Pastor Tavner Smith of the once-popular Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has confirmed that the $4.86 million property where his congregation gathers for worship each Sunday is in foreclosure, saying he was initially scared when he saw the notice from the bank.
"You probably read in the paper or saw in the paper that the bank put a notice of foreclosure on our building which is absolutely true," Smith explained in a message to his church just over a week ago. "We've gone through a hard season. It's been no lie. We've not hidden that; it's pretty public the season that we have gone through as a church."
The "hard season" for Venue Church began last December after at least eight church employees quit when a video surfaced online allegedly showing Smith kissing a female church employee. It would later emerge that Smith was intimately involved with that employee while he was in the process of divorcing his now ex-wife, Danielle, who co-founded the church.
The Daily Beast further reported that Smith had also been caught last November half-naked with the same employee at his home by volunteers who had planned to cheer him up with a surprise visit.
Since then, Smith took time away from the pulpit as his church struggled to find volunteers, hemorrhaged members and lost income in the fallout from the scandal.
Over two weeks ago, The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that Venue Church defaulted on its loan for the property at 6401 Lee Highway.
Additionally, Danielle Smith, who finalized the divorce in 2021, alleged in a civil complaint filed in Hamilton County Court on July 25 that the church failed to make agreed payments to her.
The payments were expected to begin on Jan. 1 and continue monthly for "a specified period of time," The Daily Beast reported.
The complaint alleges the church missed the initial payment and payments for May, June and July.
A notice of foreclosure and sale for the church shows that it will be auctioned on Aug. 24. It is unclear as of Tuesday if this process is still in motion. According to the notice, Venue Church borrowed $2.8 million in 2019 to purchase the property.
Calls to the church by The Christian Post went unanswered.
Smith revealed in his message last week that when he first saw the notice, he was scared but gathered himself after the initial shock and prayed.
The pastor said God has since connected the church with "some really amazing legal counsel."
"I can stand up here and tell you that there are multiple options that they are providing for us to stay here and make it through," he said.
"It is a scary situation when you're navigating through things like this, and you know you're not just going through it alone, but you're going through it with a group of people that affects lots of people," he added. "And so when we found out and saw the notice, just like you, we were scared as well."
The embattled pastor said he was comforted by the knowledge that "God's not done with us."
"The Bible says it this way — and you can know the truth, and the truth will set you free. I've always said it this way, that there's a difference between facts and truth," he said. "Facts happen; truth prevails. And I just prayed, and the Lord gave us wisdom to seek some really amazing legal counsel, and they've really helped us. And I just wanted to tell you that you don't have to go home, and you don't have to worry."
Smith insisted that Venue Church would continue even if they did not have a building.
"I just wanted to say it this way, Venue Church, we are a church no matter what," he stressed.
"Are you with me? If we walked in tomorrow and an earthquake happened, and this building was swallowed up and gone, we're still the church. The church is not a building, never was the building, never will be a building. … We are the church," he continued. "If you ... all come to my house, we'll pile in there. In the cul-de-sac, down the street, wherever we got to [go]."
Smith further clarified claims that he told his congregation in 2017 that the church was debt free.
"I did say in 2017 through the Promise Campaign, I stood on the stage, and I said, 'Let's celebrate we did this debt free' because at that time we are 100% debt free," he said.
"Through the Promise Campaign … that was a giving campaign when we got this building, we didn't buy it at the beginning. We leased it. We didn't have the ability to buy it when we first came here, but we signed a lease to be here," he said.
After signing a lease for the building, Smith said it required renovations, and church leaders didn't think it was wise to finance the funds to do that work.
"We felt like the Lord said, 'Raise the money, and whatever you raise, that's what you put in to do the renovations.'... So we did. We took up all that money and debt free, we renovated this entire building," Smith said. "And when I made that announcement, we didn't have a mortgage, we didn't own this building. We leased this building and we were debt free through our renovations. It was a true honest celebration. It was where we were."
Smith said it wasn't until two years later that they got an opportunity to buy the 38,000-square-foot building along with an additional 10,000 square feet of space next to it and five acres of land.
"Now we do have debt," Smith said. "But it's good debt."