When volunteers at Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, arrived at their pastor’s home final November, they have been hoping to lift his spirits with a shock go to. Instead they bought a shock: Pastor Tavner Smith was alone with a feminine church worker—she in a towel, he in his boxers.
The charismatic 41-year-old hurriedly defined that the 2 of them had been making chili and sizzling canine and gotten meals on their garments, in line with one volunteer who was current. But, because the volunteer put it, “I don’t think none of us was that dumb.”
“If she dropped chili on her clothes, why are you in your boxers?” she recalled considering. “Was y’all like, throwing chili at each other?”
For the volunteer, the scene confirmed one thing she had lengthy suspected—that Smith, then married with two kids, was secretly carrying on an affair with the worker, who was married to a different church staffer. Smith has denied any affair passed off, however rumors about it have nonetheless led to one thing out of a daytime cleaning soap opera, involving two divorces, one secretly recorded video, and the departure of practically all of the church’s full-time employees.
And former staffers, members, and volunteers advised The Daily Beast they’re nonetheless struggling to return to phrases with the maelstrom that left one of many nation’s fastest-growing mega church buildings in shambles.
“Everyone used to say, ‘Venue is a cult, Venue is a cult,’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s not,’” the volunteer who witnessed the chili incident advised The Daily Beast. “And now as I look back I’m like, ‘I don’t think I was in a Godly place.’”
To hear Pastor Smith inform it, he got here to Chattanooga by divine intervention. In 2012, as a lowly scholar pastor at Ron Carpenter’s huge Greenville, South Carolina, megachurch, Smith says he was known as by God to maneuver his spouse and youngsters to Tennessee and begin a church of his personal, in the hollowed-out constructing of an outdated Sam’s Club. He claims he was as soon as banned from the mall for recruiting there eight hours a day, and that he recruited lots of of latest members by dropping 50,000 eggs from a helicopter on Easter Sunday. (The egg drop, in fact, was God’s concept.) By 2015, Venue was on Outreach Magazine’s checklist of fastest-growing church buildings in the nation; by 2020, it had campuses in two states and pulled in practically 2,000 folks on a given Sunday.
The providers at Venue are customary megachurch fare, the place sermons are preceded by rock reveals full with strobe lights and fog machines, and the preaching is heavy on “prosperity gospel”—the concept donating to the church will improve your personal monetary fortunes. When Smith takes the stage—normally in a hoodie or a classy button-down and ripped denims—he’s greeted with a standing ovation. When he makes a joke or preaches one thing particularly significant, he’s met with a refrain of amens. (At least one volunteer stated they have been inspired to reply audibly to Smith’s sermons so the gang would, too.)
The sermons are heavy on Smith’s private life, normally consisting of tales of how he overcame insurmountable odds and the way you are able to do it, too, if you happen to settle for Jesus Christ as your savior—and donate 10 p.c of your earnings to Venue. In one sermon, Smith insisted that at any time when he speaks, “heaven moves” and “angels pay attention.” In one other, he claimed God created time zones in order to house out folks’s prayers.
“People [in Chattanooga] say, ‘Don’t drink the orange KoolAid,’” one former volunteer stated, referring to the colourful colour of Venue’s brand. “They really say that.”
Smith’s sermons additionally lean closely on recruitment. Many of them function tales of him haranguing strangers—a tragic younger waitress, the true property agent who bought him the church—into becoming a member of the congregation. (They at all times say sure; they normally cry.) Before Christmas final yr, he advised his flock to do no matter they may do to pack folks into the pews, together with leaving baked items on neighbors’ doorsteps. “If you’ve invited people 72 times and they’ve all but cussed you out and told you to leave them alone,” he instructed, “one more time, invite them to Christmas at Venue Church.”
Once the neighbors bought to Venue, there was one other message ready for them: Donate, donate, donate. Attendees stated Smith preached again and again about tithing, or the observe of giving a portion of your earnings to the church each week. Many church buildings handle tithing as a suggestion, however attendees stated Smith handled it like an obligation.
“They kept on saying, ‘Bring your friend, bring your friend, bring your friend,’” stated the previous volunteer, who stated she donated as much as $300 per week to the church as a excessive schooler. “And then you get there and it’s like, ‘Oh gosh, he’s preaching on tithing again.’”
The message seems to have labored. Financial data for the church itself are unavailable, however property data present the constructing alone is value $4.9 million. A baby help worksheet in Smith’s divorce proceedings lists his month-to-month earnings as $16,666. According to different divorce data, Smith and his ex-wife owned three homes in and round Chattanooga value $981,330 mixed, and maintained an actual property funding account value $20,000.
Colt Helton, a church volunteer of greater than seven years, stated Smith flaunted his rising wealth through the years by designer duds and new automobiles. After some time, Helton stated, he stopped recognizing the church he had joined. “The whole church kinda turned into this kinda shoe and jersey fetish,” he remarked.
But it was the start of the pandemic when issues actually began to alter. In early 2020, the normally clean-shaven Smith began rising out his hair and beard, getting new tattoos and piercing his ears. The most noticeable change was how a lot time he began spending with a sure feminine worker. Starting that yr, one former volunteer stated, Smith and the worker appeared “conjoined at the hip.” One volunteer stated she noticed them having frequent one-on-ones in his workplace, one other she observed them posting effusive feedback on one another’s social media. Rumors started circulating that the 2 seemed to be having an affair.
