitment to building up the county first in politics and now through religion.

“He has service at heart,” said Kendrick, D-Lithonia, who serves coffee and doughnuts outside church. “I’m looking for people who can serve others, and nobody can say that more than somebody who has served in an elected capacity.”

The message of community outreach is what attracted Jon Shoats to Transforming Faith Church.

“We want to have an impact so we’re felt not just spiritually, but practically,” Shoats said. “If someone’s hungry, we’d like to feed them. If someone needs clothes, we’d like to clothe them. If someone needs help, we’d like to walk with them.”

As May winds down his sermon and the band gently sings, “Lord, Make Me Over Again,” he emphasizes the fundamental idea of his church: strengthening faith and then turning faith into action.

May says he can’t imagine returning to politics. He prefers the hands-on satisfaction of working closely with those who gather in the auditorium of the school, which charges $225 weekly.

He said his experience managing a government amid multiple scandals gave him a foundation to keep his church pure.

“In politics, you always have people plotting because of power. Now, because we’re so small, it’s not like I have a whole lot of power or money,” May said. “I thank God for the big challenges we had. They make you stronger. They make you see God in a stronger way, to help build your relationship and trust with him.”