After months of headline-grabbing drama, including repeated denials to his staff that he was engaged in an adulterous affair, Pastor Tavner Smith of Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, confessed to his embattled congregation Sunday that he was involved in an “inappropriate relationship.” He asked for forgiveness as he returned to the pulpit after a brief sabbatical.
“Before I preach a word today, I’ve just come to say I’m sorry. So many things I’ve said, that I’ve done, that I’ve not said, that I’ve run from were wrong,” Smith said, according to a recording of the apology posted on YouTube by journalist Julie Roys.
“I was involved in an inappropriate relationship. And I want to say that I’m sorry that I put you through any embarrassment, heartache or confusion. I’ve wounded people and I’ve caused devastation that I know I can never take back,” he added. “As your leader and pastor, I come to you to publicly acknowledge my mistakes and truly ask for forgiveness. It grieves me to think that my pride and my selfishness could’ve caused anyone hurt.”
Smith’s apology on Sunday comes as the scandal around his personal life led to the hemorrhaging of members and staff in recent weeks after he was confronted about an alleged relationship with a married church staff member.
Just days earlier, on Feb. 3, The Chattanooga Times Free Press published leaked audio of some 100 church volunteers questioning Smith at a Dec. 17 meeting about his relationship with a church employee with whom he was once reportedly found half-naked.
The Daily Beast reported that during a surprise visit to Smith’s home last November, church volunteers who hoped to cheer up their pastor found the employee dressed in a towel while Smith was in his boxers.
Smith claimed that they “had been making chili and hot dogs and gotten food on their clothes,” but volunteers weren’t convinced he was telling the truth.
“I don’t think none of us was that dumb,” one volunteer told The Daily Beast. “If she dropped chili on her clothes, why are you in your boxers? Was you all like, throwing chili at each other?”
In the audio of the December confrontation, Smith denied having sex with the employee and characterized their relationship as “great friends.” He admitted that they kissed after they both stopped living with their spouses. He also stated that he intends to pursue a relationship with her once their divorces are finalized.
Smith and his wife, Danielle, who have three kids together, began divorce proceedings last May, according to court records.
“I was 14 months outside of living with Danielle and separated,” Smith said in the leaked audio. “At her point, she was eight months living outside and separated.”
“When she’s not married and I’m not married, yeah, we hope to pursue each other,” he continued. “As long as she is still married, we are not going to have any type of romantic relations.”
At least eight employees of Venue Church quit their jobs after confronting the pastor about the allegation as a viral video surfaced online showing him kissing his love interest.
As the controversy unfolded, Venue Church’s following began showing signs of damage.
Some “two-thirds of the roughly 150 cushioned chairs” at a recent 9 a.m. service at the Chattanooga location of the church were “unfilled,” The Chattanooga Free Press reported. Chattanooga Campus Pastor Michael Patterson II announced in a video message played during a livestream broadcast a call for volunteers to join their “dream team.”
A Facebook page critical of the church, called “The Venue is NO Church,” also published evidence showing that Venue Church is now only operating from the Chattanooga campus on Lee Highway. The church previously listed a campus in North Georgia. That location is no longer listed on the church’s website.
In his apology on Sunday, Smith made it clear that after spending time with God and receiving counseling about how he has been handling his affairs, he is seeing a lot more clearly now.
“Through this last month in my counseling and my time with the Lord, I’ve made commitments to put my focus on the Lord, my family, this church, and my health, as my top priorities,” he said. “And I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for standing through the storm and the pain. I am committed to love you and serve you better than I ever have before and I ask you for your grace and patience as we move forward together.”