What was once one of the fastest growing megachurches in the country—Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee—today is reeling from a staff exodus due to their pastor’s alleged infidelity.
According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, eight employees of Venue Church quit last week after confronting Lead Pastor Tavner Smith in meetings last Friday with allegations he was having an affair. The confrontation came shortly after a video surfaced apparently showing Smith kissing a woman other than his wife.
A spokesperson for Venue told the Times Free Press that the church would not comment until the severance process for the employees was finished. “We are currently conducting our exit process with our staff members. We appreciate their service and value their feedback,” the church said in an email.
The video of Smith and another woman was posted in a comment thread on Facebook by Colt Chandler Helton, a former employee of the church.
Smith is a married father of three children, but began divorce proceedings against his wife, Danielle, in May, the Times Free Press reported.
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Smith started Venue in 2012. And by 2015, a report from Lifeway Research and Outreach magazine ranked Venue as the 7th fastest growing church in America. At the time, the church had close to 2,000 attenders every Sunday and six services.
Yet according to Helton, who helped the church grow from 150 people to more than a thousand, the church is rife with abuse and questionable financial practices.
In a Facebook post December 19, Helton alleged that Venue has “zero elders or accountability.” He added that staff were told there was no money, but Smith “had a new car every few weeks. And the shopping trips would blow your mind. From exotic dogs to shoe and jersey collections.”
According to Helton, the theology at Venue shifted often, and the church eventually began promoting “prosperity gospel.”
Helton added that he had witnessed physical and mental abuse by leaders at the church. He said he also witnessed “many times the lead pastor have ‘alone time’ with females on the worship team and congregation.”
Reflecting on his time with Venue, Helton said, “I taught the ‘Iranians how to make nuclear weapons’ and gave a man who had very very bad intentions the ability to make a mega church.”
Former employees told the Times Free Press that Venue focused intensely on tithing, the practice of giving 10% of one’s income to the church.
According to the news outlet, Smith and his wife own two homes valued at nearly $950,000 combined, and the church property is valued at $4.9 million.
In its earlier days, Venue was associated with the Association of Related Churches or ARC, which recently has been plagued by scandals involving pastors at ARC churches. ARC also is known for restoring fallen pastors back to ministry.
Venue once boasted that it has helped plant 200 churches through its partnership with ARC.
Destiny Santos, who attended the church for five years and served on the security team, told the Times Free Press that the church carefully curated its online image. She said she was once asked to let down her curly hair for a picture so the church would appear more racially diverse.
Santos also said Smith would discredit people who left the church, saying that people were either with Venue or they were part of the devil’s move against it. She added that certain people were banned from the campus.
“Anyone that spoke bad about him or the church went onto this watch list with code names and explanations as to why they’re not allowed,” Santos explained to the Times Free Press.
As a result of her experience at Venue, Santos said she struggling to discern what was real about her Christian experience.
“A lot of us are dealing with dealing with deconstruction our faith because of our time at Venue,” she told the Times Free Press. “And it’s not fair to a lot of us, but we almost don’t have a choice because we don’t know what was real and what was fake.”
Venue was planning to have three services on December 26 at its two campuses. The church website now states that services Sunday will be online only.