The hipster pastor who admitted to having an “inappropriate relationship” with a church employee earlier this year has hit a roadblock on his journey to redemption: the foreclosure of his Tennessee megachurch, which has been shedding members and staff ever since news of his infidelity broke.
The building housing Venue Church in Chattanooga—once one of the fastest-growing churches in the nation—is now set to be auctioned off outside the county courthouse after defaulting on its nearly $2.8 million mortgage.
The news has left some former congregants wondering where all of their donations went.
“Now with everything that’s come to light, you do wonder where the money is, or where it’s gone to,” said Arron Gribble, a local truck driver who joined the church in 2019 and left last year.
“If we're able to give away a million dollars as a church in a year period, and [Smith] is able to have the cars and shoes and clothes he has, how come the church has a $2.6 million dollar balance?”
Meanwhile, the problems with Smith’s former marriage also appear to be ongoing. Divorce records indicate Smith was late on his child support payments in June, and court records show his ex-wife, Danielle Smith, was arrested last month on a charge of “electronic tracking of motor vehicles.”
The arrest occurred just over a week after the pastor called an officer to his house July 1 and claimed his ex-wife had been “harassing” him ever since she found out he had a girlfriend. He said his ex had told his mother that she knew where his car was because she was tracking it on an app, and claimed to have found the phone in the car. He did not have it, because he said he had given it to his daughter.
A hearing in the case is set for Sept. 7. Danielle Smith declined to comment.
The drama at Venue started late last year, when a video surfaced that appeared to show Pastor Tavner Smith kissing his married worship leader at a restaurant in Georgia. (Smith has denied the two were kissing in the video.) Rumors had been circulating for months that the two were having an affair—one former volunteer even told The Daily Beast she stumbled on the two of them at home alone in their underwear—but the video set off a very public reckoning.
Eight staff members quit in December over the alleged affair, leaving the church with only a handful of people to keep it running. All of the board members had already quit over the drama, and Smith admitted that he was having trouble replacing them, according to audio of a December meeting between the pastor and volunteers obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The church’s second location in Georgia was shuttered that month.
Smith denied having an affair, but did tell volunteers at the meeting he had “kissed” the coworker and that the two were hoping to “pursue each other” when they finalized their divorces. (Both were in the process of divorcing their spouses at the time.) He later apologized to the congregation for what he called an “inappropriate relationship.”
Smith took a short-lived sabbatical in January, but his troubles did not end there. On Feb. 4, Pastor Ron Phillips—the only person Smith had found to take over the advisory board—resigned from his role, citing the ongoing turmoil at the church. Then, on July 31, the church's foreclosure was announced in a local newspaper.
Smith addressed the news in a sermon Sunday, telling congregants they were “a church no matter what.”
“If y’all gotta all come to my house, we’ll pile in there,” he said, “but that’s not where we stand. We’ve sought our legal counsel and they have assured me that I can stand up here and tell you that there are multiple options they are providing for us to stay here and make it through.”
Reached on Friday, however, an attorney for First National Citizens Bank told The Daily Beast that a foreclosure notice had been entered and that the bank would “move forward with their rights under the note and the deed of trust and proceed.” The only things that could stop it, he added, would be if a court order was entered or the debts paid off in full—neither of which, to his knowledge, had happened.
Former members, meanwhile, wondered how foreclosure was even in the cards. Five former congregants told The Daily Beast they remembered Smith telling the congregation that the church building had been purchased in full, or at least with very little debt. The pastor even said as much to the Times Free Press just after the church moved into the new, 47,000-square foot building in 2018, telling the paper the campus had launched debt-free.
In his sermon on Sunday, Smith admitted to telling the congregation that the church was “debt-free” in 2017, but claimed he was only referring to the leasing and renovations. The church building was not purchased outright until 2019, with a mortgage of $2.77 million.
The former members seemed unaware of this.
“My understanding was it was paid off debt free, or it was maybe $100,00 short of being debt free,” said Keith Pruett, a former ministry lead at the church who left last year. “And now it’s like, why is there a $2.5 million lien on it?”
City records also show the church is past due on its 2021 taxes and water quality fee.
The news of the foreclosure has resurrected long-held grievances about Smith’s spending. In recent years, former members previously told The Daily Beast, the pastor had taken to preaching in designer duds and expensive sneakers. Divorce records show he and his ex-wife owned three houses in and around Chattanooga worth $981,330 combined, and Smith raked in a self-reported $16,666 per month. Former members recall him driving flashy cars and employing a personal security team.
“This guy was dressed to the max,” said Ryan Dedmon, a food truck owner who also joined in 2019 and left in early 2021. “He always had the nicest of the nice, the newest of the new.”
The church also paid for volunteers to go for weekend retreats in the woods, and one couple said Smith paid for gift cards for her and her husband to go out to dinner and work on their marriage. Smith previously admitted to having spent church funds on Airbnbs, counseling sessions, gift cards, trips, cars, and vacations for people connected to the church without consulting leadership, according to the Times Free Press.
Members previously told The Daily Beast that Smith put a heavy emphasis on “tithing,” or giving to the church. One volunteer said she donated $300 a week to the church while she was still a teenager. Several former members recalled the church playing videos that showed people who gave to the church seeing their lives change miraculously in the weeks that followed.
Gribble said the church often handed out slips of paper for congregants to pledge 10 percent of their incomes for a certain number of months. Smith, he said, promised the donors that if they did not receive a “blessing” in that time period, they could have their money back.
The problem, he added, is that no one ever felt brave enough to ask for their money back. “You feel like you're robbing from God,” he said.
Other former members pointed to a 2016 fundraiser called the “Promise Campaign,” which was focused on helping the church get its new building. (It was after this campaign that Smith got on stage and told congregants the church was “debt free.”) Facebook posts promoting the campaign encouraged congregants to give up going for coffee or halve their budgets for Christmas presents in order to give more to the church.
One church-goer featured in a Facebook post about the campaign said she had started packing her lunch for work, stopped going out to eat with her friends every weekend, and cut back on her impulse buying in order to help fund the new building.
“To me, this new broadcast building is very symbolic of a bigger movement of God,” the churchgoer was quoted as saying in the post. “Having a place to show that God continues to bless and embrace us really shows the community how great our God is.”
Smith and Venue Church did not respond to a request for comment. In Sunday’s sermon, Smith assured members that “your finances are cared for so much, with the utmost integrity of this church.”
Despite the initial shock, several former members said they were almost relieved to hear the church was being foreclosed on, hopeful that it would keep more people from following Smith. A number of Facebook commenters suggested attending the property auction, just to revel in the schadenfreude. (“I SAY LET BABYLON FALL BABY FALL,” one wrote, adding a bullseye and “100” emoji.)
Gribble, however, did not share their optimism.
“Tavner may be a liar, he may not be the best preacher ... but he has a way of sucking people in,” he said.
“I would not be surprised if it does get foreclosed and he runs off to another state and starts another megachurch,” he added. “Because that man has the power. He has a way of attracting a following.”