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TN Megachurch Pastor Returns to Pulpit After Six-Week Absence for Alleged Adultery

By Josh Shepherd
Tavner Smith Venue Church disgraced adultery
Tavner Smith, lead pastor of Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., addresses an “inappropriate relationship” in a short statement to his congregation—prior to preaching during the church’s 11 a.m. service on February 7, 2022. (Video screengrab via Facebook)

Tennessee megachurch pastor Tavner Smith returned to the pulpit Sunday—six weeks after allegations surfaced that Smith had engaged in an adulterous affair and eight of his staff quit.

In a short statement read to the congregation at Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Smith apologized for engaging in an “inappropriate relationship” without noting specifics.

“I want to say that I’m sorry that I put you through any embarrassment, heartache, or confusion,” Smith said. “I’ve wounded people and I’ve caused devastation that I know I can’t ever take back.”

The video of Sunday’s complete service was briefly available online via Facebook but has since been taken down. However, The Roys Report grabbed video of the apology before it was removed, which is posted below:

In his statement, Smith claimed to “take full responsibility” for his actions but also said: “Not every part of my story will be shared right away. Maybe some, never.”

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Throughout his apology, Smith combined words of contrition with hope for forgiveness and immediate restoration.

“At this point, you all are very well aware that I’m not perfect,” he continued. “But I do love God with my whole heart and I do love you. There’s no excuse for my behaviors and the hurts I’ve caused. But I believe there is healing in walking out a brand-new season.”

Smith last preached at Venue on January 2.

Once hailed as the seventh fastest-growing church in the nation, Venue Church once reportedly had more than 2,000 people in weekly attendance at its multiple locations. Over the past month, the church’s satellite location in north Georgia has closed and attendance at their main church campus (valued at $4.9 million) has reportedly shrunk to a few dozen people.

Dr. Julia Dahl, an image repair analyst and professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in an email to The Roys Report that Smith’s apology showed little repentance and raises multiple red flags.

Julia Dahl image repair analyst
Dr. Julia Dahl

“This is clear minimization,” Dahl said, noting that if Smith’s “inappropriate relationship” was with a congregant, “it’s spiritual abuse.”

She added that Smith’s refusal to be specific about his sin and nearly immediate return to his position are also problems.

“This completely ignores that his actions are at least temporarily, if not permanently, disqualifying,” she said. “There is no real repentance when the actions are: ‘I’m sorry. And on with the show.'”

Venue had been associated with ARC, the Association of Related Churches. As is the pattern with ARC churches, Venue was overseen by a board of other megachurch pastors from out of town.

However, in audio of a December meeting between Smith and his staff obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Smith revealed that all four outside pastors on his board of directors quit last month over the alleged affair.

One pastor, Ron Phillips, pastor emeritus of Abba’s House in nearby Hixson, Tennessee, had apparently stepped in to fill the void. However, last week, Phillips vacated his role.

“My hope was to help you and your wife and daughters settle amicably your differences as well as preserve the church,” Phillips reportedly wrote to Smith. “Unfortunately, it continues to snowball into more than the divorce. Due to these other things, I must submit my resignation.”

Speaking during the service, Pastor Smith reaffirmed his own leadership role despite the lack of any formal outside accountability board. “As your leader and pastor, I’ve come to you to publicly acknowledge my mistakes and truly ask for your forgiveness,” he said.

According to court records from Hamilton County, Smith and his wife, Danielle, who began divorce proceedings last May, finalized their divorce on December 22, 2021.

Smith reportedly met the church staffer with whom he had a relationship in 2015. The video of the two apparently kissing was reportedly captured at a restaurant in north Georgia on December 13.

In the audio of the December staff meeting, Smith acknowledged that the staffer he’s involved with is still married. Smith said that when both he and the woman are divorced, he plans on pursuing the relationship.

During recent years, former church staffer Colt Chandler Helton and multiple people interviewed by the Chattanooga Times Free Press noted an emphasis on “prosperity gospel” and tithing in Smith’s messages. According to the news outlet, Smith and his wife own two homes valued at nearly $950,000 combined.

Sunday’s service underlined what seemed to be a focal point of the church. Prior to his apology and sermon, Smith first took the stage in an upbeat manner to ask for donations.

“Some people call (this) giving time, but we really believe it’s bigger than that,” said Smith. “(This is) the time that we get to be obedient to (God) and show him our trust in our tithes—the first 10% that we get of anything—and offerings, anything above that.”