The chatter was troubling, however Smith and Venue had accrued a variety of goodwill. Almost everybody who spoke to The Daily Beast credited Venue with turning their life round someway; by reintroducing them to God or saving their marriage or giving them a neighborhood. Volunteers and staff went by strenuous programs and signed strict pledges that certain them collectively; they have been rewarded with seats on the entrance of the church and exquisite group retreats in the woods. At the start, not less than, Smith spent high quality time with attendees and endorsed them by their points, even giving one couple reward playing cards so they may take themselves out on date evening. “It was super-personable, I felt like people really cared about me,” stated one girl who began volunteering with the church in 2016. “Honestly, I kind of did feel like it was God speaking to me at certain points in my life.”
Slowly, however, members started noticing a trickle of long-time staff members leaving the church. First was a campus pastor who’d come from South Carolina, one former volunteer recalled. Then—according to multiple former members—a number of full-time staff exited at the end of 2020. Smith and the female employee continued to spend the bulk of their time at church together, while Smith’s wife became increasingly scarce. But whenever anyone confronted the two about the rumors, they denied anything was going on. “It was almost like we were smacked in the face with a pie and then it was just getting all smothered in,” one longtime volunteer stated. “Like, lemme make sure I get that pie allll over your face.”
In January 2021, Smith announced to the congregation what many staff and volunteers already suspected: He and his wife were splitting for good. He said the board had asked him to take a break from preaching and attend six weeks of counseling. But two weeks later, according to multiple former attendees, he was back at the pulpit, claiming God had told him to return.
As the situation at Venue deteriorated, Smith’s sermons took on an air of desperation. He started calling people out in public for not donating enough and spoke frequently about not associating with “the enemy”—which some took to imply the individuals who had left the church. The ultimate straw for some was a 16-week collection Smith hosted known as “Dirty Destinies,” which centered around people in the Bible who had done terrible things but later recovered.
“It was at that time that I began saying, ‘Is this to make him feel better about his decisions?’” one attendee stated. “We have been form of like, at that time, how for much longer is that this going to tug out?”
That former attendee said she had given Smith the benefit of the doubt for months. Both she and her husband had talked to Smith and his alleged paramour, respectively, and both had denied the affair. She figured it was nothing more than a friendship gone a little too far—but still, something in the church felt off. She and her husband were discussing their reservations last month when someone from the church sent them a video. It showed Smith and his employee sitting close together in a restaurant, looking friendly, until she leaned in for what appeared to be a very discreet kiss.
“At that point we were just kind of like, ‘OK that’s the physical evidence,’” the former attendee recalled. “That was the moment that we were like, ‘That’s what we needed.’”
Smith quickly called a meeting with staff and employees to address the video, which was circulating quickly online. The former church member and her husband were in attendance, and said the pastor was evasive and refused to answer questions directly. She said she was stunned by his seeming lack of concern.
“I think that’s the biggest thing: He has no remorse,” she said. “Somebody told me he sees nothing wrong with the decision because he truly believes that’s what God told them to do.”
Smith and his spouse filed for divorce in May of final yr; the break up was finalized Dec. 22, the identical day the Chattanooga Free Press reported that eight Venue staff had stop. Reports range on precisely what number of staffers remained, however the end result was the identical: In-person providers in Chattanooga have been briefly suspended, and the Georgia campus was shuttered totally. On Instagram, Smith announced that he can be taking a “sabbatical” in order to “fill up, spend time with God, and get some counseling.” He stated he would return in February.
Tavner Smith has but to publicly admit to an affair, however the divorce paperwork make his ex-wife’s place clear. On her facet of the paperwork, she plainly lists the explanations for the break up as “adultery.” On a proposed parenting plan, she means that the feminine worker not be permitted across the kids at any time, together with throughout church providers. (This half didn’t make it into the finalized parenting plan.) She additionally requests data of all funds to the girl from Venue Church in 2020 and 2021, in addition to data of any of her bank card statements paid off by the church throughout that point. The worker’s husband filed for divorce this month; his proposed parenting plan suggests none of their kids be allowed to attend Venue Church.
Smith’s ex-wife declined to remark for this text, and essentially the most public remark she has made on the divorce is altering her profile image the day after the divorce was accomplished. It obtained greater than 900 likes and practically 300 feedback. “Absolutely beautiful heart and soul!” one commenter wrote. “You got this and God will walk you through it all!”
Former staffers and volunteers had been anxious to talk out in regards to the alleged affair, however the emergence of the video opened the floodgates. Former staff, volunteers and attendees took to Facebook to publish prolonged missives about their time at Venue, amassing lots of of feedback per publish. “I’m so glad this has finally ‘hit the fan,’” one former attendee commented. “I felt betrayed, lied to, and asked to turn the other cheek. I’m just thankful for all the family and friends I met along the way.”
Some of those that left Venue have since discovered new church buildings. (The Facebook posts are crammed with folks inviting the deserters to their very own church buildings, which they promise are really aligned with God’s phrase.) Some have even taken up ministry themselves, citing the constructive components of Venue as inspiration. But some former members say their expertise at Venue has soured them on church totally, leaving them questioning what’s actual and whom they will belief.
Helton, the volunteer of practically seven years, stated he felt Venue has taken benefit of susceptible folks to construct the church ranks: low-income employees sucked in by the prosperity gospel, lonely folks simply on the lookout for someplace to go. “There were many times people said, ‘We would die for this place,’” he stated. “And I was like, ‘Y’all have lost your ever-loving minds.’”
Another former attendee broke down in tears speaking about how the church had helped her flip her life round, and the way misplaced she felt with out it. Before she joined Venue, she stated, she drank, cursed, and was a typically “mean person.” Attending had helped her discover her “true self,” she stated—or not less than she’d thought. Now she didn’t know what to assume.
“It was really, really hard, and it’s taken a lot for me to get myself back on track,” she stated.