Miss Millie is not accustomed to the spotlight.
In fact, Melitta Stout has been the one to turn on the lights at Fairview United Methodist Church every Sunday morning for the past 40 years.
Rev. Jerry Russell, senior pastor at Fairview, says the dedicated teacher is typically the first one there and the last to leave on Sundays.
Minister of Children Wil Davenport said Stout’s greatest gift as a teacher is that “she loves the kids so much.”
He said many parents of third-graders make Sunday school a priority so their children can attend Stout’s class.
“It’s more than a rite of passage,” said Davenport. “For parents, it’s that ‘there is something she has I want to impart to my child.’”
Stout has worked at the University of Tennessee Agriculture Economics campus for 41 years as an administrative support assistant. “It’s what they used to call a secretary,” she said.
At 63-years-old, Stout said she’ll retire from that job long before she’ll retire from being a Sunday school teacher.
Stout, who never married, said, “Even though I’ve not had children of my own, I’ve considered them my own, in a way.”
She began her tenure as a Sunday school teacher 40 years ago after returning from a one-year stint with the FBI in Washington D.C. When she came back to her home church, she was often the only person in the young adult class.
Stout tried different adult Sunday school classes before settling on the Odd Couples class. “They’ve still got me on the rolls,” she said.
Even though the Odd Couples class claims Stout, she has missed very few Sundays teaching third-grade since 1970.
She said what has kept her in the classroom for so long is, “My love for the children, for God, plus I get something out of it. I learn along with them.”
Stout said being a veteran teacher has prepared her for almost every question ranging from: “Will my pet go to heaven?” to “Who is God’s dad?”
When she is unsure how to answer a question, she refers to her default answer: “We’ll just have to wait until we get to heaven. Save all these good questions and ask God.”
She said her only advice for Sunday school teachers is, “There are times you just have to put the lesson book aside.”
After so many years of teaching, she has found that listening has the most value. “You can learn from the children yourself, and they appreciate honesty.”
She believes her most important role is that of a confidant. “They’ll tell you things. If you don’t find out from adults, you’ll find out from the children. You need to respect the confidentiality of it.”
Not only does she develop a trust with her students, she also tailors her lessons to their likes and dislikes. Stout said she is never afraid to re-write the curriculum.
“This group likes to play games, but they don’t care too much for skits.” She said when the book calls for skits, she re-vamps it into a Bible story without the character roles.
Stout said she also likes to keep her weekly lessons fresh. “When kids walk in the room, it is always set up a little differently. They never know what to expect.”
She manages her classroom with gentle discipline and said sometimes working with children is difficult. “Just a few weeks ago, I had to step out of the class.”
To keep kids on track, she rewards them with candy for good behavior at the end of class. In fact, Stout is notorious for her well-stocked candy box.
She is also known for sending cards in the mail. Russell said, “She mails out cards for everything. When my boys were playing football, she would send them a card. Can you imagine a tight-end on a university football team and their Sunday school teacher sent them a card to say ‘Congratulations, I heard you had a good game!”
Stout said Russell will be receiving a card next week for Clergy Appreciation Sunday. She said there is a great deal of value in sending a card in the mail as opposed to email.
She sends cards mostly to current and former students. The veteran Sunday school teacher estimates she has taught well over 500 of Fairview’s third graders throughout the last four decades.
Russell said, “She pours herself into those kids. Even beyond that, the church could not operate without her. She has never refused to do any act of service.”
The pastor said her service has included taking notes and creating minutes for every council meeting at the church for over 20 years. Stout has also carefully maintained and organized all of the church’s historical records.
He said Stout assumes all the responsibility for countless details, like filling candles with oil and setting up communion for all three worship services at Fairview. Her worship duties also entail organizing the acolytes; which involves children in grades three through six.
Russell said she is committed to teaching children the importance of participating in worship as well as Biblical principals. “Multiple generations have been touched by her life and her ministry,” he said.
Stout said she has welcomed Fairview UMC’s growth throughout the years, which has included multiple classroom changes and even a move across the street to a new building in 2003.
Russell said in his 21 years at Fairview, “She has never been grouchy, hateful or irritable. She feels it’s important that you give your best to the Lord and do it with a smile.”
Even though “Miss Millie” is most known for teaching third grade and being a leader in the church, Russell said she teaches the entire congregation what it means to be a servant.
Third-grader Chloe Breid said, “She’s very, very, very nice. I feel like I can talk to her about things.”
Twenty years ago, Chloe’s mom, Amanda Breid, was in Stout’s third grade class. “I was privileged to have her as a teacher. I remember she helped me learn the Lord’s Prayer. She spent extra time with me; we worked and worked until I actually got it.”
Davenport said, “Miss Millie gets that kids need a week-to-week investment.”
After 40 years of teaching third grade, she is by far their most seasoned Sunday school teacher, but Davenport said Stout is still interested in attending Children’s Ministry conferences and sharing ideas.
“The thing that’s incredible is the fact that she’s done it forever, but she still wants to get better.”
The children’s minister also said she has resisted burnout because “even though she does so much here, she’s in her own (United Methodist Women’s) circle, and she’s always in Bible studies. She just never neglected her own faith development.”