Risen Christ Lutheran Church has served the communities of Stillwater and Oak Park Heights for 30 years, but membership at the church along Hwy. 36 was falling and there was concern about how to keep going.

At the same time, Woodbury Lutheran Church with its 4,000 members was looking to expand by opening another site, possibly starting a new church.

With disparate situations -- one fighting for survival and the other needing more room -- the two churches found each other, and on July 1 officially became one congregation. The church will retain the Woodbury Lutheran name and the Risen Christ building will be known as the Oak Hill campus.

"God opened the doors to this," said the Rev. Derek Broten, who will serve as pastor of the Oak Hill Campus at 9060 N. 60th St. "Our first plan was different. We talked about looking for a place in Woodbury, but that didn't materialize, or was too expensive. Stewardship-wise, it is better to merge than start a new place."

Woodbury Lutheran will add about $124,000 to its 2012 budget as it begins conducting services and programs on the Oak Hill campus, according to the resolution approving the merger.

About 100 members from the main campus have said they will begin worship at the Oak Hill campus when the fall schedule kicks off Sept. 16.

Risen Christ had three pastors during its lifetime. Nevin Crowther went on to be a longtime police chaplain for Ramsey County. Gary Kirschke started a Chinese ministry in the University of Minnesota area. Chris Nilges is now doing a chaplain residency at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. The church also supports the St. Croix Valley Food Shelf and is active in visiting nursing homes and shut-ins, said said Don Thaemert, an elder at Risen Christ.

Before the merger takes full effect, Broten said a celebration service to mark that congregation's 30th anniversary will be held at Risen Christ on Aug. 19.

"The way we approach this is that we had 30 years of successful ministry," Thaemert said. "We ask, 'If your church would cease to exist, would your community notice?' Our response is yes. There would be holes in the community."

The two congregations began talking about merging last year after weekly attendance at Risen Christ had fallen to fewer than 100 people. The smaller church contacted its larger brother and jokingly asked "can you loan us 100 families for a year," Thaemert said.

Initially, it didn't appear as if either church had any common points, making the merger a long shot. But a transition team composed of members of both congregations met over several months and eventually worked through differences in the areas of finances, worship structure, staffing and programming.

Broten said efforts will be made to retain certain traditions of Risen Christ, such as the candlelight Christmas Eve services. But there will be new opportunities for Risen Christ members, he said.

"The benefits of the smaller campus is that you will get to know people, but at the same time have all the advantages of being part of a large congregation," Broten said.

Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib