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Smith’s bio states:
Pastor Tavner is dedicated to encouraging people to live to their fullest potential. Above anything else, he desires to lead others to know God for Who He really is: a Father Who loves us right where we are and Who has an amazing plan and purpose for our lives.
Pastor Tavner worked as the Student Pastor of a church in Greenville, SC, and traveled around the U.S. as a youth evangelist. In 2008, he became the Executive Student Pastor at Redemption World Outreach Center (now Redemption) in Greenville, SC.
There, he became the understudy to Pastor Ron Carpenter Jr., who remains Pastor Tavner’s mentor today. During his time at Redemption, Pastor Tavner founded Unite Ministries, which focused on bringing churches together throughout the state of South Carolina. God developed Unite into one of the largest monthly youth services in The United States at the time: it served over 3,000 students—from all walks of life and denominations—who gathered together for the sole purpose of putting their differences aside and lifting up Jesus’ name.
In 2012, Pastor Tavner moved to Chattanooga, TN, because of his radical obedience to God’s plan, and started a move of God through Venue Church.
A Tennessee megachurch pastor was discovered half-naked with a married co-worker by stunned worshippers – only to claim that they’d innocently been cooking chili, and had stripped down after accidentally spilling it.
Last November, volunteers at the Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, paid a surprise visit to Pastor Tavner Smith at his house – but discovered the pastor wearing only his boxers, with a married church employee in a towel.
The unnamed woman was married to another worker at Venue Church. Video circulating online is said to show the blonde woman – seen only from the rear – looking cozy with Smith, who divorced his wife last year, at a local restaurant.
Speaking of the chili incident, an unnamed worshipper told the Daily Beast: ‘I don’t think none of us was that dumb. If she dropped chili on her clothes, why are you in your boxers? Was y’all like, throwing chili at each other?’
Rumors of the pastor’s alleged affair had been swirling for months. One former church member told the Daily beast she had given Smith the benefit of the doubt for quite awhile.
As the rumors began to circulate, some church members began asking questions. One church member said she spoke to the the pastor and the church employee who was allegedly having an affair with, and they both denied having an affair.
But something still felt off, she said. Then she received a video from another church member. It showed smith and the female employee sitting together for a bit when it appears they go in for a kiss.
‘At that point we were just kind of like, ‘OK that’s the physical evidence,’ the former attendee told the Daily Beast. ‘That was the moment that we were like, ‘That’s what we needed.
Smith called a meeting to address the video, which had circulated online. He refused to answer questions directly and denied any affair took place.
Rumors began circulating about an alleged affair and in 2021 Smith and his wife filed for divorce. The split was finalized Dec. 22, the same day the Chattanooga Free Press reported that eight Venue employees had quit.
The pastor made his announced on Instagram that he would be taking a ‘sabbatical’ in order to ‘fill up, spend time with God, and get some counseling.’
And former staffers, members, and volunteers told The Daily Beast they are still struggling to come to terms with the maelstrom that left one of the country’s fastest-growing mega churches in shambles.
“Everyone used to say, ‘Venue is a cult, Venue is a cult,’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s not,’” the volunteer who witnessed the chili incident told The Daily Beast. “And now as I look back I’m like, ‘I don’t think I was in a Godly place.’”
To hear Pastor Smith tell it, he came to Chattanooga by divine intervention. In 2012, as a lowly student pastor at Ron Carpenter’s massive Greenville, South Carolina, megachurch, Smith says he was called by God to move his wife and kids to Tennessee and start a church of his own, in the hollowed-out building of an old Sam’s Club. He claims he was once banned from the mall for recruiting there eight hours a day, and that he recruited hundreds of new members by dropping 50,000 eggs from a helicopter on Easter Sunday. (The egg drop, of course, was God’s idea.) By 2015, Venue was on Outreach Magazine’s list of fastest-growing churches in the country; by 2020, it had campuses in two states and pulled in nearly 2,000 people on a given Sunday.
The services at Venue are standard megachurch fare, where sermons are preceded by rock shows complete with strobe lights and fog machines, and the preaching is heavy on “prosperity gospel”—the idea that donating to the church will increase your own financial fortunes. When Smith takes the stage—usually in a hoodie or a trendy button-down and ripped jeans—he is greeted with a standing ovation. When he makes a joke or preaches something especially meaningful, he is met with a chorus of amens. (At least one volunteer said they were encouraged to respond audibly to Smith’s sermons so the crowd would, too.)
The sermons are heavy on Smith’s personal life, usually consisting of tales of how he overcame insurmountable odds and how you can do it, too, if you accept Jesus Christ as your savior—and donate 10 percent of your income to Venue. In one sermon, Smith insisted that whenever he speaks, “heaven moves” and “angels pay attention.” In another, he claimed God created time zones in order to space out people’s prayers.
“People [in Chattanooga] say, ‘Don’t drink the orange KoolAid,’” one former volunteer said, referring to the vibrant color of Venue’s logo. “They really say that.”
Smith’s sermons also lean heavily on recruitment. Many of them feature stories of him haranguing strangers—a sad young waitress, the real estate agent who sold him the church—into joining the congregation. (They always say yes; they usually cry.) Before Christmas last year, he told his flock to do whatever they could do to pack people into the pews, including leaving baked goods on neighbors’ doorsteps. “If you’ve invited people 72 times and they’ve all but cussed you out and told you to leave them alone,” he instructed, “one more time, invite them to Christmas at Venue Church.”
Once the neighbors got to Venue, there was another message waiting for them: Donate, donate, donate. Attendees said Smith preached over and over about tithing, or the practice of giving a portion of your income to the church every week. Many churches address tithing as a suggestion, but attendees said Smith treated it like an obligation.
“They kept on saying, ‘Bring your friend, bring your friend, bring your friend,’” said the former volunteer, who said she donated up to $300 a week to the church as a high schooler. “And then you get there and it’s like, ‘Oh gosh, he’s preaching on tithing again.’”
The message appears to have worked. Financial records for the church itself are unavailable, but property records show the building alone is worth $4.9 million. A child support worksheet in Smith’s divorce proceedings lists his monthly income as $16,666. According to other divorce records, Smith and his ex-wife owned three houses in and around Chattanooga worth $981,330 combined, and maintained a real estate investment account worth $20,000.
Colt Helton, a church volunteer of more than seven years, said Smith flaunted his growing wealth over the years through designer duds and new cars. After a while, Helton said, he stopped recognizing the church he had joined. “The whole church kinda turned into this kinda shoe and jersey fetish,” he remarked.
But it was the beginning of the pandemic when things really started to change. In early 2020, the usually clean-shaven Smith started growing out his hair and beard, getting new tattoos and piercing his ears. The most noticeable change was how much time he started spending with a certain female employee. Starting that year, one former volunteer said, Smith and the employee seemed “conjoined at the hip.” One volunteer said she saw them having frequent one-on-ones in his office, another she noticed them posting effusive comments on each other’s social media. Rumors began circulating that the two appeared to be having an affair.
The chatter was troubling, but Smith and Venue had accrued a lot of goodwill. Almost everyone who spoke to The Daily Beast credited Venue with turning their life around somehow; by reintroducing them to God or saving their marriage or giving them a community. Volunteers and employees went through strenuous courses and signed strict pledges that bound them together; they were rewarded with seats at the front of the church and beautiful team retreats in the woods. At the beginning, at least, Smith spent quality time with attendees and counseled them through their issues, even giving one couple gift cards so they could take themselves out on date night. “It was super-personable, I felt like people really cared about me,” said one woman who started volunteering with the church in 2016. “Honestly, I kind of did feel like it was God speaking to me at certain points in my life.”
Slowly, however, members started noticing a trickle of long-time staff members leaving the church. First was a campus pastor who’d come from South Carolina, one former volunteer recalled. Then—according to multiple former members—a number of full-time staff exited at the end of 2020. Smith and the female employee continued to spend the bulk of their time at church together, while Smith’s wife became increasingly scarce. But whenever anyone confronted the two about the rumors, they denied anything was going on. “It was almost like we were smacked in the face with a pie and then it was just getting all smothered in,” one longtime volunteer said. “Like, lemme make sure I get that pie allll over your face.”
In January 2021, Smith announced to the congregation what many staff and volunteers already suspected: He and his wife were splitting for good. He said the board had asked him to take a break from preaching and attend six weeks of counseling. But two weeks later, according to multiple former attendees, he was back at the pulpit, claiming God had told him to return.
Smith and his wife filed for divorce in May of last year; the split was finalized Dec. 22, the same day the Chattanooga Free Press reported that eight Venue employees had quit. Reports vary on exactly how many staffers remained, but the result was the same: In-person services in Chattanooga were briefly suspended, and the Georgia campus was shuttered entirely. On Instagram, Smith announced that he would be taking a “sabbatical” in order to “fill up, spend time with God, and get some counseling.” He said he would return in February.
Tavner Smith has yet to publicly admit to an affair, but the divorce documents make his ex-wife’s position clear. On her side of the paperwork, she plainly lists the reasons for the split as “adultery.” On a proposed parenting plan, she suggests that the female employee not be permitted around the children at any time, including during church services. (This part did not make it into the finalized parenting plan.) She also requests records of all payments to the woman from Venue Church in 2020 and 2021, as well as records of any of her credit card statements paid off by the church during that time. The employee’s husband filed for divorce this month; his proposed parenting plan suggests none of their children be allowed to attend Venue Church.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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