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It didn't take long after LDS Apostle Neal A. Maxwell was laid to rest last month for the guessing game to begin.

In Mormon living rooms, church foyers and at family reunions, everyone was wondering: Who would take Maxwell's place in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' most powerful quorum? The parlor game only escalated after a second apostle, David B. Haight, died 10 days later.

LDS folk knew they would have no vote in the matter, but there's no harm in a little playful predicting.

On the Mormon Web log,, contributors posted their top picks, throwing out names like Merrill Bateman, the former president of Brigham Young University, or Bruce Hafen, Maxwell's biographer. Both are members of the First Quorum of Seventy, a kind of farm team for the 12 apostles.

Several wanted Marlin Jensen, an LDS general authority and Democrat. Many suggested it was time for a non-American, since the church has more members outside the United States than in it. Some nominees were personal favorites. Others - just wishful thinking.

The new apostle doesn't have to come from within church employee ranks. Apostle Dallin H. Oaks was a Utah Supreme Court justice and Russell M. Nelson was a heart surgeon. So how about former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young? He would liven things up, being decades younger than most of the apostles. Young could also help them with those ever-present sports analogies during priesthood meetings.

No point in even thinking about a woman. It's pretty much a boys-only club.

All jokes aside, naming a new apostle is serious business in the LDS Church. It's a cross between finding the perfect spouse and anointing a royal heir.

Mormon apostles are full-time executives, running a billion-dollar enterprise. They oversee vast resources, departments and tasks. Unlike most CEOs, they have to give sermons almost every week in places as different as Arkansas and Argentina. Twice a year they give speeches that will be considered almost scripture by 12 million eager church members.

Apostles make momentous decisions about the church's future: when to take one of its rare political positions, build a new temple or establish a new churchwide policy.

From the moment an apostle accepts his calling, he steps on an escalator that leads inexorably to the top of the church. The man who outlives the apostles named before him will ascend to the church's highest office - a position Mormons consider "prophet, seer and revelator."

It's a lifelong calling, and no one gets out alive.

Let the balloting begin: The ultimate responsibility for choosing an apostle belongs to the church president, acting through "inspiration and revelation," said N. Eldon Tanner in a 1979 speech.

But current apostles usually are asked to write three names on a slip of paper. With or without open discussion, it will end up being a secret ballot whose results are tallied and then forwarded to the president.

On occasion the secret vote resulted in "almost unanimous decisions and other times there might be 20 men proposed with no one receiving more than two votes," says Michael Quinn, a historian in southern California who has spent much of his career studying the Mormon hierarchy. He is author of The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power.

The president sometimes accepted the council's recommendations - and sometimes he did not.

"In 1901, Joseph F. Smith ignored the unanimous recommendations of the Quorum and put in his 31-year-old son, Hyrum M. Smith, who was a clerk at ZCMI," Quinn explained in an earlier interview. The church president's only explanation was: "He's a good boy with a good heart."

From 1880 to 1882, two places were empty "because of a standoff between President John Taylor and the council over whom to appoint," Quinn said.

Taylor wanted to appoint George Teasdale and Heber J. Grant, but some apostles thought that Teasdale was a "sycophant," and that Grant "didn't have a testimony," Quinn said. Over the apostles' objections, Taylor appointed both. Grant eventually became president of the church, a position he held from 1919 to 1945, longer than any man except Brigham Young.

It's been two decades since there were two vacancies. Tanner, a counselor in the First Presidency, died in November 1982. Apostle LeGrand Richards died in January 1983. President Spencer W. Kimball was in poor health, and the two places went unfilled until April 1984, when Nelson and Oaks were called.

Most apostles are named at the next available General Conference, either in April or October, but some have been called in odd months. It is crucial that the next apostle be a good fit for the brotherhood.

"It has been 10 years and five months since a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles died," said Boyd K. Packer, acting president of the quorum, at Maxwell's funeral. "That's the longest such period in the history of the church. During those years, the Twelve . . . have grown in unity, experience and age."

And, like an old married couple, these men grow in mutual affection.

Decades ago, Thomas S. Monson and Maxwell were speaking at a conference together. As Monson, now a member of the governing First Presidency, sat down, Maxwell handed him a note. He has kept it in his Bible ever since and read it at Maxwell's funeral. "Tom. I love you. Neal."

LDS apostles meet frequently and even socialize together, Quinn says. "There is this emotional connection that they feel. Even if they don't feel it naturally, they feel an obligation to feel it."

Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson "did not didn't see eye to eye, particularly political pronouncements," says Edward Kimball, son of the late church president, "but I never heard any kind of criticism of him personally."

Band of Brethren: Mormons revere and fawn over their apostles, but it is not a position that men normally seek. For one thing, it doesn't pay all that well, especially when compared with today's doctors, lawyers and businessmen. It is said that apostles don't even earn as much as BYU law professors.

When Kimball became an apostle in 1943, he made $5,000 a year, says Edward Kimball. "His salary kept pretty close pace with the consumer price index until the late 1970s when it increased a little. But it was always a relatively modest amount."

For a long time, apostles earned extra income by serving on business boards, but that was discontinued in 1996. Others make money by writing books that are marketed to LDS faithful. Kimball's Miracle of Forgiveness sold nearly a million copies, but he gave most of the royalties to the church, said his son, author of Lengthen Your Stride: The Administration of Spencer W. Kimball 1973-1985.

Most of the men being mentioned as possible candidates are already members of the hierarchy and are in their 60s. Monson, the next in line for the presidency, was the last person chosen in his 30s; in three years he will be 80. The rest range in age from Joseph B. Wirthlin, 87, to Jeffrey R. Holland, 63.

In April 1984, Oaks was a 52-year-old justice on Utah's Supreme Court with ambitions to reach the nation's highest court. He was dining with other judges in an Arizona restaurant when he got a telephone call from Gordon B. Hinckley, then a counselor in the First Presidency and now president, asking him to be an apostle.

"He accepted immediately," his brother-in-law, Ross Hammond, once said, "then returned to dinner and continued the conversation as if nothing had happened.''

Only the total transformation of his life's work.

Among the 10 current apostles, there are two BYU presidents, one lifelong church educator, one BYU-Idaho president, a heart surgeon, a nuclear physicist and four business executives.

Could the next one be a poet, an architect, a high school coach or, gasp, a journalist?