Venue Church Lead Pastor Tavner Smith denied having an affair or being "sexually involved" with a married church employee but acknowledged the two had kissed and planned to pursue a relationship after both finished divorce proceedings.
The statements from the Chattanooga megachurch pastor came during a Dec. 17 meeting with more than 100 church volunteers just hours after nearly all staff quit citing a years-long alleged affair.
Audio of the meeting, obtained by the Times Free Press, provides the first opportunity to hear Smith's perspective as the church has declined interview requests and the pastor has been on sabbatical since Jan. 5.
Smith says on the audio that the church's board of directors quit over the alleged affair, and he acknowledged he paid for counseling, vehicles and vacations for people connected to the church without notifying church staff.
The megachurch on Lee Highway, which was once among the fastest-growing churches in the nation, has been in crisis since mid-December. In the weeks since, the ministry has struggled to attract worshippers. Former members described to the Times Free Press an organizational culture focused on growth and money with little patience for dissenting views.
During the Dec. 17 meeting, multiple volunteers said they were misled by the church or lied to as rumors of the alleged affair circulated for years. Smith apologized for not having been fully transparent with people in the past two years.
Smith told the volunteers he would answer any question they had, then repeatedly said there was information he would not share. Members would feel differently if they knew the "whole story," Smith said.
The church was forced to confront the rumors about the alleged affair after a video circulated online in late 2021 showing Smith allegedly kissing the employee at a restaurant in North Georgia.
The pastor said he was "great friends" with the employee but the two were not "sexually involved." When questioned by a volunteer, Smith said the two had kissed but never when they were living with their spouses. At the time, the two couples were only married "on paper," Smith said.
The Times Free Press is choosing to publish parts of the Dec. 17 volunteer meeting to allow readers to hear Venue Church Pastor Tavner Smith in his own words. The recording, obtained by the Times Free Press, was edited to protect sources and to protect the identity of the employee alleged to be involved with Smith. The Times Free Press and other media outlets have not previously identified the female employee. The recording was authenticated, in part, by comparing its contents with descriptions of the meeting provided by others in the room who spoke with the Times Free Press.
Smith did not respond when a volunteer questioned how the pastor's description of the relationship did not constitute an affair.
Smith said later he wanted to be with the employee.
"When she's not married and I'm not married, yeah, we hope to pursue each other," he said.
Divorce proceedings between Smith and his ex-wife, Danielle, began in May 2021. Danielle has declined a Times Free Press request for comment.
Smith told volunteers his marriage was over before 2015, the year he met the employee in question. He said the divorce with his ex-wife was finalized the Monday before the meeting, Dec. 13. Hamilton County court records show the divorce was finalized five days later, Dec. 22.
When a volunteer questioned who was holding Smith accountable, the pastor said the church's board of directors - three "big name pastors" who were not named - had stepped down over the controversy. Other faith leaders were asked to join the board but declined, Smith said, and the church went several months without a board of directors.
Ron Phillips Sr., pastor emeritus of Abba's House and now Venue board member, is the "main one" providing accountability, Smith said.
"He really believes in me," Smith said of Phillips.
Phillips preached at Venue on Jan. 23 while Smith remained on sabbatical. Abba's House, the megachurch Phillips founded, told the Times Free Press in a statement Phillips "has a heart for pastors and churches around the country that are struggling."
During the December meeting, Smith said church staff were "leaving up and down" over the controversy and he would be on sabbatical after the new year to receive counseling. Hours earlier, eight staff members had quit over the pastor's conduct.
Smith said he had "some of the greatest preachers in this world" scheduled to fill in for him in January.
In Smith's absence, Venue Church has played pre-recorded sermons from other pastors, along with having Phillips and Venue's campus pastor, Michael Patterson, deliver sermons.
The video of Smith and the employee was taken while Smith visited her in North Georgia, where she was staying at an Airbnb there to receive counseling. The two had lunch before returning to Chattanooga, Smith said.
The video shows the two leaning into each other, with the back of the employee's head blocking the view that would show whether they kissed. Smith denied the video showed the two kissing.
"I wouldn't have kissed her in public. That's the truth," Smith said.
When questioned about the Airbnb, Smith told volunteers he has paid for Airbnbs for staff in recent years to receive counseling for things he "personally was probably responsible for" in recent years.
The pastor said Venue staff were not always made aware of Airbnbs, counseling sessions, gift cards, trips, vehicles or a Disney World vacation he had bought for people connected to the church.
Smith told volunteers at the December meeting that he would continue to lead Venue after his sabbatical.
"I just would like a little bit of a break," he said. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm your pastor. I'm going to pastor this church. God called me here, and nothing's changed about that. The vision is not changed. The promise still stands. What God spoke over this place is still going to happen."
Smith encouraged people in the meeting to take part in Venue's Christmas services, which were just days away, because the Gospel would be preached and it would be an opportunity for people to get saved.
Venue closed its North Georgia campus at the end of January, vacating the space in Ringgold it had leased for years. In January, a few dozen people were attending a Sunday service in Chattanooga, despite the church having around 150 chairs set up and room for hundreds more.