Weeks after a video surfaced online allegedly showing him kissing a woman who is not his wife and multiple members of his staff quit, Pastor Tavner Smith of Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has announced he will take a few weeks off to get counseling and “spend time with God.”
“I’m going to be taking some time to fill up, spend time with God, and get some counseling so I can come back rested, refreshed and ready for the rest of the year,” he wrote in an Instagram post on Jan. 5. “I love you and I’ll see you in February.”
At least eight employees of Smith’s fast-growing congregation reportedly quit working for the church last month after confronting him about the video recorded in North Georgia.
Two former employees and four volunteers or members previously connected to the church told The Chattanooga Times Free Press that the eight employees quit after confronting the pastor about a rumored affair with a church employee.
The church previously declined to comment publicly, but court records show that the pastor and his wife, Danielle Smith, who have three kids, began divorce proceedings last May.
That same month, Smith was in the middle of preaching a series he called “Dirty Destinies” where he preached about how God can use people’s “dirt” from their past to minister.
“The question is not ‘Am I dirty?' because I am,” he said. “A matter of fact, look at your neighbor and say 'I’m dirty.'"
“I don’t think we have any doubts about that anymore. I think we’ve been real about that over the last six weeks,” he continued. “Every single person in here is full of dirt. God did not choose perfect people. God only chooses available people.”
He noted that the subtitle of the series was “No perfect people allowed.”
“Do you know why God doesn’t choose perfect people? It’s because there are none,” he told the congregation. “A perfect person could not relate to any other person because everybody else has been through stuff, got dirt and struggling with dirt as we speak.”
Several individuals who said they are former members or employees of Smith’s church, however, were not happy with the way he had been handling his affairs. They publicly made significant allegations of pastoral abuse and misconduct against Smith and his leadership team.
Former Venue Church employee Colt Chandler Helton, who claims to have worked for over 12 churches throughout his career, including Hillsong and North Point, said in a Facebook post that he was hired by Venue Church to “set up its systems and structures and model anything an adult would experience on a Sunday morning.”
“In hind sight I taught the ‘Iranians how to make nuclear weapons,’” Helton, who worked for the church for nearly a year beginning in 2014, contends. “I gave a man who had very very bad intentions the ability to make a mega church.”
He shared a lengthy list of reasons why he left Venue Church, including what he claims to be financial abuse and witnessing domestic abuse in an atmosphere where there are “zero elders or accountability.”
He suggested that Smith may have been intimately involved with females in the church other than his wife.
“I witnessed on many times the lead pastor have ‘alone time’ with females on the worship team and congregation,” he wrote, while pointing out how the church’s theology devolved into something resembling the “prosperity gospel.”
“I was told I was not allowed to speak to the lead pastor unless I was spoken to. Because he was so close to God and his closeness couldn’t be put in jeopardy by speaking to commoners,” Helton also claimed.
Smith's website explains that he moved to Tennessee in 2012 "because of his radical obedience to God’s plan, and started a move of God through Venue Church." He previously served as an executive student pastor at Redemption World Outreach Center in Greenville, South Carolina. The website says that he became the understudy to Redemption Pastor Ron Carpenter, who remains Smith's mentor.