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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Venue Church on Lee Highway in Chattanooga is pictured on Jan. 25, 2022.

Ron Phillips Sr., a pillar of the Chattanooga religious landscape and pastor emeritus of Abba's House, stepped onto the Sunday morning stage of a church in crisis.

"Venue Church needs to begin to pray for what's next, not for what's been," Phillips told the congregation.

But the sins of the past appear to be undoing the Chattanooga megachurch. A church that years ago was among the fastest-growing houses of worship in the nation now struggles to attract a few dozen people to a service on a given Sunday.

Ushers with flashlights still directed people to available seats, despite two-thirds of the roughly 150 cushioned chairs being unfilled at 9 a.m. in the nearly 47,000-square foot building. A video introducing volunteer opportunities at the church played for nearly 40 seconds without sound. A similar awkward silence filled the auditorium between worship songs.

The Abba's House pastor filled the preaching void left by Venue's charismatic lead pastor, Tavner Smith, who remains on sabbatical a month after nearly all staff at his church quit before Christmas over concerns about Smith's leadership and an alleged affair with a staff member.

The alleged infidelity and 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.

Phillips, a Venue board member and overseer of the church, preached about the blessing of Abraham on Jan. 23. He told congregants to not always believe things they read on social media and said he partnered with Venue Church years ago when the megachurch was a rising star in American Christianity because he knew demonic forces would try to attack Smith's ministry.

"I saw all that God was doing here," Phillips said. "And I began to pray, and the Lord made [Smith] a covenant partner for me to pray for because I knew that the enemy was gonna try to take this church down. But the church is not a man, not a woman. It's a community."

Venue Church and Smith have declined or failed to respond to repeated requests for comment from the Times Free Press since December. In that time, the Times Free Press has interviewed a dozen former church members, volunteers or staff, who described an organizational culture focused on growth and money with little patience for dissenting views.

A rising star

Smith, an understudy of the California-based Ron Carpenter, moved his family to the Chattanooga area from Greenville, South Carolina, in 2012 to start Venue Church.

The church appealed to many turned off by the buttoned-up, old wooden pew kind of Christianity offered at nearby churches. Worship music and the surrounding atmosphere felt more like a rock concert than a church service. Congregants wore hats and jeans. The pastor had tattoos.

A 2015 report from Outreach Magazine and LifeWay Research listed Venue as one of the fastest-growing churches in America. On a given week, the church might attract more than 1,500 people between its multiple services at two locations. Smith traveled to give guest sermons at other prominent megachurches, such as Steven Furtick's Elevation Church in North Carolina.

Noah Kimmel was looking for a new church in 2019 when he and his then-fiancee drove past Venue and decided to attend a service. Kimmel was immediately on board.

"I was so drawn in to the lights, the music, the way the pastor spoke," he said. "You felt so good walking out the door, like, 'Oh, I'm supposed to be here,' no matter what else was happening in your life."

By 2019, the church purchased its current location on Lee Highway, a former Sam's Club, for $4.5 million. More people kept coming. In previous years, the church gave away cars and video game consoles. In October, Smith gave $50,000 to The Howard School.

Kimmel felt the pressure expressed by many long-time members. Congregants were pushed to become volunteers. Volunteers were pushed to become volunteer leaders. He joined the connections team, welcoming people to the church, as well as having other responsibilities. A part of him wanted to be on staff.

But the more involved Kimmel became, the more disheartened he felt.

"It was all a show," he said.

Gucci slippers

Behind the increasing public popularity of Venue, longtime members and volunteers described a culture that required absolute loyalty to the church and, more specifically, the pastor.

Volunteers described leaving their regular jobs early to be at the church, spending long nights and weekends preparing for events or rehearsing for worship. Kimmel was at the church six days a week, sometimes for five hours at a time. His wife, then a nursing school student, was pressured to drop out of school to be at the church more to show how committed the couple was, he said.

People on the creative team were asked to use their own equipment, said Audria Thomas, who joined Venue in late 2018 and was part of the creative team.

Meanwhile, Smith's salary was nearly $200,000 a year, according to court records. Smith would wear designer clothes and regularly get new cars.

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Venue Church

Smith preached a version of the 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 emphasized the importance of tithing, the Biblical mandate to give 10% of income to the church, to "honor pastor," Thomas said, and at least one person cleared his bank accounts to be given to the church. People were called out if they were not giving enough.

On top of regular tithing, Kimmel said he gave the church leaders around $200 one Christmas to help buy Smith a pair of Gucci slippers.

Former staff and volunteers said church members were discouraged from listening to other pastors or speaking with people who left the church, which included founding members. People on the church security team were provided lists of people who were not allowed in the church, the reasons for which were not explicitly about safety.

Everyone in a room had to stand when Smith entered. Kimmel described being involved in the church as a never-ending series of loyalty tests to Smith — for example, if Smith moved to start a church in Egypt, would you be committed enough to follow?

"He had this sense of divinity," Kimmel said. "If he did something and you didn't follow, you weren't worthy enough to be under him."

'Not kingdom' and the video

In 2020, rumors circulated in the church about Smith having an affair with a worship leader who was married and changed positions to be Smith's personal assistant. Church leadership denied the rumors, though staff and volunteers began leaving the church.

Divorce proceedings between Smith and his ex-wife, Danielle, began in May 2021. Danielle declined a request for comment.

That month, Katherine Cauley, a leader in the church, sent a letter to all Venue volunteers expressing concerns about Smith's leadership as she quit the church. The ministry did not respect critical thinking or challenge, she wrote.

