Citing "a great and growing disparity in the cost of missions in various areas of the world," the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has acted to equalize contributions required to maintain a missionary.

Rex Lee, Brigham Young University president and former U.S. solicitor general, said the new program should strengthen the case for tax-deductibility of missionary contributions.Effective Jan. 1, 1991, the amount required to cover the service-related expenses of a single missionary called from the United States or Canada will be $350 per month in U.S. dollars or $400 in Canadian - regardless of where in the world the missionary serves.

The change will not apply to missionary couples or missionaries called from other countries.

The decision was issued by church leaders in a letter read Sunday from the pulpit in the church's American and Canadian wards. For some parents the change will mean they'll pay less to send a child on a mission. Others could be paying more.

Some missions presently cost $100 or less per month per single missionary and others as much as $750, placing a highly disproportionate burden on some families and wards, the First Presidency said. The new program equalizes the costs for single missionaries from the United States and Canada.

One mission president said the missionary finance program coincides with recent changes in churchwide budget procedures "designed to eliminate excessive financial burden on church membership."

"The announcement of the new missionary (finance) program is an extension of the same philosophy," said Elder W. Robert Wright, president of the Washington D.C. North Mission and father of three missionaries. "Many families now have more than one missionary in the field, and the cost in the various missions vary so widely that some families could be overburdened with costs.

"It is essential that an individual mission calling be directed by the promptings of the spirit and not even slightly influenced by the financial capabilities of his or her family," Wright said.

Under the new procedure, the ward bishop will be responsible to see that funds are available to meet the requirements of missionaries called and sent from his or her ward.

As in the past, funds will come from three sources:

- Contributions the individual missionary may make.

- Contributions by parents, families and friends.

- Contributions by ward members generally who will be urged to contribute to the ward missionary fund as well as to the general missionary fund.

According to a press release issued by the church's public relations department Monday, missionary contributions will be made to the bishop and remitted through the church Finance Department to respective mission presidents. Each mission president will then distribute necessary funds to cover individual service-related expenses.

In all cases the mission president retains complete discretion to use the money in accordance with his understanding of the needs of the mission, the First Presidency said.

Lee believes the new program "will significantly strengthen the taxpayers' case in the event the IRS continues to restrict the deductibility of missionary contributions and those restrictions are contested in court."

But only time will tell.

"No one really knows because we don't have information yet as to what the IRS's view of the new program is yet," Lee said Monday.

Some 44,000 full-time missionaries - approximately 70 percent from the United States and Canada - now represent the church, assigned to 256 missions worldwide.

"We express our sincere appreciation to all who contribute generously in time and money to missionary service," the First Presidency said. "This service given in response to divine commandment has from the earlier days of the church involved individual and family sacrifice.

"Such sacrifice on the part of families and others has been willingly made in the past and must continue to be the basis of our worldwide missionary program."