Chattanooga’s Venue Church files for bankruptcy as leaders vow it will survive and pay off debts

Filing staves off foreclosure on building

Staff file photo / Venue Church


Venue Church in Chattanooga has filed for bankruptcy protection after most of the staff quit and attendance dropped following publicized reports last year of a relationship between the church's senior pastor, Tavner Smith, and another staff member.

The church's president and attorney say that Venue Church will work to pay off its debt and continue its mission.

The megachurch at 6401 Lee Highway, which was named one of the fastest growing churches in America by Outreach Magazine and LifeWay Research in 2015, filed a Chapter 11 petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Chattanooga on Tuesday to reorganize its finances under court protection. The bankruptcy filing will help stave off a foreclosure that was scheduled later this month on the nearly 47,000-square-foot building that houses the 7-year-old church.

In its bankruptcy filing, the church said its revenues dropped from more than $3.1 million in 2020 to just over $2 million last year and are on pace to be under $1 million this year.

Venue Church listed debts and other creditor claims of more than $3 million. But the church estimates its property is worth $4.5 million.

Tom Bible, a bankruptcy attorney who filed the bankruptcy petition for Venue Church, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the church "intends to pay off all of its creditors in full" under bankruptcy court protection. That may involve selling the current church building, Bible said.

In a message to church members earlier this month, Smith said the church will survive with or without its current building.

"We've gone through a hard season...and we've fallen on hard times," Smith told the congregation in his message on Aug. 7. "It is a scary situation when you are navigating through things like this. But we know that God is not done with us."

Smith said "the church is not a building" and "Venue Church is a church no matter what."

Although attendance has dropped, Venue's Facebook and Instagram sites still have more than 25,000 followers.

Smith, Venue's charismatic lead pastor, is listed as president of the church. Smith helped start Venue Church in 2015 after he moved to Chattanooga from Greenville, South Carolina, and began hosting services in his living room for eight families. The church grew to regularly draw more than 1,500 people a week to all of its services.

But attendance has dropped in the past year. In December, several employees left the church over their concerns about Smith's alleged yearslong relationship with a Venue employee while he was still married. A video showed Smith kissing a woman while he was in the process of divorcing his now ex-wife, Danielle.

The fallout from the staff leaving, first reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, spurred sometimes mocking national and international media coverage, along with a flurry of online criticism as former church members discussed their experiences.

Smith, a father of three, announced in January he would take a sabbatical. Upon his return to his pastoral duties the next month, Smith apologized to his congregation with a tearful message.

"I've wounded people. I've caused devastation that I know I can't ever take back," he said. "As your leader and your pastor, I've come to you to publicly acknowledge my mistakes and truly ask for forgiveness."

The church closed its North Georgia campus in February.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.