The death of M. Russell Ballard doesn’t just leave a hole in the apostle’s large, extended family but also in the second tier of the top leadership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The vacancy will be filled by the faith’s 99-year-old prophet-president, Russell M. Nelson, who will make the third apostle choice of his nearly six years at the church’s helm.
In spring 2018, his first General Conference as president, Nelson made history, appointing the faith’s first Asian American and Latin American apostles, Gerrit W. Gong and Ulisses Soares, respectively.
And, though most apostles are named at the next available General Conference, either in April or October, it seems likely that the new man will be announced well before then since the next big gathering is nearly five months away.
The Utah-based faith’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has, of course, a dozen members, who are seated according to their length of service.
Named an apostle in 1985, the 95-year-old Ballard was the most senior member of the quorum, where he served as “acting” president of the body (since 91-year-old Dallin H. Oaks, the most senior apostle after Nelson and next in line to lead the church, had been elevated to the governing First Presidency).
[Historian Matthew Bowman discusses the selection of Latter-day Saint apostles and the faith’s top hierarchy on this “Mormon Land” podcast.]
Jeffrey R. Holland is next in line in seniority in the current Quorum of the Twelve. At last report, the 82-year-old apostle was recuperating after spending more than five weeks in the hospital about two months ago. He also reported undergoing kidney dialysis.
The three members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve make up the top councils in the 17 million-member global church.
When a new man (apostles must be male) is chosen, he will take his seat at the bottom of the quorum.
The new apostle doesn’t have to come from within the current high-level church leadership. (Nelson was a heart surgeon; Oaks was a Utah Supreme Court justice.) But they frequently do rise from the ranks of sitting general authorities, usually in their 50s or early 60s.
“Apostles are chosen,” the church’s website explains, “through inspiration by the president of the church, sustained by the general membership of the church, and ordained by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles by the laying on of hands.”
With or without open discussion, a secret ballot typically is held among the apostles, and the results are tallied and then forwarded to the church president. The president sometimes has accepted those recommendations and sometimes not.
All Latter-day Saint apostles are seen by members as “prophets, seers and revelators.” They also become full-time executives, running a mutibillion-dollar enterprise. They oversee vast resources, departments and tasks. Unlike most CEOs, though, they give sermons, too.
Apostles make momentous decisions about the faith’s future — when to take a political position, build a temple or establish a new policy.
It’s a lifelong commitment, and no one gets out alive.