A Tennessee megachurch pastor is on “sabbatical” after being caught on video having an alleged extramarital affair with an employee of the congregation.
Last month, the video showed Pastor Tavner Smith of Venue Church in Chattanooga kissing the woman in a restaurant, prompting at least eight staff members to resign.
In addition to the video, a group of church volunteers who visited Smith’s home in November found him alone with the woman — “she in a towel, he in his boxers,” the Daily Beast reports. Smith and the woman reportedly claimed they took off their clothes after getting food on them while making hot dogs and chili.
In fact, Smith still has not publicly admitted the affair, despite announcing his sabbatical earlier this month. His wife accused him of adultery in their ongoing divorce case, and requested that the female employee not be permitted around their three children. The female employee’s husband has also filed for divorce, according to the Daily Beast.
After the video surfaced, Smith reportedly called a meeting with his staff and others to address it. One former church member who attended the meeting said he was “evasive and refused to answer questions directly,” the Daily Beast reports.
“I think that’s the biggest thing: He has no remorse,” the former church member said. “Somebody told me he sees nothing wrong with the decision because he truly believes that’s what God told them to do.”
Smith’s divorce case also revealed that he was earning about $200,000 per year, and that he and his wife owned three houses worth a combined $1 million, according to the Daily Beast. That’s in addition to the church building, which is worth $4.9 million. Smith frequently stressed the importance of tithing in his sermons.
The Daily Beast reports that nearly all of the church’s full-time employees have resigned. Services were briefly suspended in Chattanooga, while a Georgia campus of the church closed entirely.
Employees, members and volunteers “are still struggling to come to terms with the maelstrom that left one of the country’s fastest-growing megachurches in shambles,” the Daily Beast reports.
“Everyone used to say, ‘Venue is a cult, Venue is a cult,’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s not,’” said one volunteer who witnessed the chili incident. “And now as I look back I’m like, ‘I don’t think I was in a Godly place.’”
Colt Helton, who volunteered at Venue for more than seven years, said Smith “flaunted his growing wealth over the years through designer duds and new cars,” adding that he “stopped recognizing the church he had joined.”
“The whole church kinda turned into this kinda shoe and jersey fetish,” Helton said.
Helton alleged that Venue “has taken advantage of vulnerable people to build the church ranks: low-income workers sucked in by the prosperity gospel, lonely people just looking for somewhere to go.”
“There were many times people said, ‘We would die for this place,’” he said. “And I was like, ‘Y’all have lost your ever-loving minds.’”
Read more here, and watch the video that surfaced in December below.