The loss of multiple key staff members seemed apparent in what Smith referred to as “a lot of technical difficulties” that plagued both Sunday services. “They weren’t able to figure out a way to get the lyrics up and a lot of things have happened like that,” he said.

But Smith also recognized the loyalty of his congregation, many of whom could be heard cheering after he read his brief apology statement.

“I’m just excited (that) I get to be in this building with literally a group of the most generous people I have ever met in my life,” he said.

Julie Roys contributed to this report.

Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their two children.



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17 Responses

  1. Whew. That took FOR-EV-ER. Now he can put these satanic distractions behind him and be about the business of representing Christ in word and deed.

  2. Nice. So now every Sunday people will have to look up there and say to themselves…”But can I trust him with my wife?” Or whats more, how will this effect his preaching? Gonna be really tough to speak to ANY sexual topic with credibility or boldness. Any moral topic for that matter. However Im sure the woman caught in adultery might show up a bit more often…but then that would be obvious wouldn’t it? The leaders of this church are stupid as stupid can be for letting him back in.
    I see lawsuits ahead.

    1. Fairly obvious that’s what this is… a grift. So disgusting. Sometimes I wish the whole mega-church thing would have never taken off… even the good ones are tainted by this ‘model’ of church. I do seriously pray that most of these things die, even the ones without scandals like this… I wonder if the cost/benefit ratio hasn’t tipped to the negative by this point… and I wonder if this model, overall, hasn’t hindered the Kingdom, more than it has helped…

      1. Those are good questions. I don’t think the showman-preacher phenomenon, facilitated by the technology that allows the show to be broadcast, is a good model for a church. If attendees manage to form Christian communities in that environment, it’s incidental rather than as a result of the show.

        I think “Venue Church” – just the name – sounds like it’s openly a joke on the attendees.

  3. What took him so long? God’s kingdom was losing ground when he wasn’t on stage.

    BTW, I will be starting a “Go Fund Me” account so we can purchase Mr. Smith some jeans that aren’t all ripped up!

  4. Thank you for the videos. They prove his repentance is sincere:

    A. Knees worn through- clearly he spent all 6 weeks praying on his knees
    B. Look at those guns! Another pastor who spends more time in the gym than in the study or chasing women.

    He’s restored and ready to collect offerings!

  5. Businessmen like this don’t shock me anymore. What I can’t figure out is why people continue to support a system with clowns like this in leadership.
    “I sinned, I’m sorry, now give me your tithe” or “Give me your tithe, I messed up, don’t leave my business or I’ll have to get a real job”

    1. Yeah… but I’m also less surprised anymore concerning the capacity for american ‘christians’ (the sheep) to be duped… it seems to be part of the ‘faith’ now for some… who, by their actions, seem to say this, “I’m Biblically illiterate, lazy and immature and all I want is to have a good time… I’ll give money, I’ll give adoration (of dear leader) if you make me feel good and make me laugh… thanks for helping me so easily punch the ‘going-to-church/I’m-a-real-american-because-I-do’ card…”

  6. Every, but every, Christian should read at least one book on persuasive psychology. Maybe “Influence” by Robert Cialdini. Start with the material on “commitment and consistency.” There’s your answer for why people keep supporting all these guys!

  7. Six weeks of absence and five minutes of apology [only about three minutes if the opening statements (0:00 start to 0:47) and introduction to his sermon (3:55 to 5:14 end) aren’t included] following allegedly infidelity and divorce of a marriage long enough to conceive more than one child? Even Mark Driscoll was officially away from a pulpit for nearly two years between leaving Mars Hill Church of greater Seattle in October 2014 and planting a new congregation near Phoenix during summer 2016.

  8. As I see his ripped jeans, bespoke shirt, tattoos, bodybuilder’s arms, and ratty beard, it seems like he’s got a bit in common with Tullian Tchividjian in acting out his midlife crisis in a horrible way. One can only hope that (unlike Tullian apparently) he only had one paramour to hurt.

    Keep an eye on your pastors. If they’re trying to mimic overprivileged teenagers, watch out. For that matter, watch out for prosperity theology as well.

  9. This is text book spiritual abuse. ARC does not return calls on reports of abuse and moral failures of pastors in their network. So much damage done by these pastors are abusive, lying and narcissistic. ARC seems to be burying its head as the house of cards falls.

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