"Every person in every level of this ministry has been lied to (either directly or by intentional omission) in this past season. The spirits of control, fear, manipulation and intimidation have caused so many people who have served this ministry with their entire lives to leave without words, and when people have had words, they've been penalized rather than listened to. This is not Kingdom," Cauley wrote in the letter, which she posted to Twitter in December.

Cauley declined a Times Free Press request for further comment.

In the final months of 2021, a video began circulating online and among staff allegedly showing Smith kissing his assistant in a North Georgia restaurant.

On Dec. 16, in light of the video but just days after attending a Christmas party Smith hosted, staff at Venue gave their pastor until 3 p.m. the next day to make a decision. Staff wanted Smith to step away from leadership for six to 12 months, signing the church over to someone else while receiving professional help, according to a former staff member who requested anonymity since settlements with the church have not been finalized.

Smith refused.

On Dec. 17, eight staff members quit, less than 48 hours before the church's Christmas service. A meeting for volunteers was held that night, during which more people cut ties with the church. Staff that stayed, or were hired later, described the events involving the staff that left as an attempted "insurrection."

A spokesperson for Venue Church told the Times Free Press in December the organization would not offer comment until after the severance process for staff was complete. According to a former staff member who quit in December, no such exit interviews or severance process has taken place.

Kimmel said people connected to the church have accused him of holding a grudge for not being hired as staff. A friend who Kimmel reached out to with concerns about Smith's leadership told Kimmel he would not watch the video and told Kimmel not to talk to him again.

Two staff members at Venue Church, who declined to speak on the record with the Times Free Press, named and questioned the character of individuals who had publicly criticized the church, saying their stories were untrue or that they were "low level" in the organization.

Honor codes

When Keith Pruett began attending Venue Church in 2016 he bought in almost immediately. He felt the Holy Spirit there. It was the kind of church he would want his future children and grandchildren to attend, he said.

He got on board, volunteering on the parking team and later on production. He signed the church's honor code to be involved, which stated he would refrain from swearing, illegal drugs, "dishonest gain" and sexual immorality, according to a 2018 copy of the honor code obtained by the Times Free Press.

Pruett watched church members, staff and long-time volunteers leave. As people raised concerns about Smith's leadership, he began to have his own doubts. The way leadership handled rumors of the alleged affair, months before the video came out, made him question the integrity of the entire organization.

He wonders how much he learned at Venue was true. And he cannot help but think of those honor codes.

"I signed like four of those and none of those mean a damn thing now," Pruett said.

Megachurches, especially nondenominational ones, often take a cookie-cutter approach, wrapping the organization around one individual to a level that can be almost idolatrous, said Stacey Wynn, who previously worked at a megachurch in Florida and runs the ministry Clarity Unleashed, which aims to help people of faith separate from harmful theology.

"When you wrap up your belief structures and your belief system around that kind of a personality, when you see that personality fall it really damages your senses," Wynn said. " This is the man I followed that was God's gift to this community and how I've structured my whole belief system. And now I see that there's a problem there. So, does that mean that my belief system shattered?"

Adrian Gibbs and Josh Link host "Dirty Rotten Church Kids," a popular podcast in the Irreverent network. Gibbs and Link were involved in evangelical megachurches separately and together before stepping away from the model — Gibbs for the perceived dissonance between Christians and conservative politicians and Link from physical burnout.

A lack of transparency or accountability is part of the culture of megachurches that are overly focused on growth and evangelism, Gibbs said in a telephone interview. People who bring up problems or question decisions are derided for not being "on mission," he said.

"This is baked into a very literalist interpretation of the Scripture, where it's like: We need to go out and make disciples of all nations, which means at any cost we need to keep the machine moving. Things have to grow. Things got to move. We don't have time to look back," Gibbs said. " It's like, are you bought into our mission? Because God said that this is a good mission. And if you can get that sort of buy-in at a very high theological level, then it can justify a lot of secrecy. It can justify a lot of abuse of power. It can justify a lot of stifling of questions."

'Loving the people of Venue Church'

On Jan. 5, Smith announced on Instagram he would be on sabbatical until February. While Smith has not been present at the church, he appears in videos broadcast in the church to introduce the preacher on a given Sunday, such as the campus pastor Michael Patterson or, as on Sunday, Phillips.

Smith described the Abba's House founder as a "mentor" and "spiritual father figure" who helped Smith "know how to make decisions as a pastor and how to do things God's way."

"I call him 'Pop,'" Smith said in the video.

Abba's House, on Hixson Pike in Hixson, declined a Times Free Press request to answer questions about its relationship with Venue Church.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Abba's House said, "The only connection between the members of one church and the other is our shared desire to bring God's love and grace to the people of Chattanooga. Pastor Ron Phillips Sr. has not served as the senior pastor of Abba's House for over four years but has a heart for pastors and churches around the country that are struggling. Pastor Ron Phillips Sr. was invited to Venue as a guest speaker, and he agreed for the sole purpose of loving the people of Venue Church during a difficult time."

A visible example of the difficult moment for Venue is its struggle to attract anything comparable to the crowds that used to pack its auditorium, raising questions about the future of the ministry and the role Smith will play in it.

To those like Thomas, people are beginning to see what is being preached at Venue is not being followed. For those who remain, the message is clear: "Respectfully, you need to get out. Regardless of what your belief system is now, you need to go elsewhere," Thomas said.

And while Venue's leaders repeat the ministry's new year moniker, "New in '22," people like Pruett struggle on Sunday mornings, still unable to associate with a church eight months after leaving.

"I'm still in the middle of a healing process," Pruett said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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