A week before Christmas, several staff members at Venue Church in Chattanooga quit over concerns about the conduct of the megachurch's lead pastor, Tavner Smith, according to church members and others informed of the departures.
Eight employees quit last week after confronting Smith about rumors he was having an affair with a longtime employee, according to two former employees and four volunteers or members connected to the church for between three and eight years. On Friday afternoon, staff and volunteers met with Smith in a series of meetings to discuss the allegations after a video surfaced showing Smith allegedly kissing a woman in North Georgia, according to two long-time volunteers who participated in a meeting.
A spokesperson for Venue Church told the Times Free Press the organization would not offer comment until after the severance process for staff was complete.
"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.
On Wednesday, the Times Free Press sent a message seeking comment to Smith's Facebook page. The request was not acknowledged.
Some previous employees have signed non-disclosure agreements and are unable to speak publicly about their employment.
Smith, the father of three children, is in the process of divorcing his wife, Danielle, according to records from Hamilton County Circuit Court. Divorce proceedings began in May.
Smith moved his family to the Chattanooga area from Greenville, South Carolina, in 2012 to start Venue Church. In 2015, a report from Outreach Magazine and LifeWay Research listed Venue as one of the fastest-growing churches in America.
Smith would regularly post to social media pictures of himself in designer sneakers and clothes. Sunday services included light shows and congregants would provide a standing ovation when he came on stage. Along with the campus security team, a special team of armed bodyguards would follow Smith around.
As news spread of the employees quitting, former employees, volunteers and members of Venue began sharing their stories online. Concerns about church leadership and management of church finances extended back nearly to the church's conception almost a decade ago. Several posts, including one from former employee Colt Helton, were shared more than 550 times as of Wednesday afternoon.
Helton worked for the ministry for nearly a year in 2014 doing production work. When he started, around 150 people were attending on a given Sunday, he said, and while there were concerning signs about church leadership, things did not escalate until the church began experiencing exponential growth and money was flowing into the ministry, he said. By 2015, weekly attendance was more than 1,000, according to data from Outreach Magazine.
The Times Free Press is continuing to investigate Venue Church and its operations. If you have any information you believe can help, please contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 423-757-6249.
"As the church kept getting bigger and bigger, there got to be more and more warning signs with the fact that the culture changed real quick," Helton told the Times Free Press. "The lead pastor, you could not talk to him anymore. If he walked in the room, you had to stand up. You couldn't talk to him unless he talked to you in that room. And then you would be seated when he told you to be seated."
Any criticism would be seen as going against the church and going against God, Helton said, even when he tried to report to leadership how verbal arguments between some church leaders would turn physical.
Helton said preaching at the church also shifted from more traditional Calvinism to prosperity gospel, the belief among some protestant Christians that material wealth is God's will and can be increased by giving to the church. The church's theological direction was another topic that could not be discussed or questioned, he said.
Venue Church, which operates a social media presence with nearly 40,000 combined followers, is very concerned about its image and the narrative surrounding it, said Destiny Santos, who attended the church between 2015 and 2020 and served on the security team there for a year.
For example, during a weekend canvassing for the church, leadership in the operation asked Santos to let her curly hair down for a picture so the organization would appear more racially diverse. A photographer who worked for the church at the time confirmed the story but asked to remain anonymous.
Smith and those who defend him would attempt to discredit people who questioned the lead pastor or left the organization, Santos said. The saying from Smith was, people were either with Venue Church or they were part of the devil's move against it, she said. The entire Venue staff, apart from a few individuals, has turned over several times since Santos got involved.
As a member of the campus security team, Santos said certain people were not allowed in, and the reasons were not explicitly about safety concerns.
"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 told the Times Free Press. "Some of them were simple things like, this person was persistent about wanting to talk directly to pastor or wanting to talk to somebody about XYZ what they think about the church. Or, this person said this bad thing about the church. So now none of these people are allowed here."
People who left the church were characterized as "losers," Helton told the Times Free Press. People connected to Venue would call former members' place of employment to make accusations against them, he said.
"After a while everyone kind of had their moment when they had enough," Helton said. "And once you made that personal decision, like this isn't right, this isn't healthy and it was your time to leave, it makes you not want to go to church ever again."
Former employees or people who were connected to the church said there was an intense focus on tithing, the Biblical mandate to give 10% of income to the church. Smith would call people out publicly for not tithing enough, they said.
Smith and his wife own two homes valued at nearly $950,000 combined, and the Venue Church property on Lee Highway is valued at $4.9 million, according to Hamilton County property records. Smith's church has been featured on local news for giving money to The Howard School and giving money to church members.
Santos said the positive publicity is largely Smith controlling the narrative while it is his employees or volunteers who are doing the work.
"All everyone ever sees is him giving away a check to this school on the news or volunteering at a soup kitchen or giving back here," she said. "Newsflash: he didn't do any of that. He shows up when the cameras get there. We did everything. Like we volunteered at the soup kitchen. We gave away the clothes to the homeless. We cleaned up the streets. We raised the money to give to the schools. We did this and we did that. And he just shows up, looks nice on camera."
Workers and volunteers at the church had to sign an "honor code," which said they would refrain from swearing, illegal drugs, "dishonest gain" and sexual immorality, which included "homosexuality, living together with a partner before marriage, pornography," according to a 2018 copy of the honor code obtained by the Times Free Press.
Santos and her wife were not allowed to serve in youth ministry or be in a leadership position at the church, a nod to the church's beliefs on homosexuality, Santos said.
Smith gave a sermon on "sexual immorality" last year during a seminar on biblical marriage, in which Smith said any sexual contact beyond sex between a married man and woman amounted to raping God, Santos said.
Santos and her wife left the church shortly after, saying she no longer felt safe there.
Santos struggles with regret for encouraging people of color or members of the LGBTQ community to attend Venue. She, like many other former members, wonders whether what she experienced at the church - baptism, learning to better love her wife or think differently about her faith - was genuine or whether she was misled.
"A lot of us are dealing with deconstructing our faith because of our time at Venue. 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," she said.
At the end of his sermon this past Sunday, Smith brought an hourglass to the stage. He told the audience God told him that too many people were focusing on the past - on the sand that had already fallen - instead of looking to the future.
"Most of us can't get all the places God wants us to be because we're wrapped up in the shame of where we already have been," Smith said. "We don't walk in freedom because we're trapped in the past."
On Dec. 14, Venue Church announced on its Facebook page there would be three services on Dec. 26 across its two campuses. Four days later, the church announced Sunday services would only occur at the Chattanooga campus.
Venue Church's website now states the Dec. 26 service will be online only.
Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.