Tavner Smith, hipster pastor accused of fraud could lose his Megachurch Venue Church

The hipster pastor, who admitted earlier this year to having an “inappropriate relationship” with a church worker, has encountered an obstacle on his path to redemption: the foreclosure of his megachurch in Tennessee, which has been laying off members and staff since the news became known of his infidelity.

The building that houses Chattanooga’s Venue Church — once one of the nation’s fastest-growing churches — is now set to be auctioned off in district court after it defaulted on its nearly $2.8 million mortgage is.

The news has left some former parishioners wondering where all their donations went.

“Now with everything that’s come out, it makes you wonder where the money is or where it went,” said Arron Gribble, a local truck driver who joined the church in 2019 and left last year.

“If we as a church can give away a million dollars in a year, and [Smith] able to have the cars, shoes and clothes he has, how come the church has a $2.6 million balance?

Meanwhile, problems with Smith’s previous marriage seem to continue. Divorce records show Smith was in default on his child support payments in June, and court records show his ex-wife Danielle Smith was arrested last month for “electronic vehicle tracking.”

The arrest came just over a week after the pastor called an officer to his home on July 1 and claimed his ex-wife had been “harassing” him since she found out he had a girlfriend. He said his ex told his mother she knew where his car was because she tracked it on an app and claimed to have found the phone in the car. He didn’t have it because he said he gave it to his daughter.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for September 7th. Danielle Smith declined to comment.

“This guy was dressed to the max. He always had the best of the best, the newest of the new.”

The drama at the venue began late last year when video surfaced that appeared to show Pastor Tavner Smith kissing his married worship leader at a Georgia restaurant. (Smith has denied that the two kissed in the video.) Rumors had circulated for months that the two were having an affair — one former volunteer even told The Daily Beast she met the two alone at home in their underwear — but The video prompted a very public reckoning.

Eight employees resigned in December over the alleged affair, leaving the church running with just a handful of people. All of the board members had already resigned over the drama, and Smith admitted 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 second Church location in Georgia closed this month.

Smith denied having an affair, but told the volunteers at the meeting that he “kissed” the colleague and that the two hoped to “haunt each other” if they finalize their divorce. (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 brief sabbatical in January, but his troubles didn’t end there. On February 4, Pastor Ron Phillips — the only person Smith had found to serve on the advisory board — resigned from his role, citing the ongoing turmoil at the church. Then, on July 31, the church foreclosure was announced in a local newspaper.

Smith addressed the news in a Sunday sermon, telling parishioners they were “one church no matter what.”

“If you all have to come to my house, we stack up there,” he said, “but that’s not where we stand. We have sought our legal counsel and they have assured me that I can stand up here and tell you that they offer us multiple options to stay here and get through.”

However, an attorney for First National Citizens Bank reached on Friday told The Daily Beast that a foreclosure notice had been filed and that the bank “will continue to pursue and proceed with its rights under the promissory note and deed of trust.” The only thing that could stop it, he added, would be if a court order were issued or the debt was paid off in full – neither of which, to his knowledge, happened.

Former members, meanwhile, wondered how foreclosures even came into question. Five former parishioners told The Daily Beast they recalled Smith telling the parish that the church building had been purchased in full, or at least with very little debt. The pastor even told the Times Free Press as much shortly after the church moved into the new 47,000-square-foot building in 2018, telling the paper the campus started debt-free.

In his Sunday sermon, Smith admitted to telling the congregation that the church was “debt free” in 2017, but claimed he was only referring to the lease and renovation. The church building was only purchased outright in 2019 with a $2.77 million mortgage.

The former members seemed unaware of this.

“ He has a way of sucking people in.”

“My understanding was that it was paid off debt free, or maybe $100.00 short of being debt free,” said Keith Pruett, a former Church Within Church leader who left last year. “And now, why is there a $2.5 million lien on it?”

City records also show that the church is past due on its 2021 taxes and water quality fee.

News of the foreclosure has reignited long-held grievances about Smith’s spending. Former members have told The Daily Beast in recent years that the pastor has started preaching in designer clothes and expensive sneakers. Divorce records show that he and his ex-wife owned three homes in and around Chattanooga totaling $981,330, and Smith says he made $16,666 a month. Former members recall that he drove flashy cars and employed 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 prettiest of the pretties, the newest of the new.”

The church also paid volunteers for weekend retreats in the woods, and a 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 spending Church funds on Airbnbs, counseling sessions, gift cards, trips, cars and vacations for people associated with the Church without consulting leadership, the leadership said Times Free Press.

Members previously told The Daily Beast that Smith places a high value on “tithing,” or giving to the church. One volunteer said she gave the church $300 a week when she was a teenager. Several former members recalled that the church played videos showing people giving to the church and seeing their lives miraculously transform in the weeks that followed.

Gribble said the church often gave out slips to parishioners promising 10 percent of their income for a set number of months. Smith, he said, promised donors that if they didn’t receive a “blessing” during that period, they could get their money back.

The problem, he added, is that no one has ever felt brave enough to ask for their money back. “You feel like you’re robbing God,” he said.

Other former members pointed to a 2016 fundraiser called the Promise Campaign that focused on helping the church get its new building. (After that campaign, Smith took the stage and told parishioners the church was “debt-free.”) Facebook posts promoting the campaign encouraged parishioners to skip coffee or halve their Christmas gift budgets to spend more for donate to the congregation church.

A churchgoer who shared the campaign in a Facebook post said she started packing her lunch for work, stopped eating out with her friends every weekend, and scaled back her impulse purchases to help fund the new building .

“To me, this new broadcast building is very symbolic of a larger movement of God,” the churchgoer was quoted as saying in the post. “Having a place where we can 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 so well looked after with the utmost integrity of this church.”

Despite the initial shock, several former members said they were almost relieved to hear the church was expelled in hopes it would discourage more people from following Smith. A number of Facebook commenters suggested attending the property auction, only to revel in the gloating. (“I SAY LET BABYLON FALL BABY FALL,” one wrote, adding a bullseye and “100” emoji.)

However, Gribble did not share her optimism.

“Tavner may be a liar, he may not be the best preacher … but he has a way of drawing people in,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes to foreclosure and he runs off to another state and starts another megachurch,” he added. “Because this man has the power. He has a way of attracting a following.”

https://www.thedailybeast.com/tavner-smith-hipster-pastor-accused-of-cheating-might-lose-his-megachurch-venue-church?source=articles&via=rss Tavner Smith, hipster pastor accused of fraud could lose his Megachurch Venue Church

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