Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola interviewee five atheist pastors and wrote about them in "Preachers Who Are Not Believers" in Evolutionary Psychology, March 2010 (via Wilson Quarterly):
The pastors, all Protestant men (Dennett and LaScola couldn't identify any nonbelieving Catholic or Orthodox priests), expressed skepticism about a host of fundamental Christian teachings, including the virgin birth of Jesus, the existence of heaven and hell, and the status of the Bible as the inerrant word of God. Some admitted that their religious stance might be best described as atheist. "The whole grand scheme of Christianity, for me, is just a bunch of bunk," said Jack, a Southern Baptist minister of 15 years.
Funny how so-called "new" atheists will be blasted as "intolerant" for rejecting Christianity as "bunk," but here's a Southern Baptist minister doing exactly that. At least atheists like me can be honest about what we think, but atheist pastors basically have to lie -- to their friends, to their family, and basically to everyone else they ever meet.
Three of the five pastors felt stuck in a purgatory of sorts: They wanted to leave the church, but felt they lacked options. "If I had an alternative, a comfortable paying job, something I was interested in doing, and a move that wouldn't destroy my family, that's where I'd go," said Adam, a Church of Christ minister with a very religious wife and children. He regularly chided himself, "Just stick with what you're doing; it pays good.... You're doing good in your community; you're respected. But it's just gnawing away inside."
Most of the pastors had no sense of their impending change of heart when they entered religious life. Their first stirrings of doubt occurred when they encountered arguments against the truthfulness of Christianity in seminary. ("You can't go through seminary and come out believing in God!" joked one pastor.) Some, though, had entertained skepticism from a much earlier point. Rick, a contented minister in the liberal United Church of Christ who attended seminary in part to avoid the Vietnam War-era draft, never had to formally embrace conventional Christian doctrine.
For those tormented by doubt, the meaningfulness of the profession was a solace. "I can be with somebody and genuinely have empathy with them, and concern and love and help them get through a difficult situation," Jack acknowledged. Wes, a Methodist pastor who felt comfortable continuing to serve his parish even with his doubts, spoke of how much he valued the opportunity to encourage progressive values in the Methodist Church.
The men rarely, if ever, discussed their lack of conviction with others, even though some believed that many fellow ministers experienced similar deficits of faith. "We all find ourselves committed to little white lies," write Dennett and LaScola. "But these pastors--and who knows how many others--are caught in a larger web of diplomatic, tactical, and, finally, ethical concealment."
Looked at from a broader perspective, this phenomenon isn't all that unusual and isn't unique to priests or pastors. People in other professions have certainly "lost faith" in what they were doing and wished they could get out, but didn't know how -- whether because they had invested too much in it so far, still saw themselves as doing some good, or both. Still, there seems something unusually problematic about this happening with pastors than with it happening to someone who works in the energy industry or a health insurance corporation.
If you work for a health insurance corporation that you believe is doing more harm than good, you may still feel that you can mitigate that harm from the inside and be honest with your friends and family with the problems you see in your employer. A pastor doesn't even have that much -- there is no one they can share their real feelings with except in unusual circumstances like the above interviews.
In effect, this means that they are living a lie, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Since they are not just in a career but a "calling," it is arguable that their entire life and identity is constructed around a lie -- much more so than a mere employee at a large corporation. Their job is to help people live better within an ideology that they no longer accept and really should be arguing against, not fostering. So how do they manage to live with themselves?